UPfront: Are MBA grads learning the right stuff?

Do the folk emerging from fancy business colleges with their shiny new MBAs know too much about fiddling finances and not enough about basic morality?

It’s an inevitable question following recent crash landings of corporate reputations in the United States. These have highlighted the fact that knowing right from wrong might have served some management high fliers (and their companies) better than financial nous.

It’s certainly prompted questioning of the traditional MBA model, according to Professor Ian Turner, director of graduate studies at Henley Management College in England.

“There’s been lot of critical reflection both in the United States and United Kingdom as to whether we are teaching MBAs the right things.”

That, he says, has raised some interesting questions.

“Like, can and should you teach ethics in business? Is there something called business ethics as distinct from everyday ethics? Can you teach values in business and, if you’re an international supplier, are those values universal?”

There’s even been discussion on the Harvard business course site as to whether educators should have role in pruning out potential bad apples. How you spot ’em is the curly question and any system based on such subjective criteria would inevitably be open to abuse, says Turner.

“Broadly speaking, the discussion is around whether we should be more interested in people’s ability to lead others and less in their ability to manipulate figures. So personal development has become quite important – that’s good for us because we’ve always emphasised that as part of our programme.”

In Auckland recently to help celebrate graduation of New Zealand’s 100th Henley MBA, Turner says the worldwide market for MBAs is pretty mature in most of the regions in which it operates.

“It has become the default qualification worldwide for management.”

Now well-entrenched in Europe and most of Asia, it is also undergoing rapid growth in areas such as China where it’s been assessed some 350,000 MBAs will be needed in the next five years.

Changes in the employee/employer contract – the reality that no-one has job for life and has to take responsibility for their own career in an open market – has helped drive growth, says Turner.

“An MBA is way to differentiate yourself in more competitive marketplace.”

Henley kicked off its distance learning programme two decades ago and now operates in 17 locations around the world. Pitched to an increasingly time-strapped population, the programme was initially so flexible that students tended to lose momentum.

“We soon realised that distance learning is bloody hard and unsupported distance learning for an MBA is just non-starter.”

Now each location has its own support team and the emphasis is on keeping study focus and motivation high throughout the three-year programme.

“So while we’re offering an international programme, it is the task of the support team to interpret our material in the context of the local market.”

That means the case studies (there are three for each of three exams) range across tourist industries in Vietnam, rubber factories in Hungary, banks in China or black water rafting in New Zealand.

Available here since 1992, the Henley programme has just emerged from under the wing of AUT and been set up as an independent body in new premises. The programme itself is also to be restructured to reflect the growing importance of e-learning, says Turner.

“Initially there was lot of hype that traditional learning as we knew it would disappear and everything would be online. For most purposes, that hasn’t happened. But pure e-learning can be very effective in certain circumstances.”

So Henley has introduced what is described as “blended” learning. It means students will be online from the programme’s start and have continuous e-assignments interwoven through traditional course components.

“The reality is that this is mode in which managers will have to work so they may well learn how to do that on the course.”

The self-pacing available online reflects another trend in executive education – courses customised to immediate need and relevant to current work roles.

“Companies are becoming more sophisticated in their approach to management learning – they know what they want and are very conscious of value for money and, even more so, for time. That is challenge of education providers but I think it’s helpful because it prompts us to think of different ways in which management development can be delivered.”

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