The management of change

MBA programmes of more enterprising schools are adapting to businesses' differing needs, says Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
It is popularly supposed that Masters Degrees in Business Administration (MBAs) from different business schools follow a similar syllabus. However, this is not so.

In Britain 103 business schools offer more than 220 different MBA programmes. There is a huge diversity of content and methods of delivery. As well as general MBAs there are specialist programmes for specific industries and functions - including agribusiness, education, engineering, health, human resources, marketing, project management and retailing.

Others are tailored to individual organisations. Moreover, the programmes of the more enterprising business schools are constantly adapting to the changing needs of business.

Roger McCormick, director general of the Association of MBAs, says there is "perhaps more diversity in the UK than in any other country that we're familiar with".

He continues: "In America, for instance, there's a very high degree of homogeneity. In the UK MBAs range from the two years full-time at the London Business School, through one year full-time to all the part-time courses. In recent years, there has also been the phenomenon of distance learning. And there are various hybrids such as the modular degree, the company degree and so on. A very notable feature has been the extent to which the public service has developed its interest in the MBA." He cites the BBC and the civil service as examples.

Discussing how MBA courses adapt to changing business needs, Mr McCormick says: "Several things have already been taken on board. One is the international aspect of business which is being expressed in all sorts of ways. These include student exchanges and liaison arrangements with continental business schools." Secondly, he says, teaching individual subjects on a stand- alone basis has given way to a more integrated approach. He points out that solving real-life business problems usually involves multi-disciplinary solutions.

The third major change, suggests Mr McCormick, will be in "Information Technology and the use of distance learning in a preparatory mode". He suggests that in future MBA students will be expected to have covered some of the ground before they start a formal course. The formal MBA teaching will then be "more intensive and conceivably shorter".

Expressing a personal view, he says: "I can envisage that some of the more numerate elements will have been done by students using IT through distance learning." He believes that MBA courses can then concentrate on those things which can only be developed in discussion. "There will always be an important spine of knowledge which people must muster, but the key outcome of that will always be derived by discursive methods."

The traditional MBA was based primarily on lectures and case studies. However, as most business schools now insist that MBA students have a few years' prior management experience, much of the learning is through seminars, workshops and group projects.

Another trend has been the use of "action learning" which is concerned with examining existing work situations rather than simulations or case studies based on past problems. Most MBA students today are sponsored by their employers on part-time "executive programmes". In traditional MBA courses, tutors provide the case studies. In action learning it is the students who bring "case studies" from their sponsoring employers into the classroom. Learning and seeking solutions to real-life problems under the guidance of the class tutors run in parallel. As a useful by- product, sponsoring employers get what is in effect a piece of free- consultancy.

Action learning of this kind requires a high level of collaboration between employers and business schools. This is to be welcomed so long as objectivity and academic rigour are not compromised.

Some business schools are also looking to "critical management". This is a new way of thinking about management that enables managers to question the assumptions which lie behind their management practice and therefore encourage them to review and understand the broader context in which their businesses operate.

Graham Clarke, senior lecturer in operational management at the Cranfield School of Management, says managers need to understand who they are and how they affect others. He believes this is "much more important than knowing how to tabulate financial data or prepare a market report".

He also sees a distinction forming between business schools "which provide a management education and concentrate on the core disciplines and core knowledge and those which, like ourselves, develop the person".

Professor Chris Greenstead, director of Strathclyde Graduate Business School and chairman of the Association of Business Schools, agrees there has been a trend for some programmes to take a much broader view of management. He says: "Traditional MBA programmes have taught some finance, marketing, operations management and so on, and haven't linked them much together. What's happened in recent years is that programmes have taken a much more holistic view of management."

As a result, he says, they have "integrated the various aspects of management both in functional terms, but also in process terms. That then takes us into management strategy and also into the management of change. This in turn links into the skills of management as well as the knowledge basis required. So there has been much more emphasis on developing a range of management skills and interpersonal skills - the softer skills of management."

Delayering has meant that organisations need fewer senior people in functional areas, but require a higher proportion who have a "broad picture of what organisations are about and how they fit with their external environment".

As a result, Professor Greenstead says, "there is now more concentration on how you assess your external environment and how you interact with it. You have to take into account trends in social life, ethical trends and so on. These were rarely mentioned five years ago."

The better business schools are keeping abreast of corporate change in order that their programmes remain relevant to the needs of both their students and their sponsoring employers. In such a rapidly changing world of work, they are having to develop managers who not only act differently but think differently from their predecessors.