Self-criticism and the MBA may seem unlikely bedfellows. The degree, after all, has long been associated with training masters of the universe. But chastened by charges that this training was responsible for the economic crisis, the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and Durham Business School have this week published a report on how alumni and business schools see the curriculum and what improvements may be necessary.
The report, The Post Downturn MBA: an agenda for change, does not make comfortable reading for either alumni or the schools. The findings, based on a survey of both groups, show significant divergences in perception of the MBA between alumni and the schools.
Three areas whose importance has grown as a result of the crisis – sustainability, corporate social responsibility and business ethics – are more highly ranked by schools than by alumni. Transferable skills – so-called "soft skills" such as communication or presentation – show a similar difference. Alumni and schools both put the ability to manage change at the top of the list. But after that, alumni rank communication and leadership as most valuable while the schools think the ability to deal with ambiguity – what the real issue is in a problem – and teamwork are the most valuable. Oddly given recent events, stress management comes bottom of the list.
Professor Rob Dixon, dean of the Durham Business School, admits that alumni do not necessarily share the school's emphasis on sustainability and ethics. "We need to do more to drive home that message," he says.
There are three broad explanations for the differences in perception between alumni and the schools. The first is that the responses from alumni cover a wide age range, from graduates who took their MBAs 20 or more years ago and may now be in senior positions to recent graduates. The evidence from the report suggests that younger graduates are more likely to agree with the schools on the composition of the curriculum. The second possible explanation is that the design of the MBA curriculum is ahead of students' expectations. The report found that two-thirds of schools had changed their curriculum in the two years before the survey was conducted. In the longer run, there has been a fundamental shift from teaching functional skills such as finance and accountancy to producing graduates who are more rounded in their professional and personal skills.
Keeping up with trends in business and even anticipating them is neither altruistic nor a sign of uncanny wisdom. It is acutely practical – students are careful consumers. "As a research institution, if you're not ahead of the curve students are not getting value for money from us," says Professor Dixon.
But the third reason for the differences in views between alumni and the schools does less credit to the schools. The survey showed that the two groups had different ideas about what had been taught and how it had been taught. On the topic of ethics, 46 per cent of schools said it was taught as a core module and 8 per cent replied that it was an elective module. By contrast, only 23 per cent of alumni thought it was core and 25 per cent said it was elective. The report says: "What perhaps needs to change (as many of the schools themselves admit) is the pedagogy that underpins the way these subjects are taught." AMBA expects that the shift away from optional teaching of such subjects in "silos" to core and integrated teaching will continue.
Another solution is better communication between the schools, alumni and employers. The report says: "Schools are often bold about their links with alumni and employers and the way in which these stakeholders feed back into programme design; however, the reality is that schools are not always as active in this regard as they should be."
Even so, adjusting the curriculum in the post-crisis world will be tough. While old favourites such as change management stay top of the pops, survey respondents also rank nearly every other subject as more important now than a few years ago. The schools are moving towards more of a stakeholder approach, although alumni still rate that less highly than their alma matas. Reconciling these conflicts will require a delicate balancing act.
"What the report is really saying to schools is think about who you are, what you are and don't throw the baby out with the bath water," says Professor Dixon.Reuse content