'What works in one case won't help in another'

It is only when applying knowledge to practical issues that you can see how vital MBA skills are

What does an MBA offer that makes it desirable, even at a higher price than other postgraduate qualifications? This question is even more important in tough economic times when competition for jobs and opportunities is intensified. One response to such challenging times is to go for a proper management qualification.

The fact that more than 250,000 prospective students took the GMAT test in 2011 suggests an MBA is perceived to be a qualification that greatly improves the applicants' chances in a professional career.

The expected outcomes from a well-conceptualised and taught MBA include knowledge, skills, attitudes and opportunities. But the actual outcome depends critically on how one approaches learning, work and life.

Recognising that you can learn something about management by going through a structured educational experience is the beginning. I use the word "educational" rather than professional training or development because a good quality MBA develops the critical faculty of an individual.

Effective management practice depends on how well you are prepared, being willing to challenge the received wisdom and to look for different interpretations of business situations. Developing such critical perspective means recognising current understanding of a subject and being open to examining it in light of the context in which it is to be applied. It is a teaching challenge for business schools to enable students to develop this. Most students expect right or wrong answers – black and white solutions to management problems that are often messy and do not lend themselves to such straightforward responses.

This reminds me of a story in which a car mechanic tells a cardiac surgeon that both of them do the same thing – fix engines – but the pay-offs for the mechanic were nowhere near those of the surgeon. After a pause, the surgeon replied: "Yes, we do similar jobs, but try doing yours with the engine on." Organisational situations are actually more complex than the situation even the surgeon is facing. Instead of dealing with one switched on engine, a manager's challenge is dealing with multiple switched on engines of different horsepower (if I may extend the analogy). This requires not just knowledge and skills, but also attitudes such as a willingness to learn, adapt, collaborate, question and being prepared to be questioned.

What about knowledge? Does an MBA provide all you need to be an effective manager? As an academic, I wish I could say it does, but as a practising manager with an MBA qualification, the answer is more nuanced. The knowledge required for effective management continuously changes, because the business world is also dynamic. What works in one situation may be counter-productive in another. Governance issues, business practices and cultures vary. In today's international business environment it is naïve to assume that what works in Anglo-Saxon regions of the world will work in other parts, and vice versa.

So what knowledge can an MBA claim to impart? A good quality one will offer comprehensive knowledge in core business functions and an overarching strategic perspective, but it will enable something additional. It will fine tune the intellectual antennas of the students to frequencies for receiving knowledge from a wide range of sources. These include economics, operations, finance, sociology and psychology, which have been key in feeding sciences into management theory.

Neuroscience, anthropology, politics and evolutionary theories are some of the areas that may offer interesting views on management and organisations. The MBA knowledge package has to be more than a set of manuals or handbooks. The edge a good MBA qualified person must acquire is finding that "something" that a great cricket player would find that is not mentioned in cricket manuals, or a successful football coach discovers that is not mentioned in coaching manuals.

An effective manager does need certain skills ranging from personal organisation to managing negotiations to working with multiple and multi-disciplinary teams. An MBA enabling development of such skills clearly will have the edge over one that focuses too much on knowledge acquisition only. The more opportunities a student gets to reflect on what they learn and how it relates to practice more are the chances that these skills will get prominent attention.

It is only when applying knowledge to practical issues that one recognises how crucial these skills are, and why they need conscious development through the taught programme. Connecting theory and practise in a learning loop is best achieved by practice-based management programmes.

Dr Devendra Kodwani is Masters programme director at The Open University Business School