Content under scrutiny in globalised economy
Managers and leaders need to excel on a universal scale in a globalised economy, and that has sparked a debate in business schools on the relevancy of MBA curricula.
According to some experts, the traditional business model of the MBA programme needs an overhaul and programmes should be more international and practical in their approach to develop the soft skills of executives, such as communication and interpersonal expertise.
In a survey of 100-plus executives from more than 20 companies, The Upwardly Global MBA by Nigel Andrews and Laura D'Andrea Tyson, set out to identify the knowledge, skills and attributes they would require of future recruits.
The response was virtually the same across the board: they wanted recruits who were more thoughtful, more aware, more sensitive, and more flexible; and who were adaptive managers and capable of being moulded and developed into global executives, according to the survey. Almost none of the respondents cited functional or technical knowledge.
That represents a new challenge for business schools. Traditionally, MBA programmes specialised in developing the quantitative and analytical skills of students with courses like economics, organisation behaviour and management, and business strategy at the core of the curriculum.
The survey said the traditional business model had equipped graduates with knowledge that extended beyond traditional analyses and case studies, but it was not enough. It said students needed to learn skills and attributes - 'the means by which knowledge is acted upon'.
Kathleen Slaughter, dean of Richard Ivey School of Business, Asia, The University of Western Ontario said developing the soft skills of managers should be the prime focus of business schools. 'We generally have the ability to hire technical skills but it is the soft skills that move businesses forward,' Professor Slaughter said. 'Without the ability to engage the workforce, to develop the talent you have reporting to you and to motivate your employees, you do not have the ability to lead a business. Soft skills are critical.'
Roy Green, dean of the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, said the structure of the global economy - the demise of monolithic organisations in favour of smaller networks of highly integrated units, would call for different qualities in managers, such as the ability to identify and understand problems and to act on them with solutions.
Networks would take advantage of local talent with their own autonomy and they would pursue their own strategy, instead of operating as a large subsidiary of an organisation. 'A lot of people are good at solving problems, but a lot are not good at identifying problems,' Professor Green said. 'It requires the ability to think freely and outside boundaries and those are the most successful people.'
The internationalisation of MBA programmes is in progress, to a certain extent. More business schools encourage an international mix of students and some offer exchange programmes or visits to overseas companies. But does that make a programme international?
According to Professor Slaughter, a truly global MBA programme has not only an international focus, but also an international participant group. 'It should include materials that have been written in international locations by international faculty,' she said, adding that faculty teaching on the programme should have international experience in teaching, researching, and travelling.
Flexibility and the ability to read the environment and to adapt through observation and communication is the most important lesson of an international programme, 'To truly understand how to analyse situations and respond to a changing environment,' Professor Slaughter said.
MBA programmes do increasingly reflect the needs of the global business environment, according to Professor Green, 'though not as well as they should'. He said they can tend to be parochial and focus on the demographics of their environment, but that there is a growing interest in developing the exchange of faculty, which is encouraging business schools to look beyond their boundaries. 'A lot of MBA programmes are focused in specific areas,' he said. 'Ours is very international in its focus because we operate in different locations. Business schools need to do more to foster an international perspective.'
Business schools should create greater links with business schools worldwide, Professor Green said. 'There has been a noticeable growth for more business schools to offer more international programmes through partnerships, but the quality depends very much on the partners,' he said. 'The nature is of students moving, not the faculty.'
The authors of the survey surmised business schools should include a global mix of faculty and students, exchange programmes, summer internships, in-company projects, and even shadowing of global executives at work.
Professor Green acknowledged curriculums do need updating, but said the general management MBA still is the most valuable and relevant degree for aspiring leaders. 'But this does not mean that all MBAs are the same, even if we confine our consideration to the highest quality programmes,' he said.
Professor Slaughter agreed. She said general management was more important now than it has ever been, but that it had changed in the past decade. Decision making, leading the organisation, and the development and implementation of strategies must be made at all levels. 'General management means understanding all aspects of the business, working across the enterprise and functioning in a rapidly changing environment. Without the general management perspective, one can easily become narrow in one's focus,' Professor Slaughter said.
She said while strong technical skills or financial skills may be admired, leading an organisation required a cross-enterprise perspective 'and that means integrated thinking and an action orientation.'
Professor Green said post-experience MBAs are under pressure to address many more problems than were predicted in the traditional MBA structure, such as business ethics and environmental sustainability.
He said an emphasis on critical self-reflection and the opportunity for students to question accepted thinking should be central to the broader management philosophy of MBA students.