Books: An education too narrow

This book pleads for management focus at business school. Chris Brady is all ears

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Managers not MBAs; By Henry Mintzberg; FT Prentice Hall £24.99; MT price £22.99 (see panel, p36)

To begin, I should mention some relevant facts to enable the reader to give appropriate weight to my prejudices. First, I have never met Henry Mintzberg. Second, I think this is a great book. Third, I left school at 16 with no formal qualifications, and have worked non-stop for the past 40 years. I studied for my first degree aged 26, my first masters at 30, my second at 36 and my PhD at 42. I have no MBA, but I was associate dean of MBA programmes at Cass Business School.

I mention this because I have received my managerial education in precisely the manner Mintzberg believes is appropriate. In his counter-intuitive management model, he insists that managers must first practise their art before they can study the relevant theory. Only then can 'insightful theories help managers make sense of their experience'.

It therefore follows that I would be a devotee of this book. Yet it strikes me that neither Mintzberg, the eminent and respected management guru, nor myself, who holds similar views to Mintzberg, actually run the world.

Rather, it is run by those who appear to think that we are both wrong. So I was forced to examine the book for an explanation of this incongruity.

The first part of Managers Not MBAs examines why MBAs are not the way ahead for genuine management education. Mintzberg argues that MBA programmes choose the 'wrong people' and the 'wrong ways'.

'Wrong people' because they are mostly young and inexperienced managers; 'wrong ways' because the purely academic or case-based pedagogical approaches are inadequate. In addition, MBAs are responsible for 'wrong consequences', which range from economic immorality, a society of meanness and legal corruption, to the potential destruction of society, no less.

Mintzberg criticises the MBA for the way employers use it to select managers, not for what MBAs themselves claim to provide. He argues that MBAs do not provide 'management' education, but merely 'business' education. Perhaps MBAs are over-hyped, but then no business school would claim to turn out fully fledged managers; rather, potential managers with a solid awareness of the business game. The MBA is the pre-season training for the real thing, which, as Mintzberg rightly says, can only be 'experienced'.

He goes on to comment on the new MBAs, management development in practice and developing management education. In the chapter on new MBAs, Mintzberg evaluates the European approach and naturally finds good practice at the University of Lancaster, where his programme runs. In later chapters, the conceptual issues get more interesting as the intellectual heat is turned up and Mintzberg examines a wide range of management training models.

Chapters 10 to 14 are a sales pitch for Mintzberg's own International Masters in Practising Management programme - frankly, not very interesting.

He returns to form with more visionary polemic, in which he deconstructs the notions of scholarship and business education.

But it was in this final section that my doubts returned most forcibly.

My concerns are not about the vision, but the likelihood of the vision becoming reality. Mintzberg discusses some major US reports, published in 1959 and 1988, which lamented the narrowness of business education.

He cites the 1988 Porter and McKibbon study, which suggested: 'It is now time for business schools to turn for enrichment to virtually all sectors of the university.' Comments Mintzberg: 'It is strange that such calls have come regularly from such sources, yet have had so little impact.'

Strange, perhaps, but in the conservative world of academia and senior management, going out on a limb is never easy. Mintzberg counsels us all to do so. However, it is one thing for the outside observer to tell business schools to bravely transform curricula on the assumption that the discerning customer will see the light; the problem is that in the meantime we might go out of business.

It is perhaps Mintzberg's final paragraph that is the most telling. He says: 'I have never had any desire to become dean of a business school ... I love my day job ... But if I did become a dean, my goal would not be to build the best business school in the world. It would be to build the first good management school.'

If even the messiah can't be bothered to give up his day job to realise the vision, there's not much chance anyone else will take up the cause.

Yet this book offers profound thoughts on management education and development.

I disagree with much within it, but it should be recommended reading for MBA students and faculties. It will excite and exasperate readers, but will never bore them.

Professor Chris Brady was associate dean for MBA programmes and is currently head of external affairs at the Cass Business School in London. He is the author of The 90 Minute Manager, FT Prentice Hall.

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