Books: Primer or refresher, yes, but no substitute for school

High claims are made for this book in offering a 'complete course' in finance and business management, but Craig Smith believes there are better places to go.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Shorter MBA; Barrie Pearson and Neil Thomas; Profile £15; MT price £12: to order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

When it comes to MBAs, the gold standard is the two-year programme. In practice, this is typically about 21 months of intensive study of the core business subjects in the first year, a summer internship and a second year of self-selected courses, in which students can take more advanced courses and specialise in finance, say, or marketing. However, there are indications that this model is changing. For many years, a number of European schools have offered one-year programmes that sacrifice some of the depth of study and forsake the internship in recognition of the high opportunity cost of MBA study (and often target older students).

While it seems unlikely that a one-year model will become the norm at top schools any time soon, 'one-year-plus' programmes may become an attractive alternative. This model retains the internship - valued by students as a key route to the best jobs and by recruiters as a way of sampling potential recruits - and allows the depth of study that many students seek, particularly if they are career-changers. It also provides scope for fast-tracking to those seeking career acceleration.

Building this flexibility into the two-year programme could allow some students to complete their studies in just 15 months. Given the opportunity provided by an MBA to reflect on one's life and career options, this model permits the luxury of deciding during the programme. Not every student knows at the start whether they are career-changers or accelerators.

With such innovations in prospect (certainly at London Business School), but still a continuing and widespread commitment to MBA programmes that are more than a year in length, The Shorter MBA by Barrie Pearson and Neil Thomas is a provocatively titled book, if nothing else. Their premise is that 'most people cannot devote two years of their life to study for a Masters in Business Administration, but the techniques that are taught on an MBA course are invaluable'. Two years is a lot of time to devote to an MBA, and MBA courses provide knowledge of valuable techniques (though they do much more than this). But can a book of 269 pages really impart much of this knowledge?

It promises big - using 'the latest research and business school studies to explain everything clearly'. The book is divided into three parts: personal development, management skills, and business development.

It claims to provide a 'complete course' in finance and accounting, project management, human resources management, competitive marketing strategy, business development strategy, turnaround of a loss-making business, business plans, acquisitions and divestments, selling and negotiating skills, time management, decision-making, problem-solving and communication skills.

Of course, it does nothing of the sort. Many chapters comprise mostly headings and bullet points. The chapter on effective communication skills, for example, is four pages of bulleted tips on effective writing ('avoid writing whenever possible') and effective presentations ('don't waffle').

A notable omission is business ethics - a requisite topic for many accredited MBA programmes. Perhaps if this had been included, the claims made for The Shorter MBA would have been considered more carefully.

This is not to say the book is entirely without merit. Some might find it a helpful primer before taking a basic business course, or a useful refresher, but there really are better places to go. The chapter on marketing strategy, for example, covers the following topics: the role of strategy, Michael Porter's sources of competitive advantage and his Five Forces model, market segmentation, the experience curve, the product portfolio, the product life cycle, and strategy formulation, planning and implementation. These are key concepts that you would expect to find in a core marketing course on an MBA, but with much more besides (pricing, branding, marketing communications ...). This chapter is not all bullet points and there is some explanation of concepts along with application exercises, but in the absence of familiarity with the concepts, most readers would find the explanation insufficient, in contrast to what virtually any basic marketing textbook would offer.

Some years ago, two Harvard graduates published What They Really Teach You at Harvard Business School. I expected something similar of this book.

The Harvard grads summarise the content of the first year of their MBA programme. They don't come close to providing the sort of learning that takes place in a business school classroom (or the myriad other benefits from attending business school). But they provide a pretty good overview of each course; they try to explain the key concepts, theories and frameworks, and, unlike Pearson and Thomas, don't make excessive use of bullet points, which presuppose a level of prior knowledge. I strongly suspect that the more satisfactory outcome may be due to the fact that unlike the contributors to The Shorter MBA, the Harvard men had actually attended an MBA course.

Professor N Craig Smith is associate dean of the full-time MBA programme, London Business School.

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