MBA & Business Education Guide Autumn 2009: A recipe for MBA success

UCL's Adrian Furnham explains what goes into the best courses, and what makes a good student.

by Adrian Furnham
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Management education is big business. From business schools to personal coaches, organisations spend fortunes in the hope that they can get the best out of their managers. Some think talented people are more likely to join organisations that offer good and regular development and training. Others believe it is a necessity, not an option - if you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.

Companies often make sly distinctions about the type of education they offer their employees. 'Training' is often for the troops, while 'development' is reserved for officers. You are sent on a training course, but rewarded with a development programme. The former is compulsory, remedial and sheepdip-like, the latter is elective, distinguished and personalised. Education and development are prizes, rewards for being talented or senior, but training means that you don't have the skills or knowledge to do the job properly - maybe you have fallen behind or don't seem to have what it takes.

The most important question an organisation should ask when it comes to business education is: what's the return on investment? What exactly is the training you offer for? And how do you develop and maintain its impact on employees over time? Nearly all forms of education are expensive in terms of time and money - note the time commitment of a part-time or distance-learning MBA. And what the grey ones of the bottom line want to know most of all is how to measure training success, though this simple question is tricky to answer. Is it enough to measure responses to the course through evaluation happy-sheets or by whether the trainee's boss, colleagues or subordinates notice any positive difference?

There are other, just as important questions: does training for 'soft' skills, such as emotional intelligence, work better than training for 'hard' skills, such as IT? Or is it the other way round? Can you really teach leadership, for example? Is training intended to increase self-awareness, improve job satisfaction or increase employee productivity, or is it aimed at improving staff retention and promotability? The aim of business education should fit with a hypothetical shareholder perspective - ie, to make the company more successful through better-informed, more versatile or more perceptive staff.

There are well-established, yet often ignored, principles of training and education. First, it's known that people learn the most and retain more when they are actively involved and engaged in their training. Second, they do best when given prompt, continuous and positive reward for progress - they need real and honest feedback. Third, 'modelling' (learning by copying others) works very well. And finally, it's better to teach a course over a couple of weeks rather than deliver the whole thing in one session, although this often takes too much effort for the training department to get their heads around.

Apart from the cost question, the really difficult issue with training is called 'generalisability' or 'transfer of training'. Do the skills and knowledge learned during a course transfer back to the workplace and hold up over time? It's all very well being able to do something in the training room while the tutor hovers over you, but what happens when you're back in the workplace facing angry customers and a computer that's on the blink?

It's known that transfer of training occurs much more if the skills are thoroughly learned and if the learners understand the why as much as the how of what they are supposed to do. Of course, the more realistic the simulations and role-plays, the better.

Training should also include ambiguous, risky or unusual problems, issues and situations, so that trainees find their own solutions outside regular procedures. Oddly, people seem to learn more about issues by studying failures rather than successes: failures in procedure, process and personal disposition.

So if all this is true, the most ineffective courses are those that primarily involve listening to others (however brilliant they are and however nice the setting), while networking in the bar in the evening - it's not by accident that the difference between networking and not working is just one letter. The point is simple: if the message and skills of development and training don't make it back from the classroom to the workplace, the whole exercise has failed.

What about self-help? Why not study at home? There's certainly no shortage of books for the potential student. Consider only those that have MBA in the title. There is the 80 Minute MBA, or if you have a fortnight spare, the 10 Day MBA. For those with more time there is the 30 Day MBA. Clearly, time is the selling point, so for the impulsive there is the Instant MBA, or for those who are a little more adult, the Shorter MBA. There is also the Complete MBA for Dummies and the Weekend MBA for Dummies. And a host of others, such as Your MBA Game Plan.

Anyone who has done part-time study that relies on aids (in the old days, primarily books) will tell you how hard it is. You come home pooped from work and then have domestic duties before you can even start, and you miss out on learning from others informally. Self-help books certainly do no harm - they can incentivise people to want to know more, and they may have a few useful lists, models and explanations for phenomena. But, often, they promise too much and make difficult things look unrealistically easy.

Every organisation has course junkies and phobics. The different motivations of these opposite types may be complex. Junkies revel in the developmental aspect - some are naive narcissists who crave all that self-awareness stuff you get now. They love the psychobabble and the opportunity to get others to listen to them. Others have a secret retraining agenda, thinking that they may pick up some useful tips, slides and exercises for when they go independent as coaches, consultants or trainers. Some are pathetic credentialists who like course certificates or even bogus diplomas, often to compensate for their lack of real educational qualifications.

And then there are the phobics, with a range of well-rehearsed explanations and excuses as to why they cannot possibly spare or waste the time to go on a course. Are they the experienced and sensible types who know the real value of time? Or are they scared of being shown up in front of their peers as being slow, odd, or Peter Principled? Phobics cannot be lured to top business schools or to nice country hotels. Some have always resisted education, others appear traumatised after a few nasty experiences. This leads to the all-important question: are people all equally educable?

Clinicians and coaches will tell you two things, both of which should be self-evident. First, some people are easier to coach, help or teach than others. And second, sadly and paradoxically, those who need coaching the most benefit from it the least.

There are other important lessons that work psychologists and coaches can learn from clinical researchers. The first is that radically different types of therapy (read: training) appear to be equally good or bad at helping people. The main question is whether they have the desire to change, learn or develop. People need to want to gain something from education.

One volunteer is worth ten conscripts. Those who go on courses determined to get something out of them, do. And those who don't, don't. Amen. Next, clinicians recommend that therapy (read: training) be preceded by an assessment of what the client wants to learn and their confidence in doing so. If you don't know where you are going, any road or no road will take you there. The assessment also allows the teacher, trainer or therapist to adjust his or her style and level to fit the needs of the student.

In fact, that rapport with the trainer is hugely important. We all had a teacher who changed us at school: the question is, what was it they did right?


People differ not only in what they take away from courses, but also in their skills. Why do some learn more than others? What makes one person 'epistemologically hungry' and others well satisfied? Here are five indicators of how educable staff are (or aren't).

1. Intelligence. Call it capacity, smarts or the size of your engine. Brighter people learn more quickly and more easily. They often have better recall. They go faster and further. Intelligence is, quite simply, the best predictor of success at work and in life.

2. Self-control. To learn well takes self-discipline. It requires focus and concentration, and giving up a range of less productive fun activities. Learning can be hard work. The conscientious inherit the earth. Impulsive, easily distracted hedonists don't succeed.

3. Self-confidence. Self-confident people are better at taking criticism and negative feedback. They recover from failures, mistakes and errors. Less confident people are less resilient, more eager to blame others rather than change or learn, and tend to be defensive. They have trouble letting go or changing their ideas and mental models.

4. Perceptiveness. The 'aha' experience can be exhilarating. Perceptive people have insight. Sometimes this is called creativity, other times interpersonal skills. It's most useful in learning about other people: what motivates them, what makes them tick. Perceptive people have 'the third eye', they have psychological mindedness. They see patterns and trends before others.

5. Rationality. This is about problem-solving, being data-based and logical. It is about making good inferences. It is testing and moderating hypotheses.

Total outlay for a full-time MBA course
Price point Low Medium High
Tuition fees £20k £30k £45k
Living cost £20k £25k £30k
Opportunity costs £50k £80k £90k
Total £90k £135k £165

Top business schools in Europe now ask more than £40k for a one-year MBA. But you can still find bargain-basement University of the Watford Gap-type courses for less than half that. Living costs are related to the city in which the course is run, family size and preferred standard of living. A single person living in modest accommodation in a small provincial town may only need £10k, but there may be many other costs such as books and travel to take into consideration. Opportunity costs refer to how much a student could be earning if they hadn't quit their job to take up full-time education. Even in their late twenties, high-flyers may easily be getting more than £80k, so their range might be £100k-£200k for an MBA.

Part-time MBAs are much cheaper: the fees add up to much the same, but living costs and opportunity costs are a fraction of a full-time MBA. For as little as £30k, it may be possible to do a part-time course in your home town while holding down a job.

Part-time courses vary hugely in costs from a few thousand pounds to well over £10,000, depending on various criteria. A seven- to 10-week short course at a world-class business school aimed at CEOs may easily cost £25k, once travel and accommodation are taken into account. On the other hand, a 10-week course (one lecture per week) on a specific topic or a series of after-work seminars may cost as little as £2,000-£5,000.

Coaching is now all the rage, yet, because of the rules of supply and demand, can still be relatively cheap. In this unregulated market, there are dozens of schools, associations and many one-man bands offering executive coaching. They often suggest between four and 10 sessions at £2,000-£5,000, depending mainly on the client's willingness and ability to pay.

Adrian Furnham is a professor of psychology at University College London.

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