Are MBAs out of date?

Some business schools are too remote from the real world and aren't equipping their graduates with the skills they need, says Denise Kingsmill.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 28 Jan 2016

I sit on the international advisory board of European business school IESE and have just returned from a very interesting visit to the Barcelona campus.

I talked with enthusiastic students from around the world and with their dedicated teachers. I came away impressed with their confidence and belief in themselves and their future in business.

Yet they may be in a minority, as many business schools in the UK and the US are facing a double-digit drop in applications for their MBA programmes.

Speculation about the causes of this has centred on the financial crisis and the decline of the banking sector as a potential employer, the Coalition Government's tougher immigration controls and a general disillusionment with business ethics and values.

Whatever the reason, the deans of business schools everywhere are spending a lot of time thinking about the future of business education and its relevance to shaping future corporate leaders.

Students make a significant investment in terms of money, time and commitment when they sign up for an MBA. Fees are high, entry to the best schools is extremely competitive and the courses are demanding.

Many schools use the promise of the increased potential for advancement and improved salary prospects as a recruiting tool. It is not surprising then that MBA graduates tend to have high expectations and sometimes an inflated idea of their value.

One former CEO of a large multinational consumer goods company, himself an MBA, told me that they can be very difficult to manage and fit into a corporate structure, so they often end up in strategy roles and chafe at the absence of bottom-line responsibility.

His view was that the case study model employed in most business schools, often with a heavy emphasis on finance, focused too much on the quantitative evaluation of business problems, which is mostly of use in banking and consultancy.

The result of this was that increasing shareholder value took priority over understanding customer needs.

As careers in banking and consultancy are now scarcer and less attractive to students, many business schools are trying to recalibrate their teaching to encompass entrepreneurship. A debate rages as to whether entrepreneurs are born or made but certainly many schools now seek to teach aspiring entrepreneurs.

Waheed Alli, the media entrepreneur and Labour peer, while conceding that a business education might have provided him with a quicker route to acquiring some technical financial skills, told me that too many MBAs 'know a lot about discounted cash flows but not enough about collecting the cash each month, and every entrepreneur I know cares more about the latter than the former'.

His view is that the entrepreneurial approach is 'part science, part creativity and part instinct', and that the curriculum of most business schools would have to fundamentally change to embrace this.

In particular, they would have to work out a way to teach their students how to recognise a good idea, the crucial skill of an entrepreneur.

Other organisations are challenging the business schools as providers of business education. The big four accountancy firms and the magic circle law firms already offer business training to their new recruits to complement their highly marketable professional skills.

Engineering schools and computer science departments of major universities recognise that these are disciplines that the business student needs to understand in the world of big data and rapid technological change, and are adapting the content of their courses accordingly.

In a recent Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia lecture, Nicholas Negroponte, the chairman of MIT, said: 'Design school is the future, business school is dead.'

This is an extreme point of view but serves to point up a truth that business schools need to adapt and develop a multidisciplinary approach if they are to survive.

Certainly, students themselves value the richer experience that studying with people from different countries and with different backgrounds gives them, citing this diversity and the network of international contacts they hope to make as a primary reason for choosing business school over other forms of post-graduate professional training.

They also value the chance to contextualise their business experience within a disciplined framework of study and to develop further their analytical skills.

However, I was particularly struck by the comments of Begona de Ros Raventos, an alumna of IESE business school in Barcelona, when she told me that in addition to the rigorous business training she had received, there was in her business school, led by Dean Jordi Canals, a strong focus on the purpose and mission of business itself.

This emphasis on the ethics and values of business and the understanding of its relationship to society and the community were for her the distinguishing features of her business education.

This suggests that the future generation of business leaders may reject the culture of self-serving greed that seems to have dominated the perception of corporate culture in recent years in favour of more social responsibility.

Certainly, the social, economic and environmental challenges of doing business, together with increased customer connectivity through social media, mean that business schools have to think harder about how to help their students create social value as well as competitive advantage and financial returns in business.

- Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards.

- Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on

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