Are MBAs still relevant?

The MBA isn’t really about ‘business’ or ‘administration’ anymore. So what is it for? We sat down with the deans of three Canadian business schools to find out.

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Three deans of Canadian MBA programs discuss education. Featuring: Murali Chandrashekaran Associate Dean, Professional Graduate Programs, Sauder School of Business, UBC; Patricia Bradshaw Dean, Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University; and Michel Patry, Director, HEC Montréal.

CB: Why should students be choosing an MBA degree in 2012? Has the degree lost its relevance?

Patricia Bradshaw: My sense is the MBA is still a highly relevant degree that’s well recognized in the marketplace, and almost a minimum specification for many leadership positions and management positions. The emerging term that many schools are using is “mindsets”—global mindsets, social mindsets, critical thinking skills—essentially the capacity to deal with complexity, rapid change and uncertainty.

Michel Patry: I’ve been involved in management here at HEC Montréal for some 20 years, and every year I’ve heard people say, “Well, this is the end of the cycle—the MBA as a graduate diploma will become less and less of a major factor,” and so on. And every single year this has not been the case. When I look at what’s going on in Canada—and in emerging economies in particular—the needs in the science, technology, engineering and health sectors are huge. Often the best solution for specialists in those areas is to get an MBA to learn the management skills they need. I think it’s still a very relevant program, even if it’s more and more a crowded space.

Murali Chandrashekaran: I think doing an MBA degree in 2012 is perhaps more exciting because of how business schools are changing. At many universities, business schools are moving into the nexus of government, business and civil society, and catering to all of these different institutions. And the unique thread that ties all of this is around “change management.” Problems that were hitherto thought of as problems outside the scope of business school can now be couched roundly within the change management process: things like poverty, education, health care, energy, resources.


From left: Michel Petry, Murali Chandrashekaran, Patricia Bradshaw (Photos: Roger Lemoyne; Grant Harder; Aaron McKenzie)

CB: It sounds like the “B” in MBA is undergoing some changes—that this is not just about the traditional areas of finance and business management, that there’s something more fundamental going on here…

PB: I would even argue that the “A” is changing. It’s beyond business, and it’s beyond “administration,” which is kind of a quaint term. It’s moving more toward analysis and leadership and other things.

MC: I agree in some measure the “B” is undergoing some transformation. Is it about only business administration? That’s an interesting question. Another way to think about it is that we’re expanding the scope of where business-type thinking can be applied. It’s about bringing private-sector solutions to solving public-sector problems as well.

MP: I would add that the task is still to cover a number of basic things, and this has not changed. You want to make sure that the engineer or the doctor, after a year of intensive MBA courses, has some fundamental understanding of accounting and the economic environment and knows how to make decisions. So there’s still a lot of what we would call the basics. I don’t think that this has changed tremendously—but how you go about that has changed.

PB: I think it’s a combination of the students asking more probing questions—they’re sitting with their computers open and Googling everything you’re talking about at the same time you’re discussing it. They’re bringing a depth of passion and excitement to learn. And the business community—recruiters and so on—have come to us and said, “We need more soft skills. We need people with cross-functional perspectives.” The faculty too are trying to understand the world we’re living in and seeing the shifts in globalization, technology, immigration and demography. The curiosity is bubbling away, and they’re coming to me and saying, “You know what? What we’ve been doing and how we’ve been doing it isn’t always working.” That curiosity’s allowing for really profound questions about the traditional ways of teaching, the traditional ways of engaging the students, and the content and the format of delivery. It’s difficult, and at the same time it’s incredibly exciting.

MC: I started here at Sauder 12 months ago, just as we were picking up steam to do a full-blown review and overhaul of our MBA program. It’s important to know why we’re doing things, and to understand what the product is, what the program is. We’re here to help students find careers, meaningful careers, and most importantly, to make a difference in the world.

CB: There seems to be a tension between the MBA as being an academic research-related pursuit and being a career-advancement move—as you put it, Murali, a “product.” How do you reconcile those two things?

PB: I’m personally very committed to making sure that we don’t fall off that tension—that we hold the paradox between academic questions of deep understanding, and the questions of relevance, application and practice. We like projects with an academic element—the capacity to think in innovative ways and to understand the world as more complex—but that are constantly grounded in practical matters. Those could be consulting projects, social enterprises that students are starting themselves, or multidisciplinary teams.

MC: The tension around “Is this a product, is this an academic program, should we swing toward careers because that’s what students want, is this a degree that can be bought” and so on—you know, I’m not so sure that there really is a big debate. At the end of the day, the students are clear that they’re in an MBA program to get a strong, academically grounded program that allows them to think better and differently, and allows them to apply theoretically grounded frameworks to the solutions of managerial problems.

MP: The task is far more complex than it was 30 years ago. Employers have a very long wish list, and the students have great expectations, so the balancing act that you have to do, between covering fundamental bits of knowledge, and at the same time developing soft skills that they will need to communicate, make decisions and implement them—this is quite a task.

MC: You’re absolutely right, Michel. I mean, the students are busy, right? Don’t forget that we also need time for them to reflect on what they’ve learned. We could easily add stuff, but before you know it, we’ll have a three-year program that the students are not going to be fired up about taking time off of work for. That’s really where the creativity comes in, in building a program. What are the core curricular activities? Who are the students we admit into the program? What sort of starting skills do they already have? Do we see ourselves either as fundamentally developing these skills, or do we see ourselves as building a finishing school where we round out the rough edges, so to speak? That’s the other discussion point: Who’s in the program, and how do we select the right people who will get the most out of the program.

CB: That’s a good transition to a more practical question: What should people be doing to successfully apply to an MBA program? What are you looking for?

MC: The most important thing is knowing why they want an MBA in the first place. They’ve got to have a clear and a cogent development pathway that says, “I’ve reached a point in my career where I know that I need to up-scale, I need to take on new challenges, and I know that I need more education in a formal sense.” Second, give some thought to what it is you’ve done in your career—and be honest with yourself. Too often we see applicants saying things…let me put it this way: there’s a huge gap between what they say on an application form, and when they actually show up here. Schools, I think, are pretty savvy to that. So start getting realistic with what you hope to get out of the MBA.

MP: We interview every single candidate in all our MBA programs, and we’ve learned that people have to have realistic goals. I mean, if you have unrealistic goals, it will be a difficult experience, and even if you get the degree, you won’t be happy with it. The only thing I would add is that you should ask, “Who do you want to learn with?” Because depending on the program, you’ll have a different crowd in the room, and in an MBA program, you generally learn as much—if not more—from the other participants. So who do you want to work with, and who do you want to learn from? This is another major issue, I think, when you consider choosing a program.

PB: We like diversity in the class, and we are looking for students that come from the not-for-profit sector, or come with a PhD, or come from pharmacy or other different backgrounds to create that enriching experience. We’re looking for the open-minded and the curious and the passionate. To create that transformational experience, you’re looking for that person with the spark—so how you show that is always the interesting challenge.

CB: With the financial crisis of the past couple of years, the public seems to believe there is a deficit of ethics in business. How are programs responding to that? How has that conversation changed the way you teach ethics now?

MP: There’s probably not an MBA program in the world that has not increased quite significantly the attention that is being paid to this. However, business schools didn’t wait until the crisis hit to do that—this had been on the radar before. I doubt there is much that can be done over and above what’s already being done that would have any significant impact on the likelihood that any unethical behaviour might happen. It would be exaggerating quite a bit the influence of business schools to imagine that you could change that. You won’t prevent unethical behaviour when the incentive structures and the institutional environment lead people—a very small number of people in finance or other areas—in other ways. So I have a modest view concerning the influence of business schools in this area. But I still do think we have things to do, and I’m very happy to see that most of those things are on the agenda.

PB: I think there used to be a really interesting debate within business schools: Should you have a special course on ethics? Or should it be embedded in every course as a core, fundamental topic? And I think it’s actually both. What I’m seeing is, it’s coming up everywhere, you know? With the international student body, we’re also seeing profound conversations about corruption, about cross-cultural differences in values and how they get enacted. I’m seeing shifts in the research that faculty are doing, and that’s spilling over into the classroom. I’m seeing debates between faculty members about the role of ethics. It’s moved beyond a kind of a stale, rote way of teaching where you brush your hands and say, “OK, we’ve dealt with ethics; check,” to something that’s informing—and, I hope, transforming—the discussion in many, many ways. It’s showing up in the financial sector, it’s showing up in sports, it’s showing up in all kinds of different forms, so to me it’s a wonderful, live, vibrant conversation that’s happening in our classrooms and between colleagues. So that’s good news.

CB: There has been a lot of hand-wringing about what the “millennial” generation means for the workplace. Is that manifesting itself in the MBA programs yet?

PB: Honestly, I don’t think we’re seeing that yet—but we’re getting ready. We’re starting to discuss and debate the role of technology. I think the millennials are going to be coming along with disruptive technologies that education—and MBA programs in particular—haven’t yet figured out how to respond to yet. I also think they come with a capacity for multi-tasking and for challenging meaning systems, and there’s a degree of impatience with anything that smells of being out of date. So we’re bracing ourselves and starting to open up to that conversation, but I don’t think we’ve got the answer yet.

MC: At some point, you sort of wake up and say, “You know, the students are slightly different, aren’t they, than when I went to graduate school, or when I started teaching, or even 10 years ago, five years ago.” I mean, there was a time when we said, “We’re incorporating technology in the classroom,” and what that meant was that you had a PowerPoint presentation, right? The ability for students to connect with each other and with content technologically is amazing. But the second thing that we’ve realized among millennials as well is a broader engagement with life—they’re asking companies, “What else do you do in your community?” and choosing jobs where they find a slightly different work-life balance. That has actually helped a range of companies become even more interesting as they come to campus to recruit, and the conversations for workplaces are that much more interesting.

MP: I had someone from a very large consulting firm last year tell me, “I came to your campus and interviewed a number of MBA students. One of them said, “For family reasons, do you offer part-time jobs?” I said if she could cram 50 hours in three days we can talk.” This is novel: I mean, you have students with different expectations.

MC: There’s also the issue of short attention span. This generation wants answers quickly, and the notion of, you know, go sit in the library and figure it out, is very different than what used to be, say, 10, 20 years ago. That’s a challenge in terms of how the classroom itself operates. So we’re experimenting. We’re providing content in a very focused way before they come to class, and what we do in the classroom is really the actual work of applying those concepts to problems. They do the work before they come to class, and what we do in class is workshop concepts where we get them to learn from each other and teach each other as well. Now a typical 90-minute class might end up being three exercises of 20 minutes, interspersed by two 10-minute “lecturettes,” as opposed to a 90-minute dump of concepts onto the students. So yeah, I think great changes are afoot, they’re helping us learn differently, teach differently, and yeah, it’s exciting. It keeps all of us young.