by Jeanette Purcell
Chief Executive, Association of MBAs

The economic downturn has fueled much debate about where the blame lies for the financial crisis we’re in.   Some critics have pointed the finger at business schools which, it is argued, have been teaching the wrong things to MBA students and neglecting topics such as risk management, corporate governance and business ethics. As a result, there are growing calls for business schools to change their approach, and to teach new ways of doing business.

School of BusinessThese criticisms overlook the significant changes in business schools that have taken place over the past decade.  Much has already been done to adapt the MBA to the changing demands of modern business.  However, the economic crisis certainly highlights the need for further change and more consideration is being given to calls for a broader, skills-focused and integrated curriculum, with more extensive coverage of ethics, corporate sustainability and responsible management.

Changing times

To assess the requirements of the changing MBA, the Association of MBAs conducted a joint research project with Durham Business School, surveying 100 accredited business schools and 544 alumni from 57 countries to consider the value of the MBA – and how this qualification might change in the future. These findings will heavily inform the review of the Association’s accreditation criteria for quality MBA programmes in 2010.

Jeanette Purcell

Jeanette Purcell

One of the most striking findings was a move away from the shareholder value-dominated perspective of business. The overwhelming majority of respondents agreed with statements such as “corporate social responsibility (CSR) should underpin the actions of organizations,” and “the MBA should adopt a stakeholder focus concerning all those affected by the actions of an organization, rather than just a shareholder focus.”

Business schools seem even more convinced that a new approach is necessary. Eight in ten agreed to a large or very large extent that MBAs should adopt a stakeholder focus rather than a shareholder one, while a similar proportion agreed that business activity should be underpinned by CSR.

Another key area where further change is called is in the arena of risk. Alumni believe that, although risk management and related issues were covered on their MBA programmes, there is a need to increase this focus in view of recent events and the current climate.   Likewise, business schools acknowledge that both risk management and strategic risk need to be covered in greater depth in MBA programmes in the future.

Be prepared

When business schools were asked how the MBA could be changed to better prepare students post-downturn an how the qualification could maintain its relevance to the changing economic climate, the topic thought to be among the most important was sustainability. This finding reflects the growing concern across society that sustainability is one of the most pressing issues on the global agenda.

When the responses of both alumni and business schools are combined, it is interesting to note that there is a shared consensus on the topics both sides believe are important in today’s business climate. These include business policy and strategy, leadership, and entrepreneurship and change management, as well as external risk factors, business ethics and, finally, creativity and innovation.

The findings also highlight an appetite among alumni for a greater focus on the practical application of learning versus theory. A key question will be the way in which schools can develop the appropriate teaching methods to ensure that the delivery of this broader MBA will translate into long-term learning. Interestingly, the fact that business schools believe that they are putting far greater emphasis on these issues than their alumni believe to be the case, highlights a disconnect between both sides.  While this may only be an issue of perception, it is clearly one that needs to be addressed.

The clear message is that business schools are taking the lead in defining the MBA’s future agenda, with a dominant view that the degree should adopt a stakeholder focus over a shareholder one. The development of more rounded individuals with strong leadership skills, and the ability to integrate ethical, sustainable and stakeholder thinking into their management decisions, represents a clear steer for the Association of MBAs and Business Schools as they design the MBA of tomorrow.

Jeanette Purcell is Chief Executive of the Association of MBAs