For a while now I have been reflecting on the almost constant fixation in the popular press on the MBA’s real contribution to business, society and the world at large. The hype seems to be focused on criticisms that the MBA is too academic, fails to provide what the business world needs, fails to impart useful business skills, and fails to prepare leaders for the challenges of the postmodern world. In essence, the MBA’s relevance and practicality is questioned.
I cannot recall seeing similar criticism of any other Master’s qualifications. There is, for example, nothing on whether a Master’s in Public Administration adequately provides what government and its citizens need; whether it imparts useful public administration skills and values, or whether it prepares graduates for public leadership. Likewise, there is nothing on whether a Master’s in Education provides sufficiently for the country’s educational needs; whether it imparts useful educational skills, or whether it prepares graduates for educational leadership. A Master’s in Law can equally be questioned. Does it effectively provide what the judicial system needs; does it impart useful judicial skills, and prepare graduates for judicial leadership? The same questions could be posed about Master’s degrees in engineering, the health sciences, humanities and science. By the way, what is the contribution to society and the world at large in real terms of other Master’s qualifications?
Why the spotlight on the MBA alone? Surely the MBA is not the be-all and end-all of the world’s leadership needs? It is but one cog in a much larger, unquestionably complex educational system; an educational system which in turn is again embedded in the overarching societal system. All the cogs turn and are interlinked to give us the theme park in which we work and play every day. It is surely inconceivable to expect an MBA to address the world’s business problems and, when it does not do that, dismiss it as irrelevant and not meeting the needs of industry.
I also find it unjust to put the blame on the MBA degree when those so-called captains of industry (who have MBAs) act greedily, immorally or unethically. What about medical doctors that commit malpractice? Do we blame the medical qualification? What about the engineer that altered the mix-ratios in the concrete-mix to reduce costs and the building collapses? Do we blame the qualification? What about the legal practitioner that abused trust funds and laundered money? Do we blame the qualification? What about the public servant that has committed tender fraud? Do we blame the qualification? I think we need to acknowledge that we simply do not have control over the free will of people, and that it is unreasonable to reason that exposure to the MBA may cause people to commit illegal acts. I cannot blame my driver’s licence for my speeding or reckless driving. The MBA is not akin to the movie The Matrix where one is plugged in and knowledge, skills and behaviours are ‘downloaded’ into the conscious and sub-conscious of passive recipients.
Doing an MBA is but a season in an individual’s life journey; a season of additional growth, and although the growth trajectory in this season is steep, it still does not equate to a total makeover. Students are not ‘recreated’ and then let loose on society as clones conditioned to act greedily and maliciously. Students enter the MBA programme as adults with an already established set of skills, values, behaviours and experiences. Participation in the programme is designed to enhance and shape thinking, reasoning and acting and challenges preconditioned paradigms. Students are, in a sense, taken to the threshold of their own minds, and although properly structured, learning is mainly self-directed. In other words, to a large extent, students get from the programme what they themselves put into it. The business schools act primarily to create an environment conducive to optimal learning in which the student remains the principle player in the teaching-learning transaction.
Finally, the graduate does not stop growing after completion of the MBA programme. A new season commences in which the individual is neither static nor unreceptive to further influences, growths and developments. Having an MBA does not mean the individual has arrived or has achieved the pinnacle of human existence and nor has the institution that offers an MBA. We journey, we explore, we discover, we improve, we grow, we aspire, we reposition and realign.
Perhaps the critics are expecting too much from an MBA? It can never be expected to be the ‘magic potion’ to fix everything, or be regarded as the main cause of the mess the world is in. Although not able to quantify it in absolute terms, I argue (from an autoethnographic perspective in the South African context) that the MBA is not too academic, that it provides what the business world needs, that it imparts useful business skills, and that it prepares leaders. In other words, it is relevant and practical. Can the critics unequivocally prove it otherwise?
I don’t see how discrediting and questioning the value of the MBA helps the cause for making the world a better place. Perhaps we should aim rather at revealing the motives and politics involved in the arguing for or against the value of the MBA. This could facilitate an awareness of the qualities and shortcomings of each and enable the inception of informed debate. Though I doubt whether this debate will ever be settled, it will allow for the correction of bias and the inclusion of minorities within the debate.