Chris Puto

Appraising the reappraisal of the MBA

In today's Star Tribune Business Forum Dean Christopher Puto responded to columnist Ron Bosrock's recent questioning of the value of the MBA.

In April, Business Forum columnist Ron Bosrock questioned the value of the MBA, citing a recent publication by several Harvard Business School professors critical of the degree and suggesting that business schools contributed to the recent financial meltdown.

While many factors -- short-sightedness, lack of oversight, malfeasance or just plain greed -- likely contributed to the current state of our economy, I would agree that a strictly traditional MBA education does not preclude those aberrant behaviors. I further agree that it is correct to question the value of the MBA. On the other hand, I also feel strongly that questioning without answering is a serious oversight. An MBA is no small investment in one's future, and prospective students and their employers should know well the value of such an investment.

First, it's important to distinguish between an MBA degree and an MBA education. The Harvard report points out that a minority percentage of top-performing CEOs hold MBAs. Indeed, possessing the degree does not assure one of the accompanying knowledge, skills and values that represent the outcome of a good MBA education. Business leaders have been successful long before the MBA degree, or for that matter, management schools, became prevalent. They honed their skills and abilities over years of formative experiences that eventually led them to their lofty positions. One might argue the same for military leaders of past centuries before the service academies came into being.

Learning faster

What business schools and, in particular, MBA education programs do is accelerate the pace and structure of the learning process so that these leaders are more quickly prepared to assume and execute their greater responsibilities. A rigorous MBA program, then, serves as a catalyst, teaching in about two years what these top CEOs learned in their first faltering decade of business.

An exceptional MBA education will prepare a business leader to face challenges, make difficult choices and manage effectively. An MBA program that nurtures a student's entrepreneurial spirit will help a new manager embrace diversity and change. And an MBA program that stays a step ahead of global change will prepare a budding CEO to analyze and assess the global marketplace as a matter of course.

These attributes are not part of a new wish list. They're tried-and-true components of good MBA programs around the world. There is a strong legacy of this from the very beginning of graduate business education. What has happened, though, is that the more prominent MBA programs may have "taken their eye off the ball" and moved too far on the technical dimension without a corresponding level of innovation on creating a compelling organizational vision of the kind that motivates employees to rally behind the mission.

Leading business schools are now awakening to this new reality, albeit as market followers, not leaders. Just as prominent organizations in any field avoid innovation and cling to the status quo, some programs have too much at stake to risk pioneering ventures. Innovation typically originates from the organizations standing to gain the most from positive change -- those who aspire to replace the industry leaders.

Mid-tier innovators

This suggests that the innovations in MBA education may not be emanating from the top business schools, but rather from those that aspire to replace them at the top and are delivering better educational value.

In short, what is being touted as "new" and "innovative" in the recent publications on changes at "leading" business schools may not be all that new for those business schools in the so-called "middle tiers."

This places a greater burden on prospective students and prospective employers of MBA graduates to carefully examine the offerings and identify those programs that best deliver on the value proposed by a well-rounded MBA education.

Yes, the very narrow, discipline-focused MBA may be passé. But the MBA that engages its students in the foundations of proper business concepts, that encourages its students to expand their horizons to understand the importance of true leadership, and that prepares its graduates to be positive contributors at every level of the organization is more valuable now than ever before.

Today's business leaders must process and integrate vast amounts of information in compressed time intervals, then frame strategic options and implement decisions that affect the lives and well-being of countless employees, customers, suppliers, and constituents. The right program will prepare them for these challenges, and informed MBA prospects will identify and choose the programs that fulfills this promise.

In other words, graduate business education will never replace hands-on experience. Yet it's disingenuous to suggest an intensive, graduate-level business education is not valuable. Truth be told, the effects of combining one's experience with proper education is invaluable.