Book Review: Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads

About a month ago, I heard about a new book that discussed why and how business schools should improve their educational focuses and methods. I just finished the book, and wish I had read it before, and not after, working on my business school applications. In any case, it provides good food for thought as I decide whether or not to enroll in business school this fall and, if I’m lucky enough to have options, which one to attend. For anyone who is considering business school or interested in improving it, I recommend reading this book.

Book Details
“Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads” was published in 2010 and was written by Harvard Business School professors Srikant M. Datar and David A. Garvin and research associate Patrick G. Cullen. Although it contains 380+ pages of text (which includes relevant tables and charts and forty pages of notes and an index), it’s a quick read. The writing style is clear and the book lays out its case in a compelling and easy-to-follow manner (e.g., broad to narrow inquiry).

Target Audience
While Rethinking the MBA seems targeted to (i) business school administrators and faculty seeking to make their schools and classes more relevant in today’s business environment and, to a lesser extent, (ii) corporate executives considering the merits of hiring MBA graduates, it’s also a useful resource for prospective and current business school students. As (potential) consumers of educational services, we should know the benefits and limitations of what we are buying, so we can target our school, class and/or extracurricular choices to better cover the range of knowledge, skills and perspectives we will need in our future jobs and perhaps push for improvements.

The book helps that cause by describing what business leaders need and what potential employers want (and where business schools are lacking) and providing the terminology and framework for comparing the different focuses and teaching methods of MBA programs. As a bonus, this book is also an excellent resource to help prospective students differentiate among programs and to convincingly answer those essay or interview questions asking “Why this school?”

Book Layout
Rethinking the MBA
is divided into two main parts, capped by an introduction and conclusion: (A) Part I talks about the business school industry as a whole, first by providing history and context about the industry, then by identifying eight main areas of deficiency in business education and potential curricular improvements to address those weaknesses (including challenges and costs, such as the need for more or specialized faculty), and (B) Part II examines in-depth five business schools and a leadership development organization, to illustrate how they respond to similar challenges and opportunities in diverse but exemplary ways. The conclusion reiterates the premise that business education needs to change and prescribes potential improvements.

Part I Content
The book sets up its inquiry by describing what it calls the “knowing-doing-being” concepts of business education. While business schools have traditionally been strong in teaching the “knowing” aspect of business (e.g., analytical skills, frameworks and theories, like how to read a balance sheet), potential employers have noted unmet needs in the “doing” and “being” components (e.g., being effective at creating and implementing plans under imperfect conditions or acting ethically in the face of market pressures).

The authors then identify eight areas of unmet needs in MBA programs: (1) Gaining a global perspective, (2), developing leadership skills, (3) honing integration skills, (4) recognizing organizational realities and implementing effectively, (5) acting creatively and innovatively, (6) thinking critically and communicating clearly, (7) understanding the role, responsibilities and purpose of business and (8) understanding the limits of models and markets.

Potential improvements are also categorized at various levels, from small to big, including (a) specific content (e.g., offering a leadership class), (b) teaching pedagogy (e.g., the use of cases, lectures or experiential learning opportunities), (c) curricular architecture (e.g., what proportion of courses are required and how rigid or flexible is the curriculum), and (d) institutional purpose (i.e., the mission and emphasis of the school, such as general management, globalization or integrated thinking). Examples of how various top schools have used various solutions along that spectrum to address different challenges are then described, including pros and cons.

Part II Content
In Part II, the book devotes a chapter to each of Chicago Booth, INSEAD, The Center for Creative Leadership, Harvard Business School, Yale SOM and Stanford GSB, describing their unique approaches to making their curricula more relevant for their students and for potential employers.

For prospective students of those and other schools, Part II helps to differentiate programs (such as Booth’s emphasis on curricular flexibility and a discipline-based approach compared to Yale’s focus on integrating teaching and learning across different functions). That high-level and specific bases of comparison would have been great in choosing which schools to apply to and in writing application essays about why a particular school is right for my learning needs.

Final Thoughts
In summary, Rethinking the MBA is a well-researched and well-written book about improving business education. Although most schools are still in the process of figuring out the best way to adapt, my decision to attend school is like getting an iPhone today, knowing that the next generation iPhone, with better features, will be coming out in the near future. But, if I need a smart phone (business education) today, I might not be able to afford to wait for the next generation of improved phones (particularly since I want to make a career switch now), so I have to decide whether I can accept the available offerings and, if so, choose the best one for me. This book is an excellent guide for making that decision (and for surveying the landscape of available options and potential improvements).

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