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In search of the Goldilocks mix

In search of the Goldilocks mix

Study says MBA programs deliver the bare minimum at best.

When it comes to teaching students management skills, MBA programs deliver the bare minimum at best, according to a new American study. Using survey data on more than 8600 managers, 373 business schools and 118 deans and program directors, the study finds MBA programs lack emphasis on human capital and decision-making management course requirements - part of the curriculum area known as "soft skills".

In a paper to an Academy of Management conference in Philadelphia, Robert Rubin and Erich Dierdorff, assistant professors of management at DePaul University's Kellstadt Graduate School of Business in Chicago, examined Labor Department data on thousands of managers across 52 industries who identified the skills they found most valuable in managers.

They grouped their findings into six main areas of management - human capital, logistics and technology, decision-making processes, administration and control, strategy and innovation, and task environment.

They found managing decision-making and human capital were at the top of managers' lists as the most important skills.

The researchers also looked at the core curricula at 373 B-schools and compared what the managers said was important with the required MBA course work. So, while decision-making, for instance, was at the top of the managers' list, it ranked five out of six in terms of how well-represented it was in the core curricula of the 373 B-schools.

In another divergence, based on their core curriculum offerings, business schools place the greatest emphasis on managing administration and control, an area that came in fifth out of six in terms of importance to managers, the researchers' analysis shows.

Why such a disparity?

According to survey responses from deans and directors at 118 public and private business schools, programs often cater to students' interests, and most students, unlike their managerial counterparts, dislike soft skills. This puts pressure on business schools to limit such courses. "It tells the story that perhaps the customer is not always right," says Dierdorff.

Criticism of what B-schools teach isn't new. One long-time critic, Henry Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University in Montreal, says the problem isn't necessarily that schools are teaching the wrong thing, but that schools allow too many young and inexperienced students in.

"We don't have it right because we let in the wrong people," says Mintzberg.

Schools have taken notice of the need to revise core requirements to meet the needs of employers.

Last year, Columbia Business School introduced its program on social intelligence, which emphasises team leadership skills through group simulations.

At Yale, Joel Podolny, dean of the School of Management, says a recently revised first-year curriculum solved the problem of balancing hard and soft skills - often isolated into separate courses - by blending the two through team-taught classes combining professors from different departments, such as organisational behaviour and finance.

The need to satisfy a range of constituents, including faculty, students, and the companies looking to hire them, makes curriculum development a constant challenge.

"Each of these stakeholders will have different things they want to emphasise," says Podolny.

At IBM, recruiters see a big deficiency in the area of technology training, says Vera Chota, manager of university recruiting. But Chota also says there is a need for more team-oriented training.

While critics may call Rubin and Dierdorff's study yet another look at how business schools aren't meeting the needs of employers, their findings offer some quantitative backing to the argument that MBA programs are not as valuable as they should be.

"When a school requires certain courses over others, that communicates a value," says Dierdorff. And in the case of many MBA programs, he says, "they fall well short where it matters most."

Australian Financial Review

© Fairfax Business Media

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Tags leadershipmanagementskills shortageeducationMBAtrainingcareer

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