For the first time, Harvard Business School and the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago have not increased tuition for their MBA programs. Applications to the US business schools have been dropping due to online alternatives and more specialized courses. Worse, many international applicants have been scared off by anti-foreigner sentiment in many parts of the US. Some business schools, such as the University of Illinois Gies College of Business, have gone further and shut down their on-campus MBA programs altogether.
While the MBA program remains generally popular, it has been heavily criticized. Action learning pioneer Reg Revans of Manchester University has complained that the emphasis on technical skills and theoretical frameworks in the US model of the MBA program leads to “moral bankruptcy assured” — referring to the initials of the program. Revans had tremendous foresight because decades later, many of the spectacular business scandals, such as Enron at the turn of the century and the bank collapses leading to the Global Financial Crisis, were overseen by MBAs.
Peter Navarro, Professor at the University of California-Irvine, critiqued the top MBA programs for lacking ideal features that would produce better business leaders such as: a curriculum built on a foundation of multidisciplinary and integrative problem-solving; experiential exercises aimed at real-world problem-solving and student-centered learning; emphasis on the learning of soft skills such as communication, leadership, negotiation, interpersonal adeptness, and teambuilding; a global perspective and information technology focus; and ethics and corporate social responsibility.
In my observation, most MBA programs use paper case studies to train students to analyze management problems and propose solutions. As a result, MBA graduates learn to argue their recommendations based on “facts” described in the paper case. Similarly, the final requirement of the MBA is often an analysis of a company based on publicly available information and then a set of recommended strategies. This training approach based on static cases may help develop students’ analytical and argumentation skills when dealing with paper-based information. However, without training in ethics, interpersonal skills, and real-world problem-solving, MBA graduates can be weak in introducing practical needed change in actual organizations.
At De La Salle University, we redesigned the MBA program several years ago to try to avoid the weaknesses of traditional MBA programs. We aligned the program more closely with the university’s mission to be a force for social transformation in terms of human development and social justice through its graduates.
We orient students on the ethical mandates for business social responsibility enunciated in the Constitution, business law, and Catholic social principles. We train them on a Code of Ethics for Business that specifies their moral duty to promote human dignity and the common good. The Code mainly calls on students to avoid conflicts of interest, treat others with respect and dignity, preserve the environment, offer socially positive products and services, and be transparent in reporting company performance. Most, if not all of the major business scandals of the past two decades, have resulted from violations of these tenets.
We changed the final requirement of the program from merely recommending strategic actions that may be proposed to a company to, instead, actually implementing action within their own organizations. This insider action research project, as it is called, requires the student to collaborate with people within the organization to confront a real and important organizational problem. Using scientific papers and practical knowledge from experience, the collaborators plan and implement needed changes. They then evaluate the outcomes of their change efforts and reflect on how they have personally and professionally developed from having worked on the project. Finally, the student derives an experiential theory that can help others to better understand how similar issues in other organizations may be addressed.
Our students have pursued many worthwhile insider action research projects. For example, a BPO agent worked with his team to lessen the chronic body pains they experience at work. They proposed and implemented wellness and ergonomic activities and more flexible work schedules. Their work comfort improved significantly, but they identified additional needed work.
A CFO dealt with strong criticisms of the budgeting process from budget units that had difficulties complying with submission requirements. Through empathetic face-to-face dialogues, the CFO redesigned the budgeting process to better meet the needs of the budget units while meeting the financial planning needs of the company as a whole.
An MBA degree does not guarantee successful business leadership in the workplace. But we are hopeful that business leaders grounded in social responsibility, reflection, collaboration, and scientific problem-solving can better address the dynamic challenges of the business world.
Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is the Jose L. Cuisia Professor of Business Ethics and Coordinator of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle.