ISSN 2330-717X

Is An MBA Still What It Is Made Out To Be? – OpEd

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An Asian perspective 

Forbes Magazine just before the beginning of the pandemic declared that MBAs within the US are in crisis, while advertorials are claiming the demand for MBAs is rapidly increasing. This makes it worth looking at MBAs within the region. 

Forty years ago, a master of business administration (MBA) was the post-graduate qualification for the elite within the corporate world. What gave the MBA even more prestige was that only a few top universities at the time offered the degree. Early graduates became the top of the corporate world within Fortune 500 companies. 

A lot has changed since the 1980s, where now so many universities are offering MBAs and derived hybrid post graduate degrees. 

An MBA is a post graduate degree, usually undertaken by students with a bachelor degree and work experience. Most MBAs tend to be survey courses across the business management discipline, and other related areas. Many business schools offer MBAs with specializations in economics, finance, banking, manufacturing, marketing, innovation, technology, and human resources, and the like. Some of the better MBAs deliver their material in creative and innovative manners to differentiate their courses from others. 

MBAs have also broken off into hybrid courses. Executive MBAs claim to focus upon the specific needs of corporate executives. Mini MBAs are designed for people who don’t have the time to complete a full MBA. Some places call these courses graduate diplomas. Some universities offer a Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA), which has the content of an MBAs with a thesis. This carries the title “Dr” after graduation, and may give graduates the option of stepping into academia.  

It can be argued there are three levels of MBA programs today. 

The top universities offer MBAs taught by top academics and pracademics in their respective fields. For example, the legendary Igor Ansoff taught MBA at UCLA San Diego for decades. Candidates need to score a credit (65%) just to pass each subject. Students undertaking these courses usually develop lifelong networks of peers in the top echelons of the corporate world, and the qualification is considered highly prestigious. 

Within the second tier, there is a proliferation of new private and public universities, MBAs were considered cash-cows until recently. Some programs would emulate the top universities while others would be more cut and paste curriculums. Some of the more mediocre would just be glorified Bachelor of Business Administrations (BBAs). 

The third tier has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, where a host of online MBAs are on offer from around the world. These courses are offered by high-ranking universities, down to institutions referred to as diploma mills. Most often, the course content is put online, with teacher contact at a minimum. There are also hybrid formats where some of the course maybe, through option, on campus. 

What an MBA isn’t?

There is no guarantee an MBA will nurture better managers. An MBA will provide a student with knowledge, and some of the better MBAs will show how to use this knowledge in specific situations. However, MBAs don’t necessary bring out critical thinking and creativity in students. These are inherent talents that must be nurtured into skills, which is not easy to do. 

What an MBA will do is provide a source of numerous management schema to utilize in problem solving. The use of case studies and experiential learning should enhance these skills in students, and provide a guide on how to use the schema learnt during the course. Good course delivery modes should achieve this.

MBAs teach students to be managers, not entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship and management are two totally different disciplines, although, after a period of entrepreneurship, during the start-up and growth phase of a firm, most entrepreneurs will become managers. Most MBAs miss out on covering the start-up phase of an enterprise that would be beneficial to potential entrepreneurs. 

Entrepreneurship can’t be taught, but it can be learnt experientially. Business schools themselves tend to be institutional, rather than entrepreneurial environments. Some business schools have tried to tackle these shortfalls by offering MBAs specialising in entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology commercialisation. 

What an MBA will do is provide management knowledge to technical degree graduates who are interested in disciplinary and general management. An MBA provides those with work experience a time to reflect and enhance their experience with formal knowledge acquisition. 

The situation of MBAs today

With the massive growth of the international student market over the last decades, the quality of numerous courses at universities has dramatically declined. Before the advent of the internet, students were expected to seek out information in university libraries, with emphasis on alternative ideas to current theories. Students in tutorials were taught to argue opposing views. Today, particularly within South-East Asia, business schools are immersed within the textbook culture. Whole units within courses are often based upon single textbooks that covered large bodies of knowledge within a discipline very scantly. Teaching in the region has become guiding a class through the chapters of a textbook.

Faculties under pressure to cut costs have sacrificed the calibre of academic staff they employ. Research is an afterthought, and consulting within industry is extremely low. A dean of a top ranked business school once told the writer “if you can read a textbook, you can teach it.’ 

Today, the cohorts of MBA courses in the region have dramatically changed with the quest of business schools to put ‘bums on chairs.’ No longer are MBAs reserved for the most promising corporate executives, giving these degrees ‘snob value’, who wanted to ‘turbo-charge’ their careers. Business school recruiters are strongly encouraging under-degree graduates to enrol in MBAs, as a career strategy to defer active seeking of work, due to the current high graduate unemployment rates. This is an appealing argument to those who can afford to, but does little to improve their employability statue when the MBA is completed. 

Over glorification

Many business schools have taken advantage of their ‘intellectual authority’ to portray the MBA as a ‘silver bullet’ for a person’s career. Business school websites are full of positive testimonials aimed at attaching fantasy to the MBA. There are also online magazines that cover MBA education full of positive advertorials. 

This has brought the mythology of the MBA down to the mass student cohort throughout Asia. 

However, the reality today couldn’t be further from the truth, particularly within second and third level universities. MBAs have become low-cost commodities. Rates discounted to attract marginal applicants, with something that is just an extended BBA.

Employers are becoming astute with these types of MBAs, seeing many graduates unable to solve simple problems and communicate expressively. Students find that have made poor cost/benefit decisions and unable to demand the salaries they were made to believe they could pull. Online MBAs just don’t carry traction with employers, as they don’t guarantee skill levels and articulation of job applicants. These characteristics are much stronger in job applicants who have undertaken higher education in Australia, the US or UK. 

Unfortunately, many graduates find out the hard way.

With the proliferation of online MBAs today, its highly likely that MBA programs of many public and private universities within South-East Asia to continue their decline, with some ceasing to exist. This is being accelerated by the loss in international students over the last two years. 

Good MBAs need so much more than just espousing what is written in textbooks to students. They need to create a collegiate environment where students can interact with each other and become highly motivated as a group. Group work has a learning environment that online work just can’t provide. Academics with deep industry experience that can be related to live classes puts the practicality to theories. 

How to get the most out of an MBA

Its extremely important to undertake an MBA for the correct reasons. Having the correct expectations is also important. Commencing any MBA straight out of undergraduate school without any intermediate work experience, will negate many benefits from two years of hard study. However, after a technical degree, an MBA may widen the scope of potential job opportunities.

Most students undertake an MBA to enhance job prospects, career advancement, or pay increases. However, the completion of an MBA won’t open these doors unless you have a well thought out strategy behind you. 

If you are going to forgo a salary for two years, then choose a good MBA that is innovative, and well known within the corporate world – brand value. Any employer seeing an MBA from a well known institution will be curious with these applicants out of a batch of a thousand applications. Selecting a course where other students are in their late 20s and 30s will ensure good intellectual challenges in class and networking. 

Before looking at an MBA, look for alternatives. If you are in the civil service, a Master of Public Administration (MPA) may be more beneficial. There are now many one year full-time or two-year part-time graduate diplomas in specialised areas available at some universities. There is not one winning career strategy. If already employed, seek the advice of superiors which may lead to promotions upon completion. 

Undertaking an MBA after some years of work experience will help you understand the coursework much easier, with practical experience behind you. Experience and study may lead to new insights and mastery over some subject areas. People from a work environment also tend to be more disciplined to study. 

Undertaking an MBA without any work experience could be a potential career disaster. Likewise, an MBA graduate stuck in middle management may bring suspicion that something is wrong with you. Graduate diplomas, are shorter, cheaper, and still provide disciplinary specific networks. If you are into lifelong education, graduate diplomas are the way.

Those looking for career jumps beware. There are a lot of talented people competing for a small number of prize positions. Have contingencies. If you want to work in another country at the corporate level, try and study in that country. 

Have a good job before you undertake an MBA. It adds class to you resume. The snob value of an MBA is still driving demand at the top of the MBA market, at least within the Asian region. Branding is still the number one criteria. Study the university, the school, the course, the types of students attracted to the course, and extrapolate how you can use your MBA to springboard you to where you want to go. 

Just remember, an MBA as a career springboard depends more on you than your MBA. This is what business schools won’t tell you.

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

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Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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