The MBA Reconsidered

Three business schools make radical departures from traditional MBA formats.
The MBA Reconsidered

The French have a concept called “savoir se relier.” In English, the phrase means “to know how to connect,” explains Valérie Gauthier, associate dean of the MBA program at HEC Paris. It’s a concept that emphasizes the complex connections between people and cultures, between skill sets, and across disciplines, says Gauthier. And at HEC Paris, it forms a principal component of the school’s newly redesigned MBA curriculum that it implemented last September. HEC Paris is among a growing number of business schools that are abandoning traditional approaches to the MBA, adopting instead new models that emphasize disciplinary integration, student self-assessment, and experiential learning.

BizEd spoke to three administrators who are spearheading radical redesigns of their MBA programs: Gauthier of HEC Paris; Joel Podolny, dean of the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut; and Garth Saloner, professor of economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California and leader of its curricular reform task force. In the process of adopting new frameworks for their MBA programs, each of these schools has adopted a different set of core courses and has followed different educational philosophies. But they share very similar objectives: to graduate students who are stronger leaders, better communicators, more nimble problem solvers, and more effective “connectors” who understand the rapidly moving parts of business.

‘Reacting Is Not Enough’

As these institutions implement their new MBA programs, one of their most important objectives may be the most difficult to achieve—to develop an anticipatory, rather than reactionary, approach to developing the business curriculum. When corporate scandals made ethics imperative, business schools added ethics courses to their curricula; when leaders began discussing corporate social responsibility, CSR courses proliferated.

In this way, business schools have merely reacted to these changes in the business climate, notes Gauthier. If business schools want to design the best curricula to serve business, “reacting is not enough,” she says. “As educators, we need to anticipate as much as possible. We need to stay ahead and address what the world needs in terms of human resources and capacities and develop those capacities early on. We need to examine the critical political, social, and economic factors the world faces. We must consider today what the world will need from us tomorrow.”

Architects of the latest MBA redesigns hope that their programs will be inherently flexible. Their new curricula are designed to anticipate the solutions business needs and change to provide these solutions as quickly as possible. “This is a discrete shift for us,” says Saloner of Stanford. “We will learn to adapt and change.”

Podolny hopes that Yale’s new program will be so adaptable that it won’t require another complete overhaul for some time. “Now that we’ve got the structure in place, we will continue to tweak and refine it,” says Podolny. “From the enthusiasm of our faculty and students, we do know that we’re going in the right direction.”

“The more students learn to adopt and understand different viewpoints and ways of looking at things, the better they’ll be able to put today’s business issues into perspective." —Valérie Gauthier of HEC Paris

New Market Reality

Decades ago, the traditional MBA served its purpose, says Podolny. Back then, a typical management career stayed within the confines of a single function, usually within a single organization. “Managers would spend their entire careers in finance, accounting, or marketing. When careers were balkanized by function, the traditional MBA curriculum had a nice affinity with the way business worked.”

That neat arrangement no longer holds true for 21st-century business practices, he says. Market realities such as globalization, technology, and multicultural diversity have produced complex business environments that are much less straightforward. Today’s business challenges work across disciplines and departments, says Podolny, and they require more flexible, holistic approaches.

Interdisciplinary approaches to business education aren’t new. Many business schools have created new integrated modules and capstone courses, which are designed to help students apply what they have learned in individual courses into a broader view of business.

But for institutions implementing the latest round of curricular reform, individual seminars or capstone courses simply don’t go far enough to integrate material for students. It’s often a matter of too little, too late, says Podolny. “It’s like teaching people Spanish for nine months and then, in the last two months, teaching them French,” he says. “Once students have already been taught in disciplinary silos, they don’t get much from then taking an integration course.”

That mindset has inspired many of the new MBA reforms, which focus on integrating the entire program, rather than individual courses. “If you begin and continue with an integrated approach, students begin to track points of connections across all the courses,” says Podolny. That ability to see the “bigger picture,” he adds, becomes a central component to how they learn and think about business.

Time for Change

These educators note that a number of volatile forces in the marketplace have pushed business schools toward curricular reform. “We’ve heard about the criticisms of the MBA, the corporate scandals, and the drop in MBA applicants,” says Gauthier. Business schools, she adds, have also been revising their programs in response to corporate leaders who have doubted the skills of MBA graduates, demanding that schools pay more attention to developing leadership and communication skills.

Even so, business schools have become a bit too settled in their ways, even as business itself continues to evolve and change, says Gauthier. “The MBA market was flourishing for such a long time that many business schools did not pay much attention to it,” she says. “This shake-up has been very good, because now people have started talking about how we can improve the curriculum.”

“Once we break out of our disciplinary silos, it’s exciting to see how much higher our students’ leadership aspirations become.”—Joel Podolny, Yale School of Management

Saloner notes that, in many cases, business schools have been the victims of their own success. “As business schools become successful, they often adopt very similar paradigms across schools. That’s a natural evolution and maturation of the MBA. Once a school gets to where it wants to be, momentum can take over,” says Saloner. “But now, people are really stepping back and asking, ‘Are we doing all we can?’”

Gauthier, Podolny, and Saloner agree that the time is certainly ripe for a change in business education. At the heart of the curricular reforms at their schools is the idea that business graduates will need more than “know-how” to succeed in the global business environment—they’ll also need “know-what,” “know-where,” “know-who,” and “know-why.” To help them build that foundation of knowledge, these educators argue, business schools will need to adopt different mindsets about their curricula—and design radically new approaches to the MBA.