Redesigning the MBA Christo Nel October 2015

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The title of the Harvard-based research into MBA programs says it all, “Rethinking the MBA – Business Education at the Crossroads” (Datar, Garvin and Cullen). Over the past two decades there has been ongoing critique of the competencies that MBA programs develop in their students. At one level it is gratifying in that so much has been written over the past 15 years on what should be expected from business education in general and MBA programmes in particular. It is also disconcerting that so much has been written because it reinforces the view that MBA programs are in need of stringent review.
Defining the problem

In 2014 Nyenrode Business Universiteit embarked upon a process of research and involving faculty to explore whether and how its full-time International MBA program should be redesigned. It was relatively easy to define the problem. A key factor is addressed by Henry Mintzberg, one of the most respected commentators on management, business and strategy. He questions why business education in general, and MBAs in particular, have opted for the academic constructs that are more readily dissociated with theoretical, research and scientific endeavours as opposed to the learning and development associated to disciplines such as medicine, architecture, various fields of engineering, and similarly positioned applied rather than theoretical studies. He concludes that management and business are less of a science and more of an art and practice. The research indicates that an increasing number of institutions are opting for the second broad definition of academic endeavour as opposed to the more theoretical and research-based studies.
The vast majority of MBA programmes are also structured into a few dozen courses, with each course representing a particular topic or subject. These courses are generally offered as loose-standing pockets of learning that are not well integrated. Business, of course, does not operate in such a fragmented manner. Yet, students are subjected to course after course; and each course is tested as a stand-alone entity through a combination of exams, individual assignments or group projects. The faculty who are accountable for the many courses seldom have a helicopter view of everything that is being delivered. This leads to two concerns namely that there is inadequate integration between the courses which reduces the ability of students to apply integrative thinking and really look at business problems from a wide diversity of perspectives; and it often leads to over-assessment. The latter contributes to the problem that students spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for exams and completing individual and group assignments.
One of the major benefits that students gain from doing an MBA is to cope with the pressure. It exposes individuals to ongoing stress which undoubtedly increases their mental and emotional resilience. As part of our own research into how to redesign the MBA we held focus groups with. One of the comments during a focus group summarises it very well: “When we are under pressure at work our colleagues who have not done and MBA will often struggle to cope with it – but the MBA has taught us that the limits of our capabilities are often much greater than what we would otherwise have thought, and so the pressure does not translate as readily into stress or panic.” But, there is also a point where the scope of the workload becomes so great that quality and depth of learning is sacrificed in favour of quantity and “shallowing” of learning.
The process of involving alumni, existing students and faculty was combined with a review of literature and comparing how top business schools have structured their own MBA programs. Discussions with the alumni, students and faculty proved to be of great value and served to reinforce conclusions that have been reached by many researchers and authors. It provided the foundation upon which we could seriously rethink how to design our full-time International MBA program.
Working towards a next era of MBA design
As is often the case once a problem has been well defined a large proportion of the solution becomes apparent. One of the more compelling challenges was to define a conceptual framework which could guide our thinking about the structure of the new MBA. We knew that we wanted to make a radical break from the course-based design and to instead design the MBA to represent the way that business works. This proved to be more challenging than initially imagined, but once we found the answer it seemed almost deceptively simple. Two frameworks guided our thinking going forward. The one emerged out of a faculty discussion. The well-known conceptual model of the large value stream of organisations gain support has a way to shape our thinking.

This framework looks at business as a series of processes or practices rather than a conglomeration of fragmented and mostly loose-standing courses. The second framework emerged as a result of discussing this particular challenge with some senior executives of medium to large companies. Again with the pleasure of hindsight the answer is both simple and obvious. After discussing it with some of his colleagues the executive director of HR and Organisation Development said that the way business works is essentially represented by the participants around the “CEO’s table.”

The exact roles will differ slightly from one sector to another, but largely the processes or practices represented by the “CEO’s table” is what a business has to be good at to deliver sustainable high performance. This is as true for small to medium enterprises as it is for global conglomerates – with the only difference being that several of the roles may be consolidated within one or two people in smaller organisations. It is also true for organisations in the NGO and non-commercial endeavours where the process of utilising inputs, adding value, and delivering services and products remain the common denominator.
Based on the insights gained from dialogue with stakeholders and literature research we now have designed and launched a MBA program that differs quite radically from its predecessor. The key design features consist of the following:
• Foundation of fundamentals of business: During the first 10 weeks participants are exposed to introductory courses that cover the fundamentals of business. This enables them to rapidly develop the most common frameworks and content required to make sense of business. The specific intent is to not try and create multi-faceted specialists but rather to develop the competencies to engage in a meaningful manner with the roles and practices represented by the frameworks of the value stream and the CEO’s table.
• Practice-based and integrated modules of learning: The few dozen courses have been replaced by six integrated practices which each represent a major facet of creating sustainable organisational performance. The first two practices are viewed as elements that cut across all others and therefore are conducted over a period of 9 of the 12 months of the program. These are:
o Personal leadership and career development;
o Information, Innovation and Digitalisation
The other four practices consist of:
o Value-stream optimisation and business excellence;
o Organisation dynamics, change leadership and talent management;
o Strategic finance;
o Strategy, markets and competitiveness.

• Critical Thinking Capabilities: The literature on many occasions criticises MBA students because they do not believe with the ready-made capability to address real-life organisational problems. In essence, the criticism is that many MBA programs do not adequately develop the critical thinking capabilities that enable individuals to effectively navigate the process of defining a well-focused problem; applying discipline thinking to analysing the problem and consolidating appropriate data; analysing the data; reaching conclusions and making implementable recommendations. Our research concludes that this is not something that can be taught theoretically, but instead is a set of integrated cognitive capabilities that can only be developed through iterative and the cumulative application. This is directly linked to the discipline of developmental assessment.
• Developmental assessment: The quantity and sometimes unproductive pressure associated with over-assessment has been replaced with assessment regimes that emphasise quality and depth of work. One of our major insights we believe is that assessment should not be an end unto itself. Instead, assessment should contribute significantly to the development of critical cognitive capabilities. Hence, participants are now involved in problem-based and work-based learning which also involves the repetitive application of the critical thinking capabilities that are demanded of any effective manager and leader.
Going forward there will undoubtedly be several challenges. In discussion with both faculty and alumni we recognise that the mission-critical factor is to ensure and sustain collaboration amongst faculty. The implementation of integrative practices requires a trade or between freedom of individual endeavours and the development of the power of community amongst faculty. However, by involving faculty in the thinking processes and giving them great liberty to co-design the practices we have witnessed very high levels of energy and commitment. It is the start of a new era for how our full-time MBA will be delivered.


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