Sunday, October 16, 2011

The MBA: Remaining Relevant in 2011

It's nothing new that top graduate business schools across the country stretch themselves to keep up with the times, remain relevant, and enhance the quality of a student's two-year stint in school. Over the past two decades, they have responded to financial crises, evolving corporate needs, questions of ethics, and a global economy. They've even responded to the cries of students who want lavish facilities and daily comfort on campus to justify steep tuition costs.

Once there was a time when a student could leave b-school and sidestep courses related to Asia or Europe business, emerging markets, regulation, ethics and technology. Students today can't avoid these topics and typically don't want to.

Insider-trading scandals from the 1980s and 1990s and accounting and financial fraud at Enron and other companies spurred schools to address ethics in business.  The Internet explosion of the 1990s and 2000s encouraged schools to examine technology and online business models. The financial crisis of 2008-09 has encouraged schools to cover topics in regulation, derivatives, financial reform and "asset bubbles." Emerging economies from India to China and Brazil meant schools needed to become international in scope, experience and research.

Business schools today are more accommodating to students with multiple interests or more more specialized interests.  For a long time, top schools have encouraged or permitted students to pursue joint MBA and JD degrees. Others today pursue joint degrees in business and any one of the following: public policy, public administration, international studies, and communications.

Similarly, they have encouraged (and required) students to focus or concentrate on a specific area of interest:  real estate, energy, industrial management, operations, entrepreneurship, non-profit sector or finance.  Students don't just take core courses and a broad array of general business topics in pursuit of a "generalist" MBA degree. They can pursue in more depth what they are interested in or what they think is relevant and important.

If students are interested in the MBA and green technology, the MBA and developing economies, or the MBA and the music industry, b-schools today at least try to find a way to accommodate them.

In its annual assessment of MBA education, the Economist reports  ( that some schools are exploring all kinds of ideas of MBA concentration, not just the familiar sectors of  marketing and finance. Some schools are responding to business trends or corporate needs. Others are responding to students' interests and a sluggish economy. Many are willing to be creative, as long as they can maintain high quality and attract exceptional students.

The Economist suggests how it makes sense for a school like Washington University with respected schools of business and medicine to offer a special program in, say, "medical-sector management," comprising students and faculty from both schools and with specific disciplines in health-care management and related issues.

Long-time Consortium supporter Joe Fox tells the magazine that ideas such as that are welcome, but are not easy to implement.  Fox, the director of Washington-Olin's MBA program and a Consortium board member for many years, agrees a joint medical-business-school program is attractive and relevant. He contends, however, that while such joint efforts make sense on paper or in concept, they are difficult approve and implement, because they involve cooperation from many--faculty, deans and others. (Washington University's Olin is one of the original Consortium schools.)

Students, too, must decide whether the special programs (including joint degrees or special concentrations) will require more time and, as a result, more expenses.  Will the special program or the joint degree mean three or four years in school (instead of two)? Will there be a sufficient return on this investment, especially in current uncertain times, even if the student has the passion, time and energy to pursue a special program?

Most students, of course, will ask (and are asking) whether there will be meaningful opportunities after they have completed a course of study--any course of study, whether it's a traditional MBA, joint degrees or a MBA with a unique concentration. Will there be opportunities to do what they want to do within the realm of their interests and studies?

MBA corporate recruiters typically don't require joint degrees or special concentrations. But candidates who have pursued unique degree programs can stand out from the large pool of students. They show expertise in a specific area, perhaps ingenuity and a way to contribute right away in an entry-level job. The finance MBA graduate with specialty in, say, "medical-sector management" would be attractive to the health-care finance unit of an investment bank or consulting firm, if not to those who manage hospitals and medical centers.

Business schools keep adapting, as if that's the way it will always be. And the way it should be.

Tracy Williams

No comments:

Post a Comment