Dominant paradigms in MBA programmes

Last week, I listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme the Bottom Line where the host discusses topical business issues with some guests. I have never tuned into this programme before and the only reason I did on this occasion was because our Head of PR told me that the topic would be business schools. It was a half-hour well spent.

The three guests were an Associate Dean from Chicago Booth who looks after their Executive Programme in London, the CEO of a UK-based recycling company who is also a Harvard MBA alum, and finally someone who started a fashion business after working for several years in Marks and Spencer (a large UK retailer) and does not have an MBA. I thought the most interesting part of the discussion happened in the last five minutes after they had just discussed Harvard’s case method. The Chicago Booth Associate Dean talked about how the case method was a tough and gruelling exercise where one had to defend a view against people who knew much more about the industry and how veterans of military conflict had told him that it was one of the most harrowing experiences that they had faced. The Harvard alum gave another side of the case method where he said it taught him humility because no matter how experienced someone was, there was usually someone else in the room who had a valuable viewpoint.

But it was something that the woman in the fashion business said which stuck with me. She made the point that just as some business school graduates were not suitable for business, some very successful people of business were not suitable for business school. And that led to an unfortunately too brief discussion on whether there was a dominant paradigm in business schools and MBA programmes that crowded out other forms of leadership or leaders who did not fit that paradigm. For example, would Branson, Jobs or Zuckerberg  have been admitted into an MBA programme and would they have benefited from one? Are they, and other groups such as women, deterred from business school because of a certain paradigm of business that pervades what is taught?

I was thinking about this when @AllegreHadida, a member of faculty at CJBS, sent me a link to a blog post that @MichelleKweder , a Phd student at UMass, wrote in response to Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria’s apology for HBS’ unforgiveable behaviour and attitude towards female students and faculty. Nohria’s apology could itself be seen as a reaction to a New York Times story on the attitudes at HBS towards women students and faculty. Most of the reactions to Nohria’s speech centered around his pledge to more than double the percentage of women who are protagonists in HBS case studies to 20% from 9%.

I have been frankly disappointed at the level of debate amongst business school commentators on the implications of Nohria’s speech. One particularly galling example is this post from Poets and Quants, which is a very widely-followed website on business school issues. I am not sure what the writer was getting at with a title like “HBS dean makes unusual public apology”. To me, the writer comes across as dismissive of the deeper issues when he writes that the women in the audience let out an audible sigh at the 20% target thinking it was not ambitious enough, when “they (the women) were unaware that the dean’s objective would amount to a more than doubling of the current cases in which women are portrayed as central leaders in business problems.” I will be charitable and assume that I have misunderstood the writer’s intentions for now. (Update : After posting this article, I read a similar article by the same author which is less dismissive in tone.)

In contrast, I was very grateful for Michelle Kweder’s dissection of the Nohria initiative. Setting aside her numerical analysis of what reaching 20% of cases means, her most compelling argument was that replacing male with women protagonists doesn’t change the underlying dynamics in many business school cases. Michelle points out that most cases were formulaic featuring an MBA hero-leader swooping in to save the day by making tough decisions on which profit line to maximise. Seen in this light, and without additional details from HBS, Nohria’s initiative is no different than changing the names and gender of 20% of its existing cases.

I am not ready to go as far as Michelle in describing most cases as exhibiting strains of classical neoliberalism, American exceptionalism and White Savior Industrial Complex, but that is because I haven’t read that many cases recently to make a judgement. And neither has Michelle as she admits that her sample is quite small at 23. But I think she has a point that there is a dominant, unwritten paradigm in business schools. If all this paradigm did was deter potentially good students who have an alternative view on how business should be run, then to me that’s not such a bad thing because these students will go on to do great things without business school. But it is more dangerous if this paradigm is adopted blindly and snuffs out the instincts that some students might have that there must be better solutions that yield profit and value to stakeholders.

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3 Responses to Dominant paradigms in MBA programmes

  1. Manav says:

    Well said, Conrad. Great article! The irony is that MBA programmes advertise that they look for diversity but the sad truth, as you mentioned, is that had they don’t let many good people with a different vision of the world enter their programs maybe because MBA programs are looking for “employable” people.

    And I can’t help but think what would have happened had Mark Zuckerberg applied to business schools. Probably most business schools would have rejected him after the interview because of his gawky personality and poor communication skills that he had in his early days.

  2. Andreas says:

    Interesting points Conrad!

    So, do you think Zuckerberg, Branson and Jobs would have been admitted?

    • Conrad Chua says:

      It strikes me (and I am going out on a limb here since I don’t know any of the three you mentioned personally) that Branson and Jobs are the types who hate being in school. of any kind. Maybe Mark Z as well. bottomline is that there are some people, for whom business school is not the right decision because of how they learn, how they operate.

      At the same time, we spend most of our time at admissions meetings looking at the ones who don’t fit the mould. They might not tick all the boxes but have something special to offer.

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