7 things that could define the core of an ‘alternative’ MBA

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Both during, and since my MBA there is a topic that has been eating away at me – was there anything missing, or could the experience have been improved by the inclusion of other study topics? Don’t get me wrong, I thought my MBA was excellent, but I’m always looking to see how things might be further improved.

Most MBAs deliver a mixture of core material (finance, economics, accounting, strategy, etc.) and electives (optional topics that are either more niche or are perhaps addressed in greater detail, often relating to a topic that the school is known for being strong at). The elective topics nevertheless tend to revolve around academic content/theory, with case studies to provide a bridge to reality.

Could other topics, which are perhaps not considered as classical MBA topics, be useful additions to an MBA?

Set out below are seven ‘alternative’ classes/topics that I think could potentially be included in an MBA:

  1. Ethics and corporate governance.  By this I mean ‘Ethics’ as a class, on a par with other classes, not a nod to recent economic developments. In future, as we come out of the economic downturn, long-term management success will hopefully be defined by stable, ethical management, and not by targeting short-term growth. It is likely that management strategies will remain broadly the same as before, but with greater awareness of the long-term implications of strategic options, regulatory risks, and a slightly more cautious approach. An ‘ethics’ class built on insightful case studies might help promote such a management culture, and ensure that future management leaders understand what led to the current economic downturn.
  2. Network management.  Most MBA programs highlight the value of networking opportunities that arise from attending the program (the chance to interact with classmates, alumni, etc.) but few actually provide insights in how best to develop and maintain an effective network.  Obvious? Perhaps, but if some do it better than others (which is surely the case), why not identify how and share that – building a network is one of the most important things a ‘manager’ can do so any available help would be welcome.
  3. New technologies. Insights on how best to use available tools and potential risks (social media tools, enterprise resource planning systems, online identify theft and fraud, etc.) to implement business strategy.  These define the front line of management development, and yet it seems that most MBAs are relatively silent on the matter. Facebook grew out of a college environment, but the college environment seems reluctant to grow out of Facebook.
  4. Information management. As I have mentioned in other blog posts, the ability to manage information and find ‘the gold nugget from within the sand’ will likely define winners and losers in future – the importance of this is highlighted by the vast sums spent by companies on ERP systems, and the success of companies like Google, SAP and RIM. In this case, shouldn’t MBA students be learning about companies best practice strategies to manage and capitalize from information, and avoid their employees disappearing under a mountain of information?
  5. Sustainable economics. MBAs typically cover economics in some depth, however tend to focus on classical themes or current hot topics (trade imbalances, currency developments, etc.).  Few seem to go beyond this and truly examine the full cost implications (including a discussion of ‘externalities’) of the way we manage the economy and implications for the environment (eg, considering the hidden ecological cost of disposing of goods at the end of their lifecycle, properly returning natural resource sites to their original look and feel, developing alternative solutions when natural resources expire, etc.). In future, regulation and fiscal policy may force companies to bear a burden in their investment decisions, to reflect this ‘full ecological cost’ – only if these costs are known and understood by management can companies hope to manage their future investment decisions successfully.
  6. Diversity & Inclusiveness.  This is a phrase that is employed at my workplace, underlying our values.  It not only defines our moral compass, but it is also a key strategy in the ‘war for talent‘, a phrase defined by McKinsey Co. during the recent (better) economic times, to summarize the how talent is both the key to success and a corporate resource in short supply. Google “diversity and inclusiveness” (or “diversity and inclusion”) and you will find that many companies are already employing this strategy.
  7. Fitness. I’m not talking about lean, efficient businesses, but lean management team members. For many people ‘business’ means being desk-bound, working in stressful jobs, and long hours – such conditions are not conducive to innovative, creative thinking. At worst, unfit employees can result in lost time/opportunities (eg, tiredness, or even heart attacks). It is incredible how, after a period without fitness activities, a return to physical exercise can ‘free up’ the brain and increase motivation. Possible topics include identifying suitable fitness regimes, an appropriate balance of ‘work, rest and play’, how to manage a team such that being physically and mentally fit are high on team members’ priority lists, and research/case studies of teams that manage this well. Such topics are key to management success and yet don’t typically appear in MBA program curriculums.

MBA students are often aware of many of these theories, applying many of them already, but often in an uncoordinated, inefficient manner, and not capitalizing on best practice examples of how to excel.

Since I completed my MBA business schools are beginning to offer some of the above topics, either through individual coaching, lecture series, etc. (see Goethe Business School EMBA here, as an example). I also don’t think that MBAs necessarily need to ‘offer’ all of the above in the classroom – it might sufficient to plant a ‘seed’ in students’ minds (with suggestions for further reading).

Alternatively, it might be possible to capture these themes in a new class, ‘New management techniques’ – that would allow the components to be updated each year, for whatever the new management trends and hot topics are.

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2 Responses

  1. I definitely agree that MBA programs should start to focus on some of the ‘softer’ skills that students/managers need to keep their careers moving forward.

    One of the great things from the first CCMBA residency was the focus on #2, career/network management. Both in the managerial effectiveness class, and the Career Management class, there was thorough discussion on how to use the Duke brand to build your network, whether through alumni directly or generally by companies that have a high % of Duke alumni.

    One thing I think you could add to your list is managing work/life balance among the employees, especially as it relates to newer technologies. I’m thinking of telecommuting (better home life, environmental benefits), or on a more serious note, minimizing a local Swine Flu outbreak. The “9 to 5” mentality is no longer working IMO, and flexibility and use of new technologies to define the workday would be a great opportunity for an elective class.

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