What MBA Schools Must Deliver

What MBA Schools Must Deliver

Do not narrowcast an MBA into a polytechnic; focus on problem-solving skills and augment with specialised programmes.

Today's world of business frequently throws never-before problems at people at all levels. That is why we call it VUCA and obsess with disruption. But there seems to be a demand from HR managers for MBA schools to turn out people with narrow skill-based specifications.

If MBA schools pay attention to their customers and not to their dharma (which is to develop competent men and women who can diagnose and solve business problems, design and deliver business aspirations, and build sustainable, valuable companies), they will be creating generations of business managers and future leaders who cannot survive and thrive in this new environment.

The ability to diagnose and solve problems, to learn and apply the learning is what MBA schools must teach. Ravi Matthai, the first director of IIM-A, is known to have said, "We teach you how to learn so that you can learn for the rest of your life." Skills required for any job will change rapidly. So, being a lifelong learner and knowing how to apply the learning across apparently unrelated contexts is the key. Managers need to know where and why to use and how to adapt the skills they have. But to do so, they have to be conceptually grounded.

Learning digital marketing does not make any sense. What does is learning how to market to consumers who inhabit the digital (and the physical) world. Has the concept of branding changed because the world has gone digital or is it merely the way brand building is occurring that is different between the two worlds? What happens when consumers inhabit and transact in multiple worlds? Is it an opportunity rather than a problem? What is the concept of brand loyalty or competition in the digital consumer world? Will they apply to the physical world? To build a consumer behaviour model for, say, automobiles or banks in the digital consumer context, one must understand the concept of such a model (not the template but the framework on which such models are built). These are the issues that MBAs have to be capable of thinking through and executing. Managers must learn to integrate across silos. Garvin and Datar of Harvard Business School, in their work on the new MBA, emphasise general management education and advocate a focus on problem-solving that combines disciplines.

Every MBA school must consciously do a context refresh and push technology-centric thinking as an enabler of business problem-solving. Yes, many of the old teachings must be discarded now - managing a factory of robots is different from managing a factory of semi-skilled people; market research in a data-capture world is different from the stone age way of asking consumers questions on what they did. And what is big about Big Data is the seamless 360-degree capture from multiple sources. But one must know how to use it well for decision-making/problem-solving/designing new solutions.

HR managers still have recruitment issues - how to get people who can work specific aspects of technology and bring it to day-to-day business? The solution does not come from narrowcasting the MBA as a polytechnic churning out the shortage skills of the day. It will come from thinking innovatively about organisation design, team compositions, open-source working and encouraging the new IIMs to not blindly ape their oldest siblings but to offer genuine MBA learning to people with specialist skills - 'manufacturing MBA' with deep roots in new technologies or 'analytics MBA' for use across sectors. It has begun to take root in other countries.

Rama Bijapurkar is an independent Management Consultant and Visiting Faculty at IIM-Ahmedabad