Operation rethink

The present economic situation is going to have some kind of effect on the MBA; that much is for certain.

But whether it is short or long term, state ownership of financial institutions in Europe and the United States and a decline in employment opportunities in financial services, are bound to affect the ethos of MBA programmes.

Although it might not yet be clear what will happen, business schools are already thinking through the implications.

More ethical?
The emphasis on corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been growing in recent years, both inside organisations and on business school curricula.

But the big question is whether the current concern with being greener and more ethical can survive the bottom-line pressures of a downturn.

‘I think there is actually going to be a lot more talk around ethics, good business practices and CSR,” says Professor Katherine Slaughter, associate dean at the Richard Ivey School of Business in Canada. “It’s not just about the bottom line now; the more the economy has a negative effect on people’s lives, the more attention is paid to the effects of corporate decision-making.”

David Simpson, associate director of marketing and admissions for the full-time MBA programme at the London Business School, agrees: ‘I don’t see interest in CSR falling as times get tough. Partly it’s because society is changing and the millennial generation has a different view on the responsibilities people should accept.

But it is also because sustainability offers a direction that many businesses and industries can take during the downturn. These are still buzz areas and they represent exciting opportunities for people.” Far from being disposable, it seems likely that the environmental arm of CSR is only going to become stronger.

Leading economists such as Geoffrey Sachs are among those suggesting that the green agenda could in fact provide the pathway out of the recession—particularly if the new US administration breaks with the laissez-faire attitude of its predecessor and creates a visionary energy policy for industry and business to follow.

More managerial?
There is also an argument that the deeper the downturn, the more important managerial skills become.

In an upturn, achieving growth is easy; it is the ill wind of recession that sorts the wheat from the chaff. Oliver Westall is MBA director at the United Kingdom’s Lancaster University Management School, a leading business school that places emphasis on practical management skills.

‘There will be more demand for good managers in the downturn than in the boom,” he says. ‘Over the past decade, people have been sucked along in the slipstream of growth and have called it success.

The crunch is going to call for real management skills: sustained responsibility for building and maintaining organisations and leading change. This can only be provided by those who are prepared to engage with the real issues of high-performance management. This means critical reflection on personal change and development, not just on the smart suits, cleverness and technical tricks.

‘I think there has already been a shift towards a more managerial emphasis on the MBA,” adds Slaughter. ‘There was a time when people went to MBA schools to become specialists in finance,
but I think the reality is that most organisations aren’t looking for specialists.

You can hire skills, but you can’t hire leadership. ‘People today need better leadership skills. They need a better understanding of how the parts of the organisation fit together”.

‘What I think you will see are more integrated programmes leading towards general management, while schools might also spend more time teaching people how to influence and persuade people, rather than utilising the command and control style.”

More bureaucratic?
Another possible element in the makeup of post-credit-crunch MBAs is that the orientation towards risk-taking and the entrepreneurial might shift subtly towards a concern with conforming to governmental and international regulations.

‘I think there will be more regulation, maybe even as an overreaction,” says Gerry Kime, associate dean for the WP Carey MBA at Arizona State University.

‘Government often overreacts to issues such as this so we may have more regulation than is optimal. I think there will be a bit less risk-taking by all players.

But the objective of trying to create value through the management of private sector resources, I don’t see that fundamentally changing.” ‘One of the things we have observed recently is students displaying a heightened awareness of law and the interaction of law and business,” says Professor Chris Adam, postgraduate programmes director at the Australian Graduate School of Management in the University of New South Wales.

‘But although I can see that there might be more awareness of the role that government and regulation play, I am disinclined to think that the entrepreneurial spirit will be extinguished by bureaucracy.”

More Asian?
If one of the consequences of this downturn is a shift in economic influence towards Asia, then it may be that the characteristic closeness of Asian government and businesses could change the mood music of the MBA globally, especially as Asia asserts its place in whatever new financial world order is being worked out.

‘The emerging economies are clearly at the table in a way they wouldn’t have been 10 or 15 years ago,” says Professor Steve DeKrey, senior associate dean of the Hong Kong University Science and Technology Business School.

‘But are they in the driving seat? Well they have a lot of influence, and money talks.”

‘Government plays a much more prominent role in countries in Asia, even in countries such as Japan, which has been a real powerhouse for past three or four decades,” adds Adam.

‘In Asia the level of regulation and indeed connection between business and government is far higher than it has been in Western Europe and the US.

This may mean that this situation is one of those times when businesses say to business schools: ‘We would like to know more about this area so we are better armed in dealing with it.’

But even if dealing with regulatory authorities does become more important, it doesn’t mean we are completely revolutionising the way we do business.”—www.topmba.com

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