Opinion: What's an MBA Good for -- Really?

Critics of MBA programs make some good points, says columnist Paul Glen

It seems that I get more questions about the MBA degree than any other career development topic. It appears to hold a uniquely prominent space in the minds of ambitious managers and would-be managers among the IT ranks.

But the questions are usually of a rather black-and-white nature: Should I get one? Will it be good for my career? Will it be worth the money? Is it worth the time away from the workplace to do it full time? Are part-time MBA programs too hard to do while working full time? Is it worth going back for an executive MBA once I'm already in management?

What surprises me most of all is that among all the questions, few are about what an MBA is and what it isn't. Most of the discussion centers on the credential and the cost rather than the content. Few ask about what you learn or what it prepares you to do effectively. For something that can cost you as much as a house (if you include lost earnings), there is a surprising lack of consumer interest in the actual product.

But it's not just the consumers of the degree who seem indifferent to the content of the programs. Hiring managers looking for the credential on resumes often seem uninterested as well. They just seem to figure that people with name-brand MBAs must be prepared for leadership positions.

But the MBA mystique is being questioned in certain quarters. Among some of the most prominent business-school professors in the world, an open debate has erupted about the value of the MBA degree.

Before I upset too many of you, I should mention that I am not anti-MBA. I have one myself from Northwestern's Kellogg School and have taught in MBA programs at two universities, most recently the University of Southern California's Marshall School. But I think that the critics have some important points to make -- ones that we in the practitioner community should note carefully.

Here are a few of the most important things the critics of this MBA infatuation have pointed out:

MBA programs train students in business, not management or leadership. Among those with the harshest words for MBA programs is McGill University professor Henry Mintzberg, one of the most celebrated thinkers and writers on business today. His perspective: "It is time to recognize conventional MBA programs for what they are - or else to close them down. They are specialized training in the functions of business, not general education in the practice of managing."

Most programs are structured around the functions of business, such as finance, marketing, strategy, human resource management and general management. And the courses emphasize technical understanding of these functional areas. However, an understanding of the general architecture of a business is not sufficient preparation to lead the people who inhabit it.

MBA programs overemphasize analytical skills. Many of the criticisms of the MBA are not new. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1971, J. Sterling Livingston, a Harvard Business School professor, offered this observation: "Formal management education programs typically emphasize the development of problem solving and decision making skills, for instance, but give little attention to the development of skills required to find the problems that need to be solved, to plan for the attainment of desired results or to carry out operating plans once they are made."

MBA programs don't prepare students for the human element of management. In overemphasizing analytical skills, they give short shrift to the softer skills that are more critical to the practice of management.

Edgar Schein, who is now an emeritus professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, conducted interviews with alumni of the program and noted that "at an emotional level, ex-students resent the human emotions that make a company untidy. ... [Few] can accept without pain the reality of the organization's human side. Most try to wish it away, rather than work in and around it."

So do you need an MBA? To answer that question cogently for yourself or others, I think it's time to start thinking about the value of the education in addition to the value of the credential. It has its place but isn't the end-all in pursuit of a fulfilling and lucrative career.

Paul Glen helps technical organizations to grow better leaders, and managers to

perform at their best. He is the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks. Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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