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The B-School Crystal Ball

MBA programs face an array of challenges that will require a nimble response, and among those things that schools must address is what and how teachers teach, according to studies by two University of Iowa professors.

The studies—one co-authored by Ken Brown, the other by Sara Rynes-Weller, both professors of management and organizations in the Tippie College of Business—appear in a new book published by the Graduate Management Admission Council that looks at the future of MBA programs in the United States. The book, Disrupt or be Disrupted: A Blueprint for Change in Management Education, is designed to help b-school leaders navigate the pressures of the MBA market and create programs that help schools build competitive advantage.

The book notes that the challenges are many. Increasing costs, reduced public appropriations, competition from for-profit, European, and Asian schools, and online and technology-driven courses called MOOCs all are re-writing how students learn about management. The book’s authors agree that the status quo is no longer sufficient for sustaining the value of graduate management education into the future. Criticism directed especially toward the “flagship” program—the MBA—reinforces the need to change and innovate.

The studies in the book review previous studies of MBA programs going back decades.

Sara Rynes-WellerRynes-Weller and her co-author look at MBA curricula, and Brown and his co-authors examine teaching. In her study, Rynes-Weller looks at the gaps between what MBA courses teach and what employers say they want their newly-hired MBA graduates to know and be able to do.

She notes that employers say that MBA graduates are often not creative or innovative enough in their thinking and lack people management skills. There’s also a concern that the dominance of functional and analytical coursework—particularly in finance and economics—may be creating a student worldview that makes short-sighted, selfish, and even unethical behavior more likely among MBA graduates.

“There is a strong emphasis—perhaps over-emphasis—on functional and quantitative/analytical courses, and an under-emphasis on leadership and interpersonal skills; decision making and problem solving; ethics and social responsibility; and globalization,” Rynes-Weller writes.

Rynes-Weller’s study also notes that MBA programs are still searching for the best way to teach ethics. She concludes that because of the subject’s complexity, programs should have a standalone course devoted to the topic rather than hoping ethical content will be covered in functional area courses such as finance, accounting, or marketing.

“Failure to include ethics in the required core transmits a message to students that this is not really a central business issue,” she says. “Given the cataclysmic effects that unethical behaviors have had on the world economy and people’s livelihoods, the idea that ethics is not central to business is simply untenable.”

Ken BrownIn Brown’s study, he and his co-authors note that business scholars give little attention to educational research that has the potential to improve teaching skills, especially when compared to other professional schools, such as engineering and medicine. While the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health provide large grants to help improve teaching medicine, few resources are available to improve business teaching.

Brown has several suggestions for improving teaching: recognizing teaching skill as well as scholarship and research in annual performance reviews, and grants that help faculty attend workshops on improving their teaching.

The study also notes that experiential learning is critical to graduate management education, and can be more effective if theory and research are used as guides.

For example, he says that if faculty can discern a way to help students understand the concept of the time value of money in 20 percent less time, they can then use that extra time to perform other teaching or research tasks.

“In lieu of extra work on that topic, students can engage in experiential activities that let them apply the concept in various settings,” he says. “Moreover, faculty can engage in other activities, whether research-oriented or teaching-related.”

Brown’s co-authors are Ben Arbaugh of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and Amy Kenworthy and George Hrivnak of Bond University in Australia. Rynes-Weller’s co-author was Jean Bartunek of Boston College.

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