An Observation about MBAs   5 comments

In the course of my MSIS/PhD education, I’ve been exposed to a lot of organizational science (or management theory, depending upon how you want to classify the particular chunk of knowledge).  I’ve read some of the seminal works that MBA students read, spent some time perusing the Harvard Business Review and other publications, et cetera.

In many cases, I’ve said to myself, “Yep, that’s true” or “Darn tootin’, that would be the way to go” or some other expression of agreement with what I’ve read.

So here’s the curious part: everywhere I’ve ever worked, there’s been MBA people around.  Everywhere I’ve ever worked, there’s been people who have taken classes in project management, or people management, or both.  These people presumably have read the same material I’ve been reading (one would think).

So why is it so rare to find anyone who actually practices any of it?

It’s a national joke that MBA-types tend to be pointy-haired bosses, right?  It’s the entire premise of Dilbert… people who study MBA material turn out to be terrible at management.

This *can’t* be the fault of MBA programs in general.  There certainly are bad MBA programs, I imagine… but even if you teach this material badly the material itself still seems to be worthwhile reading.

Is it just the case that most people who go and *get* their MBAs aren’t cut out to be managers in the first place?  That there is an underlying set of characteristics of most MBA-seekers that makes them bad at the job they’re ultimately seeking?  I take it for granted that many people who get MBAs are trying to up their chances at higher-paying jobs, of course, but it can’t be the case that self-interest is that tightly coupled with idiocy.

Maybe MBA programs need to focus more on cutting out the chaff?  Harder grading?  Better gatekeeping?  Management is hard, why is it so easy to get an MBA?  Do most programs focus too much on, “learn the material” and not enough on “show you can implement it in practice”?

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Posted January 19, 2010 by padraic2112 in management

5 responses to “An Observation about MBAs

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  1. My impression (based on nothing sound) is that the MBA is often viewed as the MAKE MONEY FAST degree. The old recruiting sign at the Idza — “MBA -> IPO -> BMW” or something like that — really summed it up for me. Looking for a quick buck and managing competently never seem to go together.

  2. So is it actually a problem with MBA programs that they don’t weed out people more aggressively?

  3. The problem as I see it is that the knowledge or skill required to manage well is not equal to the will to use it. In most of the office environments I have ever seen there is a subtle-to-blatant emphasis on toeing the party line, insofar as one’s chain of command is concerned. I tell my staff that they are not only authorized but *required* to tell me I’m being an idiot (furthermore they are instructed use as much of the vernacular as they need to get their point across). My only requirement is that they be as courteous as the situation allows. But that’s not the way it works for most office drones. People don’t speak up because they are afraid for their jobs, disempowered, demotivated, detached from the work, etc. etc. The job of managers as I see it is to onboard smart people who understand and are interested in what you are trying to do, facilitate their efforts on your behalf, provide meaningful feedback to them regarding their job performance, and then get the hell out of their way. Most managers don’t like that approach because success means focusing the spotlight for rewards on one’s subordinates. Perhaps what that really says is that senior management doesn’t typically understand what it really needs in leaders.

  4. It would be a poor business model to weed out poor performers in MBA programs. I would hazard that a large percentage of MBA students are having their education paid for by their employer. The larger/more reputable employers, who are more likely to be repeat customers sending additional employees in the future, have already weeded out poor performers as part of their employee review. Smaller organizations may send lesser MBA candidates, but weeding them out of the program would be a revenue loss for the school, and sending back a poor MBA graduate to the smaller organization is less likely to affect future revenue since the smaller organization was less likely to send anyone else to the school in the near future anyway.

  5. > t would be a poor business model
    > to weed out poor performers in
    > MBA programs.

    This is, by extension, a general problem in higher education. With a few notable exceptions, it’s a poor business model for any revenue-interested organization to limit the market it serves.

    However, this ultimately devalues the thing which you offer as a service; presumably, as an educational organization, you’d like to be known as an institution that turns out a knowledgeable product. If MBAs aren’t better than non-MBAs in management positions, it’s not likely that you’ll continue to sell knowledge transfer as a measurable good.

    > The larger/more reputable employers,
    > who are more likely to be repeat
    > customers sending additional employees
    > in the future, have already weeded
    > out poor performers as part of
    > their employee review.

    Have they?

    This in and of itself isn’t necessarily an entirely out-of-bounds idea, but I don’t know that the theory stands up to data (disclaimer: this ain’t my focus, so I can’t state this definitively in any way).

    In my experience, organizations are not uniformly good at evaluating their own personnel (my experience is largely tied to technical silos in an organization, admittedly, and thus I haven’t been directly embedded in, say, the Human Resources parts of an organization).

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