Business schools say it's not all about profit

2009

Writing in the Times newspaper early in 2009, Philip Delves Broughton, whose book "Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School" won him few friends among the business school establishment, described MBAs as "a swollen class of jargon-spewing, value-destroying financiers and consultants [who] have done more than any other group of people to create the economic misery we find ourselves in."

Some of the strongest criticism he leveled at these "Masters of the Business Apocalypse" was that they are "a group of people unable to see their actions in the broader context of the society they inhabit", with many able to define right and wrong only in terms of what everyone else was doing.

"If doctors or lawyers wreaked such havoc in their own professions," he observed sagely, "we would certainly reconsider what is being taught at medical and law schools."

Delves Broughton was far from alone in his criticism of the MBA and its prevailing gospel of shareholder value. As Rakesh Khurana, professor of leadership at Harvard put it, "the unbridled free market as the answer to all problems became the basis for business education".

But while most in the executive education establishment vehemently reject accusations that the MBA was culpable for the crash, that's not to say that they are not looking closely at what their programmes actually teach.

If new research from the Research & Consultancy Centre at the Association of MBAs, in partnership with Durham Business School, is any indication of the future direction of the MBA, it could be that the days of focusing on shareholder value at the expense of everything else could soon be over.

The research, which quizzed 100 business schools and 544 MBA alumni from 57 countries, found that almost eight out of 10 (79%) of business schools agreed that to a large or very large extent that the MBA should adopt a stakeholder rather than a shareholder focus, a sentiment shared by six out of 10 of the alumni.

There are also clear signs that sustainability and ethics are starting to play a greater part in the MBA curriculum, with schools rating ethics as the single most important topic they need to teach in the current climate and eight out of 10 agreeing to a large or very large extent that corporate social responsibility should underpin the actions of organisations.

Similarly, eight out of 10 (83%) of alumni surveyed agreed that ethics have become important or very important, whilst three-quarters said that corporate governance is now important or very important.

But in another key area – risk management – the research suggests that there is still some way to go, with schools acknowledging that both risk management and strategic risk are two of the top three topics where there is the widest disconnect between what they offer in the current curriculum and what they ought to be offering.

The message that the MBA isn't just about maximising profit was one that Rob Dixon, Dean, Durham Business School was keen to stress.

"The economic crisis has shown that we can't simply expect things to go on as they were," he said.

"It's not just all about profit. Business schools are helping to build a new way of doing business, one that doesn't put the interests of shareholders above all other stakeholders. Businesss needs well rounded executives with strong leadership skills and the ability to integrate ethical, sustainable and stakeholder thinking into their management decisions."