Oxford Business Dean: MBA Programs Should Be More than Driving Schools

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

To some degree, MBA programs are advanced driving schools. We teach students how to operate one of the most powerful engines in the world: business. We teach how this engine must be finely engineered (operations), how it needs special fuel (finance), and how the parts need to work together (organization and leadership). We teach how to monitor the gauges carefully (accounting), how to steer our vehicles at high speeds and through rough weather (strategy).

Extending the metaphor, we have, in recent years, updated our curricula with modules on “Why do we drive?”—an existential question answered by legal principles such as fiduciary duties, philosophy, social norms, and even faith-based traditions like Catholic social theory. Why drives the recognition that businesses have responsibilities not only to shareholders but also to customers, employees, the communities in which they operate, and future generations. This discussion is healthy and overdue.

To torture the metaphor just a bit more, we’re missing one step: Exactly where should our graduates head? Business schools have been largely agnostic on this question.

Our failure to address where has subverted the evaluation of business schools and the content of our programs. Salary and salary growth, to a large degree, are key factors determining where MBA programs find themselves on various rankings by publications. Implicitly, this approach dictates where: Send your graduates to the highest-paying jobs.

I recently had dinner with one of our MBA graduates who had been successful at a leading investment bank but who planned to work for a social enterprise. While I applaud her passion and fully support her, I would be naive not to acknowledge that she will damage our standings by heading to the “wrong” destination in rankings terms. The incentive to place well in rankings can lead deans to exhibit split personalities: praising people who will make a difference, or who are entrepreneurs, but secretly hoping that most will go into careers whose eye-popping salaries at the end of three years will improve the school’s rankings and support future donations.

The failure to consider where also damages our curricula. Strategy courses teach students which industries and firms will be the most profitable over a long term; they locate the sources of private value. But where do we show students the areas in which business can have the most impact on humanity—the location of social value?

Source: Bloomberg (link opens in a new window)