"MBA Lifecycle": long-term learning for a changing market

Rather than viewing management education as a one-size-fits-all proposition, we see the MBA experience as lifelong learning, possessing various dimensions over time. Just as there are different skills and objectives associated with different career steps, so too are there different academic offerings to meet individual needs at different times.

Early in the typical career, during the initial stage of the MBA Lifecycle, one is called upon to manage projects. Doing so requires using many of the skills, tools and concepts taught in a conventional MBA program: key functional disciplines, such as accounting, competitive strategy, finance and marketing are especially important, as are statistics and economics offerings that appear in the core curriculum at many schools. This stage may last for five to six years after graduation.38

The MBA Lifecycle’s second stage begins with the individual being called upon to manage people. This period can last for another five years until ten to twelve years post-graduation. In addition to functional skills, this stage draws on leadership abilities to create teams and an environment conducive to achieving the organization’s mission. These are “soft skills” that create “hard impressions”. Business school courses that address subjects such as the behavior of organizations, leadership in organizations, managing a diverse workforce, and human resources management are among the offerings of particular value for this career stage.

Finally, the MBA Lifecycle’s third stage finds the graduate involved in designing policy. In addition to functional skills and people skills, this advanced stage demands superior leadership and strategic vision as the person must drive higher-level organizational change and, in many cases, change within a larger community. Here, business schools have an opportunity to offer graduates value through executive education programs that refine and update skills to bring them in line with current market demands. Schools can design and deliver various custom programs to meet specific client needs, alongside other offerings providing insights in areas such as creating and managing strategic alliances, or corporate governance. Schools can tailor programs to the needs of executives whose MBA degrees were earned ten or twelve years earlier, and which now require fresh frameworks to enable continued success.39

Certainly, the ability to manage teams is valuable throughout one’s career, and there will be crossover among these three categories. Nevertheless, as a framework that identifies the general trajectory of most graduates, the MBA Lifecycle shows how schools should address their clientele’s evolving needs in a way that reflects a commitment to lifelong learning.

In addition, the curriculum at each level of this life cycle, from full- or part-time MBA study through advanced executive education, must balance academic rigor and business relevance. Research-based insights without application are likely intellectual exercises of limited value, while practical strategies divorced from underlying theory offer only anecdotal, hit-or-miss possibilities. Either without the other is a rudderless ship, though many within management education continue to favor research silos that exclude work of particular importance to practitioners. As Harold Leavitt has contended, the typical MBA curriculum has too often created students “with lopsided brains, icy hearts, and shrunken souls”.40

Another element that helps safeguard against such an unfortunate outcome is one that runs throughout all the life cycle stages - a positive attitude. Cultivating an attitude that is enthusiastic and that embraces challenges and opportunities with a genuine desire to make a difference is a necessity for moving through the life cycle.

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