The famous American author Mark Twain wrote in 1897 to the New York Journal, that had published his obituary, the famous words, The report of my death was an exaggeration. He went on to live another 13 years, to the ripe old age of 74. In similar style, recent reports of the death of the MBA, such as Lucy Kellaway's column in The Economist of November 2009, are little short of an embellishment of the truth.
Nobody suggests that the recent economic downturn has had zero impact on business schools. The opposite is true. Deans and academics in top MBA programs worldwide, with a few exceptions, have been leading the clarion call for change. They want to be among the first to rectify the situation, most effectively and with a greater level of accountability.
Dean Paul Danos of Tuck Business School, an active proponent of reform, is maybe the first to put a number to the problem. He estimates that less than one percent of all MBAs in practice now in the great companies of the world, are responsible for the crisis. He argues that blame is shared by a relatively small group of people, including MBAs of course, at some financial institutions, politicians and various government regulators ... and reforms are absolutely necessary.
In fact what The Economist rightly called a fundamental reappraisal, of business school is what program designers, deans and academics have been engaged with since before the crisis began. This is because the contemporary batch of MBAs increasingly demand it. Statistics, such as the QS TopMBA.com Applicant Survey 2009, show that MBA candidates are more concerned than ever before with redressing the balance. Becoming good corporate citizens with sustainability and social responsibility at the forefront of business practice is key. Other studies show that the number of MBAs considering working for controversial employers in such as tobacco and defense are down.
Nunzio Quacquarelli, Managing Director of QS, the career and education experts, and the QS World MBA Tour, says that this process of improvement has been going for several years, even pre-dating the financial crisis of recent years. Business schools are constantly striving to find ways of improving their courses, especially in areas such as corporate governance, accountability and social responsibility, as their customers, the MBA students, demand it.
It is this group of talented and socially aware individuals that smart business school leaders are aware of. Sandwiched between this movement and the needs of the corporate world, post-recession, MBA programs are more than aware that change cannot come soon enough.
Zoltán Antal-Mokos, Associate Dean of Degree Programs at ESMT in Berlin talks of the recession creating much soul-searching inside business schools and a more pervasive pressure from all stakeholders to develop programs reflecting responsible leadership. It has become a business prerogative now, he continues, as it is clear that those schools whose programs best reflect both concern for society and provide concrete corporate connections will outlast the 'me-too' MBAs.
It is the 'me-too' MBAs that one presumes Lucy Kellaway of The Economist was referring to when she wrote In 2010 the decline of the MBA will cut off the supply of bullshit at source. In fact, the process of cutting this kind of bullshit began some time ago. We won't get rid of it completely, regardless of what business schools do, but the will is there.
There are practical applications for this in terms of selecting MBAs for top schools. After all, unlike some cattle truck universities, business schools are highly selective about who they bring in. Some schools, such as Tuck, keep to a class limit of about 35 students despite, one might think, an opportunity to cash in with double the class size. Diversity is essential to business schools and Generation Y offers a new category of diversity for schools to explore.
Dr Eric Melse, Director of Degree Programs at Nyenrode Business University, says of this selectivity we look for students who are interested in becoming light leaders and courageous followers. We believe strongly that business as well as society could benefit greatly when MBA students are more inclined to listen first before they voice their opinion.
Lucy Kellaway is right that times are tough. Salaries in some sectors, banking particularly, are down. Others not as commensurately high as a few years ago and jobs in high-flying city corporations are harder to find than before. However, applications to business school, fuelled by the recession, still soar. 2009 was a record year for applications to many business schools and 2010 is expected to at least match it. More MBAs then ever before are bringing their skills to bear in vast projects in India and China. More are looking outside the traditional high-earning sectors where money is the bottom line. More are taking roles with low-paid NGOs in developing countries through organizations such as MBAs Without Borders.
And that, we can only conclude, means that reports of the death of the MBA have been greatly exaggerated indeed.