Whatever your business plan, it's out of date now

March 7, 2003

Business schools must teach MBAs to adapt quickly to a fast-changing world, says Eamonn Walsh

As business schools come under increased scrutiny in the tougher economic environment, many believe that the traditional MBA is failing to meet the new needs of business.

There are legitimate concerns that business schools are failing to create the leaders of tomorrow. Their difficulties stem from the changing nature of both the firm and its environment. The elaborate managerial hierarchies that characterised the corporation are now obsolete.

The business environment is no longer a static notion. The revolution in information and communication technologies has flattened hierarchies and has created new environmental threats. New competitors appear from nowhere.

New capabilities to destabilise a geo-political balance transform nightmares into reality.

The case study, long the mainstay of the MBA curriculum, is symptomatic of these problems. A case study is successful as long as history repeats itself. While it may be an ideal pedagogy in the fields of medicine and psychiatry, its value is unclear when both the subjects under examination and their environments will never be repeated.

MBA programmes should continue to ensure that participants have a firm grounding in the core business disciplines. Good business schools successfully identify talent. But this is not enough - more must be done to develop the student as an individual and to enhance the ability to respond to events that will never be repeated.

Some students have an aptitude for analysis, others a spirit of entrepreneurship and others have a passion for people. Too many MBA programmes fail to acknowledge this diversity and present their students with a homogenising experience. The challenge is to ensure that MBAs recognise their limitations and understand how to work with others that have the strengths that they do not have. While modesty has never been the hallmark of an MBA, a cult based on individual heroes is a poor recipe for success in troubled times.

MBA programmes can cultivate this diversity by placing a far greater emphasis on working in teams and creating alternative pathways that allow individuals to develop. Our ability to create these pathways - real-time uncertain pathways rather than a case study that has been sanitised for their protection - will ensure that business schools meet the needs of today's business environment.

Starting new enterprises in a structured, supportive environment is one example of how MBA students can develop their entrepreneurial talents and learn to analyse complicated situations. While many of these enterprises may fail to materialise, that in itself is frequently a valuable learning experience. For the lucky ones, it creates a basis for a successful career and a potentially lucrative outcome. Last year, one of our students built a successful international enterprise in less than six months while another developed a new business model for ready-made meals.

Many students are not fortunate enough to dream up a commercially viable product or service. However, many technologists that have created new products or services lack the commercial acumen to exploit them. Within universities, there are many opportunities for MBAs to team up with technologists to create new enterprises. For example, one of our graduates has started an enterprise with a revolutionary approach to pharmaceutical research and development. Another is working on cryptography services that facilitate e-business.

For those with neither an interest in nor an aptitude for new business development, opportunities exist to create novel learning experiences that enhance the leadership abilities of MBAs. On three-month projects within firms and non-governmental organisations, MBAs have an opportunity to make a difference and to develop leadership skills. The key to developing these pathways is a good relationship with the sponsoring organisation that ensures that MBAs are presented with serious challenges and a safety net.

Considerable efforts are required to identify appropriate projects and to structure them to ensure a meaningful learning experience.

The changing nature of the corporation and the business environment poses new challenges for business schools. To meet these challenges, we must recognise that individual capacities differ and that new pedagogies are necessary. Rather than celebrating the individual corporate hero, MBAs must learn that diverse talents are the basis for business success. The ability to harness these diverse talents and to respond in real time to events that have yet to percolate into a case study will be the mark of tomorrow's business leader.

Eamonn Walsh is dean of the Smurfit Business School, University College Dublin.

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