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Tuesday, May 25, 2004No form of education is more commercialised than management education. But are business schools teaching the right things?Applications to business schools are down this year—at least in America, where management education was born and where business schools still award about 85% of the world's business degrees.But business schools face more competition, and more criticism of the quality of their work, than they have ever done before. In time, that may lead to fundamental changes in the structure of the business-school market, and perhaps in what schools teach and how they teach itHowever, business schools now find themselves criticised from several (sometimes conflicting) directions: for paying too much attention to the return on their students' investment, for example, and yet for not giving value for money; for being too academic, and for being too concerned with teaching basic practical skills.The most commercially wounding criticisms are those that appear to contradict the claim that an MBA enhances career prospects. There was uproar when, two years ago, Mr Pfeffer and Christina Fong argued in Academy of Management Learning and Education that there was little evidence that getting an MBA had much effect on a graduate's salary or career. “Usually it just makes you a couple of years older than non-MBA peers,” one source told them.Of course, business schools may be important mainly as a screening mechanism—their basic skill may be choosing students, not teaching them. Once in, and the vast bill paid, few are ever thrown out for failing their exams even though, as Mr Pfeffer and Ms Fong mischievously point out, they are much more likely to cheat than students in other disciplines.A different complaint is that business schools fail to teach their students the right things. The strongest advocate of this view is Henry Mintzberg, a professor at Canada's McGill University. In “Managers Not MBAs”, a new book, he argues that conventional MBA courses offer “specialised training in the functions of business, not general educating in the practice of management”. Their students are often too young and inexperienced to learn skills that, in any case, are often easier to acquire in the workplace than sitting in a classroom. “Conventional MBA programmes train the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences,” he complains. They ignore the extent to which management is a craft, requiring zest and intuition rather than merely an ability to analyse data and invent strategies.A rather different complaint is that business schools are increasingly pulled in two directions. They want to teach students practical relevant skills. They want their research to come up with important, novel findings. But the gap between teaching and research grows ever wider. The relevance of Business schools has come to direct questioning at a time when the information economy is exploding and international trade is improving and several non US companies are beginning to show sustained success in the global arena.
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