What do you learn with an MBA?

Daniel Roth has recently published a provocative post on LinkedIn about the perils of doing business with people who have an MBA when he interviewed entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran.


This was brought to my attention by good friend Steve Murray of Green Dog Media in the UK

So why does Barabara make this claim? Is she typical of the green eyed snipers that make a sport of diminishing the value higher education in general and management education in particular? Is she an evangelist from the school of hard knocks? I don’t think so.

As someone who has achieved an MBA myself I think she is making an extremely profound observation.

What do you learn when you embark on an MBA? The off the cuff response might be, ‘how to manage more effectively’. Sure you learn lots of tools and techniques and sure you get insights from interacting with fellow students but the question remains – what do you learn when you do an MBA?

The elephant in the room, the mystery behind the magic is that when you study a typical MBA you are buying into a very particular type of management philosophy.

This philosophy aspires to making management a ‘science’ based on a set of assumptions about how we should understand the world, what we accept as evidence, the nature of causes and effects and how you should take action. The more managing a business becomes ‘objectively scientific’ the better it is an MBA..er will claim.

The disturbing thing however is that the MBA acolyte and subsequently the hordes of MBA neophytes who have this classic MBA experience talk ‘as if’ this way of making sense of management is the only game in town. They talk with the stridency and confidence that only comes with ignorance.

Let’s be clear an MBA is a level of qualification. How that qualification is achieved doesn’t necessarily have to be wedded to a particular managerial outlook although at the moment it typically is. The MBA is over 100 years old and it invariably reflects the quantification and systemisation of management.

Perhaps the most powerful example of this mindset is Robert McNamara US Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam war in the 1960s who stated:

every quantitative measure we have shows we are winning this war’

I believe the explanation for Barabara’s observations lies in this issue. She alludes to problem that MBA..ers believe they are qualified to run a business. This is a mistake. The only thing that qualifies you to run a business is the experience of running a business.

Not only that the ‘management science’ approach and the managerial discourse so beloved of the ‘bullshit bingo’ fans amongst you overlooks one very significant thing. Running an organisation, and doing business is a social phenomena. People aren’t protons. (cf Steven Pinker)

The social perspective of management invites us to consider the meaning making of practioners, the language they use and how our social worlds are constructed by the very people who exist in them. People hold diverse mind sets and assumptions and these guide how they operate in the world. The social perspective of management pays attention to the nature of interactions and how these influence our success or otherwise at work.

Swap the classic management analysis (induction) approach of the typical MBA  for a concern with interpretation and imagination (abduction) and I think we are getting closer to explaining why you might loose money going into business with an MBA..er. If the only thing they know about is the cold, analytical, objectification of the social world of business and the mistaken belief that it is exclusively structures and procedures that lead to organisational success then you get what you pay for.

Barbara I suspect is one of these ‘other’ sorts who sees management differently.

At Sheffield Business School you can embark on full time or part time mba programme of study that invites you to consider classic management approaches to understanding people, organisations and management alongside challenging alternative perspectives.

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