Mintzberg’s Critique of MBA Programs: Does the Data Support Him?
HARRY I. COSTIN
Mintzberg’s Critique of MBA Programs
Does the Data Support Him?
The following essay is my reaction to Mintzberg’s recent book Managers not MBAs, which was reviewed by seven authors in the June 2005 issue of this journal. I question, based upon the data I collected about 135 US MBA programs for my own dissertation which I defended in 2001, whether Mintzberg’s claim that MBA students are too young and inexperienced to have any management experience is supported by facts. I also discuss whether his pilot IMPM program can be seen as an MBA replacement. In both cases the data suggests a negative answer.
Mintzberg’s recent book Managers not MBAs (2004) strongly criticizes current MBA programs. The book has most definitely created waves (Nord, 2005) and has also been followed up by thoughtful responses to Mintzberg’s ideas on management education (pro rather than con), such as those that were offered by several authors in the June 2005 issue of this journal (Miles, 2005; Feldman, 2005; Barnett, 2005; Armstrong, 2005; Tyson, 205; Kleinrichert, 2005; Lewicki, 2005). Taking inspiration from Mintzberg himself, who since the publication of his first book The Nature of Managerial Work (1973), based upon his dissertation research, has challenged traditional wisdom on management and strategy, I will address some of the book’s premises and conclusions based upon my own empirical research (hard arguments) and over fifteen years of MBA teaching experience (soft arguments).
At the time Mintzberg was writing his critique of MBA programs I was busy with my own dissertation, which I defended at Boston University in May 2001. In my dissertation I explored changes MBA programs had undergone between 1990 and 2000 , following the Porter and McKibbin (1988), and other influential reports (GMAC, 1990) and conferences (Dymsza, 1982) which critiqued the state of graduate business education. All reports (cited in Costin, 2001) called for a more diverse MBA student body (more female, minority, and international students), emphasized that students should also acquire soft and not only analytical skills (a criticism shared by Mintzberg), and argued that the MBA curriculum needed to be internationalized as we entered a global era.
During the 1990s significant changes took place in US business schools offering MBA programs. MBA curricula were thoroughly revised and completely revamped in schools that included Harvard, Columbia (Capon, 1996) and Babson College (Zolner, 1996), among many others, a process likened to moving the graveyard because of the difficulties involved (Zolner, 1996). Also, cross-functional team-teaching and active learning approaches were introduced in many MBA programs (an expensive proposition as many schools found out), and underrepresented students were actively recruited. The number of both minority and international students increased in a meaningful way; however, the proportion of female to male MBA students which remained at a low one female student for every two male students by 2000, regrettably did not increase between 1990 and 2000 (Costin, 2001). Further, significant curricular changes did not end in 2000 and most schools regularly revise the MBA core.
Mintzberg’s indictement of MBA programs
Mintzberg’s basic argument against existing MBA programs can be divided into two parts. According to him MBA programs pretend to teach management, but in practice do not, because management can not be taught. Still, managerial experience can fruitfully be reflected upon by experienced practicing managers, the approach Mintzberg suggests.
Further, 1) the wrong people attend MBA programs, i.e., students with little work experience and no managerial experience looking for an easy way to the top; and 2) MBAs fail to provide a blend of art, science and craft, which need to be integrated if an appropriate individual management style is to be developed (Mintzberg, 2004: 93). In other words, MBA programs train the wrong people and overemphasize the acquisition of analytical skills.
The Wrong People?
The first of Mintzberg’s main criticisms against existing MBA programs is that they are for the wrong people, students too young and too inexperienced to contribute in a meaningful way, or benefit from experienced-based class-discussions on management. In particular, Mintzberg refers to full-time MBA students, and discusses little the contribution of part-time students. But what does the data reveal?
The data I collected in my dissertation corresponded to the population of all US MBA programs that were AACSB-accredited by 1980 and represented approximately one third of all US AACSB accredited schools by the end of the 1990s. These schools had correspondingly more seasoned MBA programs than their newer counterparts, and virtually all highly ranked schools and MBA programs belonged to them. Let us say therefore, for the sake of argument, that they represented better than average or at least average MBA programs.
The data showed that the MBA population of the 135 MBA programs (both full- and part-time students included) was in average 28 years old and had 4 years work experience. Also, in 1998-1999 there were 45,187 full-time and another 45,069 part-time students enrolled in these programs.
Given a standard deviation of 1.46 years for work experience (Costin, 2001) it is safe to say that one third of all MBA students had over 5 years work experience. Assuming that the full-time students were the less experienced ones (an assumption not supported by the data for 41 highly ranked schools), since full-time students represented 50% of the MBA student population, they had at least 2-3 years work experience as a whole, and part-time students 5-6 years work experience. Also, 70% of all MBA students were 26-30 years old.
With regards to the 41 schools at the top of many rankings, contrary to what some may expect, the average age was a solid 28 years in the late 1990s and also five years later, and most students had 5 years work experience. By contrast to the entire population of 135 MBA programs, the top 41 programs had a higher proportion of full-time students: out of a total student body of 37,036 in the late 1990s, 68% were full timers , which represented 55% of the entire population of full-time students of the 135 MBA programs studied.
The data discussed above suggests that it may be difficult to claim that the average MBA student had little or no work experience or was attending graduate school immediately after finishing an undergraduate program by 2000. At the same time, people in their mid careers were most likely the exceptional student in non-executive MBA programs.
If students entering MBA programs had a bachelors degree and 3-5 years work experience does this support Mintzberg’s assumption that they had no managerial experience? As for top management experience it is a safe bet to say that only few students were likely to have it. But what about middle management experience, or responsibilities heading teams? Can this experience be simply dismissed as no managerial experience? The hard data does not support this claim
As for my personal experience teaching MBAs, most students I have taught both in public as well as in private universities since 1989 have had managerial experience and have therefore been able to contribute in a meaningful way to classroom discussions on applied management topics. Further, a fact often disregarded is that in the United States students start working early on a part-time basis. Some of them also make it early into supervisory positions in food chains and similar types of industries, where employees can start working on a part-time basis. In other words, work experience might be under- rather than overestimated in the statistics.
On the other hand, Mintzberg’s young, inexperienced and preppy MBA student attending a top business school is, I must confess from my own experience, a dangerous element if inflicted upon society, but what percentage of MBA students fall into that category? Most likely only a few do. Nevertheless, Mintzberg’s concern is justified, since these MBAs do often make it to the top and are therefore highly influential.
MBA, a misnomer?
An MBA is a graduate 1-2 year degree program about business administration, which includes, but is not confined to teaching management as defined by Mintzberg.
In his critique of MBA programs Mintzberg provides a useful distinction between business and management. He argues that MBAs teach the fundamentals of business functions, not the practice of management. What is lost in the discussion is that M.B.A. literally means master of business administration, and therefore, even following Mintzberg’s argument, the degree does not disguise what it is really about. Mintzberg equates administration to management (following Simon’s (1947) classic book on Administrative Behavior), but it can be argued that administration and management are not synonyms. A good administrator may not necessarily be engaging nor be a great leader. Maybe his personality type (borrowing from psychologist C. G. Jung) is not conducive to being a people-person.
A potentially useful distinction between the two terms is that administration concerns the allocation of organizational resources in general, with a particular focus to those relating to routine tasks, while management means to a significant extent to engage people (to borrow from Mintzberg).
Drawing from the classic literature on organizational theory, Thompson’s (1967) influential study of organizations argued for the need to protect the technical core of an organization against environmental turbulence. Using Thompson’s organizational model it may be useful to distinguish administrators, who work primarily within the technical core of an organization, from managers who always have a mediating function.
One uneasy emerging question is ‘how many managers do we really need?’ Drucker predicted (1988) that in the emerging knowledge society organizations will have significantly lower number of managers and more specialized professionals, who nevertheless have to learn to work together in teams. And whether or not Drucker’s knowledge society is already here to stay or comes into being or not, it is evident that many middle management positions have been or are being eliminated.
Although many professionals might never become managers, a general understanding of business is a key asset for them, and possibly also a new form of common language since professions are becoming more and more specialized. Wouldn’t therefore an MBA teaching the functions of business, as MBAs do according to Mintzberg, represent a practical way of providing a common business language to these diverse professionals?
On a personal note from my own experience: I remember many MBA students with engineering backgrounds who greatly benefitted from the general business perspective provided by even plain vanilla flavored MBA programs.
Mintzberg’s ideal MBA-replacement, i.e., his new pilot graduate management program (International Masters in Practicing Management or IMPM), is intended for practicing managers in their mid-careers. These managers are chosen by their own companies who also foot the bill and provide the necessary time off for an intensive learning experience around the world.
What is missing in this ideal scenario? If MBA programs were revamped following Mintzberg’s guidelines, they would risk becoming highly elitist. This is because they could only be afforded by large companies, since they are so resource intense, and would therefore become rewards only for people considered of high potential within a specific company.
Mintzberg’s IMPM involves five leading business school and is taught in five countries to a relatively small, highly experienced student body. It is therefore like a dream come true (wouldn’t we all like to drive a Ferrari?). It’s structure appears similar to other global (I am aware of Mintzberg’s dislike of the word!) Executive MBA programs with modules taught around the world, and it might well be among the best programs of this kind. However, it is not a replacement for an MBA. A fact not to be dismissed is that the business schools sponsoring the IMPM, which are by Mintzberg’s definition highly innovative, do not appear to see in the program an MBA-replacement, since they continue offering their own successful MBA degrees.
Mintzberg’s suggested ideal student body also has a rather narrow focus. Where are the entrepreneurs who may decide to go to school after having sold one company and before starting another? Or the project managers with engineering backgrounds who greatly appreciate being introduced systematically to “soft skills”? Gone are also the opportunities for highly experienced mid career individuals who want to switch jobs or even careers.
One’s own experience is of necessity limited; nevertheless, it is highly valuable. I have met and taught MBA students in the US, Latin America and Europe and what comes to my mind are many adult learners making significant sacrifices to pursue graduate education. And most of them had significant work experience which they did bring to bear in the classroom. I learned much from them and am extremely grateful for it, even when I taught basic “core” courses in vanilla-flavored generic MBA programs.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Mintzberg’s ‘Managers, not MBAs’
The ugly in Mintzberg’s book is in my opinion Mintzberg’s relentless attack on the Harvard MBA and it’s graduates, which in the best of cases is overkill, and thereby undermines the importance of the issues Mintzberg discusses.
The bad in Mintzberg’s book is to treat all US MBA programs as if they were all the same. Not only Harvard but also the United States and it’s business schools are under the gun in Mintzberg’s book. And he also seems to suggest that innovation occurres mostly in schools from the UK. To which extent is this the case, if at all?
During the 1990s many US business schools, starting ‘counterintuitively’ with the top ones, engaged in all sorts of efforts and experiments to update and improve their MBA programs, in line with institution-specific missions. Part of the impetus was provided by the 1994 “Mission-driven” accreditation guidelines of AACSB which advocated institutional differentiation. Many pedagogical innovations, including some suggested by Mintzberg, e.g., reflective thinking in the classroom by working professionals, were tried out by entrepreneuring individual faculty members and innovative professional schools. However, the impetus for change, if change is interpreted from a process (how programs are taught) rather than from a content perspective (the curricula) appeared to slow down around 2000.
The question that remains to be addressed is why it appears to be so difficult for good ideas related to the improvement of educational processes to become institutionalized? One evident answer is that process-focused improvements such as team-teaching and small class sizes add significantly to program costs and are therefore not sustainable. Still, cost increases remain only a partial answer.
Further, why do schools that make a deliberate attempt to “be different” end up being so similar to others? So much for institutional differentiation and mission-driven planning! As I looked for answers I remembered how organizational theorists approach this question. In particular DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) discussion of institutional isomorphism provided intriguing food for thought, as the authors went about explaining the forces that push organizations toward sameness rather than differentiation. Does this all mean that I am contradicting myself suggesting now that all MBA programs are virtually the same? No, they are not, but left to the forces of inertia they do tend toward sameness, i.e., isomorphism.
The good or, in my opinion the best, can be found in Mintzberg’s (2005) answer to the seven authors who reviewed his book in the June 2005 issue of this journal (2005: 245):
No one ever has the answers. I’m just happy to have evoked the questions.
A final confession
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away (not the United States), I made an experiment with two groups of young full-time MBA students, who did very much look like those Mintzberg is concerned about, and who were taking a core Strategy course I was teaching. I assigned to the students Mintzberg, Ahlstrand & Lampel’s book Strategy Safari (1998), a text I consider extremely useful. My intention was to expose the students to the complexities of strategic thinking, and to argue that strategy is more than simply Porter-style indystry analysis. I got killed for it in the student evaluations!
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 The population of MBA programs I studied included all those U.S. programs that were AACSB-accredited in 1980, 135 in total. I also looked more closely at 41 highly ranked programs. These programs belonged to the population under study and were all included in four MBA rankings in 2000: those published by Business Week, the Financial Times, the Economist and the Princeton Review.
 In 2004, according to my analysis based upon data from Business Week, the statistical means for the teaching methods used in approximately 40 highly ranked MBA programs were: lecture (29%), cases (36%), active learning approaches (35%).
 Those interested in specific examples might wish to consult the Washington D.C. based magazine Change, which focuses on innovative efforts in higher education.