HomeBusiness DigestThe Human Capital Telescope: Are Zimbabwean MBAs substandard?

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That has been the case for several years now and ironically, the Council for Higher Education in South Africa is mulling downgrading the MBA to a Bachelors’ level, arguing that it does not meet the standards of a South African master’s degree. Does it mean that the rest of MBAs in Africa, and particularly Zimbabwe, are not up to snuff?

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree is a creature of the West. In the West the MBA is not just a degree—it is arguably an institution. It is allegorically the warden of the capitalistic free-market enterprise philosophy. In the West those who possess the MBA are rewarded handsomely. If you have one from a top-ranked school, you are all but guaranteed a six figure US dollar salary. If you hold one from Stanford University’s GBS (ranked 1st) your salary jumps 129%. Even in the emerging Eastern economies embracing capitalism, the pattern is replicated. MBAs from the Chinese University of Hong Kong receive a mouth-watering 160% hike in salary. 

Being the progenitors of the MBA, Western institutions are by default the standard-setters and custodians of the quality assurance processes defining the worth of the MBA. 

We shall attempt to address the question of MBA standards from four angles.

Case method cursed

The case method is an innovation in business education delivery birthed at Harvard Business School (HBS) in 1921. It is widely held as the vanguard of MBA curriculum delivery. HBS adapted the case method from the Harvard Law School which had introduced it as a cutting-edge innovation in the teaching of law in the 1870s. Wallace Brett Donham, a graduate of the Harvard Law School, became the dean of HBS in 1919.

 

Donham strongly believed that business should be taught through cases just like law students at Harvard. Thus in business education, the case method would see professors preparing between 10 and 20 pages of text (relevant and irrelevant information) based on a real business plus 10 or so pages of numerical data.

 

Here, students would be required to forage through this information and propose solutions to the business challenges identified. The original emphasis in the case method was not on obtaining a single right answer. HBS has since 1921 taught its MBAs using this method. On average, an MBA student goes through more than 500 cases during their tenure at the HBS, being fed a daily staple of two to three cases. Typically, 50% of student’s final grade is based on class participation in case analysis. In Zimbabwe sit-down examinations have a greater contribution towards the final MBA grade. Which standard is higher?

No single MBA student from a Zimbabwean institute is exposed to a Harvard-like quantum of case studies in their entire course of study. In most instances, the cases Zimbabwean students interrogate emanate from the West.

Is the HBS approach the be all and end all of business education excellence?

Most of the Zimbabwean MBA curriculum is unwittingly influenced by the Ford Foundation report of 1959. In that year the Ford Foundation released a damning report on business education (including MBA), pointing out that it lacked academic analytic rigour. They seemed to suggest that the case method was cursed. They suggested that business education should be organised along disciplines. Reaction from business schools was swift. As a result, MBA began to be taught along academic disciplines such as economics and finance.

 

To address the criticisms of lack of analytic rigour, emphasis on quantitative business methods gained ascendancy. Harvard adapted to the Ford Foundation recommendations, but continued with the case method as its primary method of business pedagogy. The Zimbabwean MBA education system has chosen to give greater emphasis to academia and less emphasis on the case method. Does it mean the Harvard MBA and its surrogates develop more practical managers than our local institutes?

Silo think-craft

Fifty-years on since the Ford Foundation seminal report on business education, a new concern is swelling to a crescendo. There is a very strong sentiment among business stakeholders that MBA pedagogy has been developing managers that think in silos as a result of emphasis on separate business disciplines.

 

Hence MBA graduates are at times nick-named Mediocre But Arrogant or Myopic But Adamant.  Simply put, the MBA is being criticised for failing to develop integrated thinking. Others have argued that  MBA pedagogy that is discipline-based is divorced from the real world of management—a manager does not say “Now I am thinking economics and later I will be thinking organisational behaviour’’.

 

There is a growing call to reform the MBA, placing a premium on a holistic approach to business management. Yale School of Management (SOM) has taken the lead. Yale SOM no longer teaches MBA business courses according to disciplines. Instead, since March 2006, MBA courses at Yale SOM are taught thematically. For instance, they do not teach marketing, as would be expected in a traditional discipline-oriented MBA curriculum; teaching on the ‘customer’ instead. The customer course is designed by taking insights from marketing, psychology, economics, HR   and accounting for instance.

In my opinion, our Zimbabwean MBA is not free from the blight of developing, by default, managers who think in silo-fashion. The chief aim of an MBA education is not to produce a functional specialist, but to develop a practical general manager who sees the business in totality, not as functional fragments. 

Silo-thinking, evidently, is not a peculiarity of Zimbabwean MBA pedagogics, but a widespread global problem. The current reforms in business education present an opportunity for Zimbabwean business educators to recast MBA pedagogy.

Ethical deficiency

Perhaps the greatest criticism of the MBA globally has been the failure by business educators to inculcate ethical business behaviour in its graduates. Enron was led by MBA graduates from Ivy League business schools. The collapse of global financial stability was arguably presided over by MBA graduates from the same Ivy League schools. The common thread running through these debacles can be traced to greed and failure of ethics, leading some to satirize the MBA — labelling it Master of Business Apocalypse, My Big Attitude, for instance.

In Zimbabwe, failure of business ethics that led to the collapse of key businesses is well documented. Some of the leaders of these businesses that failed were also holders of MBAs.

Global MBA rankings

Criteria used in ranking MBAs appear to be skewed in favour of business schools from economically developed countries and regions. The FT Global MBA rankings, regarded as the most authoritative, use three global taxonomies, namely; alumni career progress, diversity and idea generation. Under idea generation, the proportion of faculty with doctorates, faculty research output and the ranking of the ‘quality’ of doctorates held by the faculty are the three criteria considered. For research output to be considered, it must be published in at least one of the 45 journals prescribed by FT.

 

It is a well-known fact that these academic and professional journals will accept research papers that fit the agendae of the publishers of the journal, which may be at variance with the needs of developing countries. Would it be fair for a Zimbabwean MBA to be judged on the research published in a pre-selected list of ‘acceptable’ journals?

In any case, there are pre-qualification criteria for an MBA to considered for the FT rankings—it must be an accredited member of either the European-based EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System)  or the US-based  AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business). To my knowledge, none of the MBAs offered by our indigenous institutes are accredited by these institutions.

 

Does it necessarily mean that if your business school is not accredited by these two institutes then the business education you offer is substandard?

 

Let’s discuss at brettchulu@consultant.com.

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