Can MBAs Lead Us Out Of Recession?

Business professor argues there are too many MBAs in the economy while Cap Gemini executive claims he’s hiring hundreds more

Leading figures from the business school community, including the Dean of Said Business School and author Philip Delves Broughton went head-to-head at the Oxford Business Debate over whether MBAs can lead the world economy out of recession.

The motion at the debate, which took place last Thursday, was: “This House believes that MBAs are best placed to lead us out of the economic crisis.” A crowd of over 200 people, mostly MBA students, voted in favor though it was a close count.

Defending the motion were Professor Colin Mayer, Dean of the Said Business School, which also hosted the event; Phil Walker, Senior Vice President of Capgemini Consulting and Kate Jillings, co-founder of

Mayer argued that just as a solution to the global flu pandemic called for more doctors and scientists, the economic crisis called for more management education: “How can we pay back the debt taken on through the financial crisis?” he said. “We need more knowledge and more research and trained management.”

Mayer, who teaches management studies at Oxford, said that at business school students think about “what business should be doing” and also about “why to do it one way or another.”

“That makes business education fundamentally different,” he said. “Business schools will play a role that neither business nor academia can alone perform.”    

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Walker, a senior vice president of Capgemini, a French consulting and IT services firm, argued that many parties were responsible for the crisis, including the mathematicians and scientists who designed complex financial instruments. He said he wanted more MBAs in his organization, which currently employs over 90,000 people.

“This is not an academic exercise,” he said. “This is business survival. In order for our business to survive, we are recruiting more MBAs than we've ever done before.”

“We need more graduates who can tell the difference between an asset and a liability,” he added. “We need individuals with a greater understanding of weaknesses of our overall system, that focused on bonuses without responsibilities.”

BusinessBecause's Jillings pointed out that global economic recovery depended on fast-growing emerging economies, where there is a shortage of skilled managers and where a new style of business education would contribute to improved productivity.

“The BRIC and Next Eleven countries, with projected growth rates of around five per cent will be key to the way business evolves,” she said. “It’s to these economies that we should be looking for the business leaders of the next decade.”

Demand for MBA programs was up in these countries: according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council the number of GMAT test takers has increased by 75 per cent since 2005 in the Asia-Pacific region and by 43 per cent in the Middle East and Africa.

Schools such as CEIBS in Shanghai and Skolkovo in Moscow are different to their North American and European counterparts, according to Jillings. Rather than case studies on Starbucks and Walmart, they use “local business cases and provide hands-on local internships.” Business programs at all-female Zayed University in Dubai are helping Emirati women to participate in the economy for the first time.

The panel opposing the motion tackled the content of the business school education. Professor Ken Starkey from Nottingham University Business School was joined by Victoria Lennox, founder of the National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs; and Harvard MBA-turned business school critic Philip Delves Broughton.

“MBAs are too focused on analytics, the students have too narrow a range of skills,” said Starkey, who teaches Management & Organizational Learning. “We have failed in our mission. What is missing is a broader wave of purpose. Our MBAs are technically competent but have lost the ability to examine themselves.

“Do we need 20 to 25 per cent of university students in our economy to study MBAs?” he added, citing Australia as a warning. “In a healthy economy, there should probably be less. We need graduates with other degrees.”

Starkey pointed to businesses that Harvard had held up as examples in case studies, including Enron and Royal bank of Scotland, and to notorious graduates such as George W Bush and Andy Hornby, former CEO of HBOS bank.

Broughton, author of What They Teach You At Harvard Business School, described an MBA education as “a collection of academic tools, taught by faculty members who haven't done business for a while.”

He criticized business schools for failing to teach hard skills, dismissing the MBA “tool-box” as a collection of disconnected theories - “Five Cs, four Ps and a few Ms” – with little practical value. While MBAs learn about marketing, he said, they cannot cope with sales.

The MBA, said Delves Broughton, is a like a Louis Vuitton handbag: “You are buying a luxury good that is actually not worth very much.

“What we need is leadership, which has nothing to do with MBA,” he added.

Lennox, who runs and entrepreneurs association, agreed: “business schools do not make leaders but cause paralysis of analysis.”

Entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, Muhammad Yunus and Coco Chanel had created wealth and jobs without any business education, and entrepreneurs were most likely to take the risks that will pull the world out of recession.

The audience, made up mostly of members of AMBA, a global business school accreditation body, showed support for both sides.

A Said Business School student said that MBAs were best suited to lead the world economy because of their understanding of finance.

A member of Kingston Business School’s faculty said changes to business school curricula were “often very slow and limited”.

Delves Broughton defended himself against criticism that he had profited unfairly from his MBA experience by writing a book about it. Making money off of one’s MBA degree was not a novel concept, he suggested, adding that he had no regrets.

“One of the nicest things about me writing it is people emailing me saying: 'thank you for writing a book that talks about things we really haven't got a chance to talk about at business school, because we were all busy filling out job applications'.”

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