MBA – A Degree for Crooks?

Last week, The Economist ran a story on the MBA degree, following a recent spate of articles blaming business schools for the unethical behaviour of MBA graduates, leading to scandals such as Enron, Tyco and WorldCom.

The critics claim that MBA students are taught according to economics principles of maximizing wealth and that this “frees them from any sense of moral responsibility” for what they do in the business lives. The Economist points out that this view stems from a gross misunderstanding of the MBA degree and that students and employers alike are wrong in assuming that the MBA is a qualification for business leadership. Just as law or medical degrees are necessary but not sufficient for the making of good lawyers or doctors, so business degrees provide skills and knowledge but do not guarantee that a person will become a successful business leader.

From my experience, there is truth to both sides of the argument. All too often during my MBA studies I witnessed students and teachers adopting a stance that if a certain methodology is followed, success is guaranteed. The “case study” approach, which is the dominant approach in most leading business schools, has many merits but one of its failures is that a particular case study provides a false sense of cause-reason certainty. To prove (or disprove) a certain theory, a case study is brought forth as “proof” that the theory can (or cannot) succeed in a real business environment. This results in fallacies such as hasty generalizations or biased samples, leading to over-confidence in business being an exact science and businessmen being pesudo-scientists that can shape the market and the future of their companies solely by their actions.

Having said that, I do agree that an MBA degree cannot be blamed for the corporate scandals that rocked the business world in recent years. Honest people are not bred in business schools. Economic theories such as maximization of shareholder value or the agency paradox or competitive strategies are nothing but tools. Put them in the right hands, and they will be put into practice in a worthy manner; put them in the hands of crooks and they will use them to further unethical practices. Not unlike a doctor, who can use his knowledge to cure or to kill. In that sense, I agree with The Economist’s conclusion that “happily, there is no degree programme for [teaching maturity and wisdom]”.

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