How MBA programs are changing to better meet the needs of businesses Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

MBA programs are changing just as much as the professions that they service. Tom Kennedy, director of MBA program and assistant professor of business administration at Delaware Valley College, says there are several major challenges that have forced the change.

“A lot of people have MBAs that were used to enter into investment banking and consulting careers, and the economic collapse has created a lot of questions about our curriculum,” Kennedy says. “Another challenge we face is that a lot of people are recruiting people without MBAs because they’re concerned about trying to retain them. Some people even think an MBA is a waste of parchment. Many people are starting to worry that the business school professors are more concerned with theory than with practical application.”

Smart Business spoke with Kennedy about how MBA programs have adapted to face these new challenges.

What steps can MBA programs take to meet the current challenges?

We need to revitalize our curriculums to make them more practical in application. We have to rely on the professors reworking their curriculum and syllabi to reflect that.

That’s important, because customers are requiring a shorter learning curve.

The cost of business today requires that, if executives hire you to join their business, they are expecting you to be able to jump right in and start helping the business right away.

The training cycles have been shortened. Businesses expect people with an MBA to be able to integrate into their company and think very quickly about big-picture implications, whether it’s in finance, accounting, marketing or operations. That’s the essence of a generalist MBA degree. Because of your education, you can break down those silos of business and look for the strategic solution the corporation is searching for.

In the graduate division and MBA programs, we are constantly looking at ways we can meet the market’s needs quicker, be more flexible and produce a real, value-added curriculum based on practical applications.

The academic world can be remarkably flexible. Graduate schools are evolving all the time. You’re going to see much more integrated curriculums going forward.

We’re at a crossroads, too, just like the organizations that we serve.

The final component is the ever-increasing awareness and need for getting the students out in the global marketplace. As companies become more global in their perspective and operations, MBA programs need to reflect this.

How are courses fighting the perception that they focus too much on theory and not enough on the practical?

One way is by doing more consultant work for local companies instead of the traditional case study management. Case studies mostly revolve around things that have happened already.

Forming consulting partnerships works especially well with small or medium-sized enterprises. The company comes in and explains its business problem to the students. Then, they begin to work on it and present their solutions to the company.

Helping small or medium-sized companies in real time makes the learning process livelier, timelier and more integrated.

The students can help them with anything from developing a marketing plan to a business plan. Sometimes nonprofits need help, as well, so MBA students can step in and provide consultancy to those companies to provide another perspective and another set of eyes to look at their situation.

It reinforces the idea of practical application. Here’s a real-world situation; chew on it, and present the company with alternatives to find solutions.

How can an MBA prepare executives-in-training for globalization?

One way is to send MBA students on study tours. The students get immersed in a country, and executives from the country they’re visiting talk to them about the challenges and issues they face. The use of telecommunications technology, such as Skype, to broadcast back and forth with other businesses is another way.

Third, some faculty works jointly with other colleges or universities to give the students a blend of what they need to know. For instance, I also teach at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, team-teaching with another professor on international marketing classes.

Americans need to understand more about how relationships are built because that’s the primary driver in global business. Americans are used to purely transactional activity. But you have to develop a relationship with people before they’ll do any business with you. We try to reflect that in our lectures.

That helps Americans understand there are different aspects and ways of doing business. You have to understand the cultural implications, the economic implications and the political implications. There is no better way to see that than to go out there, touch, feel and sense it. That really adds value to their education.

Down the road, when they get into situation where they are in a room with fellow professionals from Europe or Asia, they will have a sensitivity and awareness of where they’re coming from with their perspectives. That’s a huge challenge, harnessing those global employees into one team. It’s critical for the executives of the future.

Tom Kennedy is the director of MBA program and assistant professor of business administration at Delaware Valley College. Reach him at (215) 489-2322 or Thomas.Kennedy@delval.edu.