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The Managerial MBA: Classroom Lab Experience
By Darrell Cockerham and Robert W. Service
Recent articles in the popular press and pronouncements in well-read business books, a University’s attempt to revamp their MBA program and current experience in an MBA program, all caused us to pause and ask a tough question. Why must there continue to be so much talk of the need for new MBA approaches in today’s global environment of open and abundant information? It should be a foregone conclusion that the MBA is the terminal degree for practicing managers. As such, MBA programs must be fluid to be effective. Indeed, most of the current people in the workforce with MBA behind their names are managers practicing something other than Wall Streetism, investmentism, or venture capitalism. From McCormack’s 1984 What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School and Mintzberg’s 2004 Managers Not MBAs to 2007 articles, we continue to see reports of what students are not getting in business education compared to what they need. Yes, we continue to ignore the message of the need to educate toward understanding people, managing impressions and perceptions and solving problems: that is to manage one’s self and others.
The majority of MBA programs, if we are to believe the current press and our own experiences1, teach the students to do deals and get jobs! Our research question becomes; what should the typical MBA program look like and why? Our answer is that the typical MBA program should be a managerial MBA, not a technical MBA. This paper attempts to make a case for and define more clearly some percepts relating to our version of the constantly flexible “Managerial MBA”.
We see in faculty meetings, MBA classes and articles on this topic proof of the findings of Williams and Ceci: “for many years, academic freedom is stifled, or at least muted. . . . Our survey leads us to conclude that tenure is not living up to its original promise: It does not liberate professors to exercise the freedoms of speech, writing, and action (2007: p. B16).” Our article’s intent is to change the timid approach and show how an MBA must become primarily a managerial degree. In our collective experiences, discussions with 100s of cohorts (both professors and working MBA students) and research into current pronouncements of what an MBA should be, we have come to the collective recognition of what the Masters in Business Administration as a managerial degree would be. Recognition of need and acceptance of key concepts for a managerial version of the MBA would save immense amounts of time and energy; and result in more effective managers with MBA behind their other titles.
The MBA experience should direct students to understand themselves, others and situations by learning to use collective work and life experiences in a more generalizeable fashion (Service and Arnott, 2006). Problem solving, strategic executive thinking, presentations, processes, management and contextual understandings must be the focus of the MBA. For by thinking to learn we learn to think. As Jack Welch said to an MBA class, “Just concentrate on networking. Everything else you need to know, you can learn on the job (Fisher, 2007: p 49; see also Welch, 2001).” Couple this with Sloan’s Dean’s statements: “I think there’s some validity to the critique that we’re good at teaching analysis but not good at teaching management. . . we are blending with practitioners more to bridge the gap between theory and practice. . . to better integrate academic theory with real-world applications (“At MIT, a time of Transition,” 2007: p. B4).”
Blend these proclamations with what Malone (2007) said of Mark Hurd, H-Ps New CEO: “He returned H-P to what he calls the basic “blocking and tackling” of getting products out on time, improving quality and service, and increasing profits margins. But perhaps the most important thing Mark Hurd did was to just shut up and work (A9).” Mixing these statements with a dash of Henry Mintzberg’s (2004) pronouncements of what is wrong with American MBA education and his suggested fixes, results in many apparent answers; but, as obvious as are the answers, one is left with even more questions. Yes, Mintzberg and many other authors offer convincing arguments that American education in business is flawed. They build their cases well and then offer solid suggestions. The problem revolves around over analysis, too much confidence in numbers and a desire for speed in an area were people and feelings are paramount. Suggestions relate to development over time that considers the individual manager and her ability to reflect and learn, understanding of contexts, relationships, worldliness, and change. Using these pronouncements as backdrops, we are presenting an example on how and what to do to improve the MBA.
We must begin all improvements toward the managerial MBA by developing improvements in teaching. This should start with MBA assignments that focus on student issues identified within their organizations that are difficult for them to address. These identified issues should culminate in reports, presentations and discussions of real world issues of interest to the MBA students. The students, and most importantly the professors, in MBA programs must think to learn and be able to adapt and adjust to the current and the difficult. The MBA process is more important than the MBA content: a pronouncement that many just do not want to accept. Taking part in a process to solve a real issue as a rule beats memorizing a formula or learning a specific process. Selection from a list of answers is not real life for understanding beats categorization every time.
The professors and their students should address the more significant issues identified in the class as real issues and applications, not as far away outdated cases. Assigned readings must help develop theoretical frameworks for use in addressing “our” practical applications not some group of contrived issues. Prewritten cases are real, but most are not realistic for the types of issues most in the typical MBA class will be facing anytime soon. Focus should vary and include: strategy, management, HR, IS, operations, globalization, quality, customer service, societal and ethical issues, finance and accounting, marketing, career management, life management, presentation and persuasion, ethical dilemmas, evaluation and leadership. However, regardless of area, discipline or function, the primary focus must always end up on the managerial issues not on the technicalities. Jointly professors and students should set the tone for classes and select the issues addressed. Moreover, each solution or suggestion should end by considering implications at higher and higher levels within an organization. For by continuing to think at lower levels, one will remain at that those levels.
We must questions closely those that say we have to give students what they would get in those undergrad operations classes, stats classes, finance classes, accounting classes and MIS classes for a foundation before entering an MBA program. Note that we said classes, not courses, for the all too often the “classes’ concept is too often a dated seat-time issue. Seat time in almost no way equates to learning.
We must instead teach unique functional areas as responsibilities to be managed by our MBAs in the future. If a student wants to be an IS techie, finance guru, accountant or investment banker they can get that though individual study or electives or perhaps another masters. These technical needs are not the norms for MBA graduates. The typical MBA needs to know how to solve problems, make decisions, manage and, yes, even lead.
Example: Putting Management in the MIS Course
The primary purpose of a University's MBA degree should be to prepare individuals for expanded managerial responsibilities: specifically, for general management roles. The intent of at least one Information System (IS)/Information Technology (IT) course must be to help prepare students to “manage” the IS/IT function from the broader perspective. It is a given that anyone reaching upper managerial levels of an organization will have an IS/IT function to manage. The function may be in-house, or it may be outsourced in whole or in part. Regardless of the specifics, managers must be able to manage the function for sustainable strategic and competitive advantage. Management of the IS/IT function, referenced in this paper as MIS, is becoming increasingly important and must be treated as seriously as the management of any other business function, i.e. finance, marketing and accounting.
An MIS course must examine the successful origination, development, implementation and diffusion of information systems enabled by emerging technological change. Concepts and techniques of strategic management of IS and technology for competitive advantage must be explored, by reviewing the interaction of IS/IT with other strategic variables related to the support of all functional areas within an organization. Managers of the future must understand how IS/IT can be used to improve organizational effectiveness and efficiency and thus position companies for the highly competitive and ever changing marketplace (Andrews, 2002).
For most MBA students another technical "how to" course is a “waste of time.” As an MBA student recently said: “That IS course is a waste of all of our time. Not a one of us needs to know how to use another software product. We hire people that are capable of learning software products and train them on the specifics of our systems that are not like anyone’s I know. I want to learn more about managing the IS/IT function and to know enough about the technical details not to be fooled, not how to build a damn web page (a mid-level Utility Company manager).”
This article can only provide a flavor of the IS/IT functional knowledge that needs to be developed within the MBA for there is more to “teaching” management of the IS/IT function that we can fit within a reasonable word count. We selected the IS/IT area because that is our collective technical and managerial backgrounds.
The primary emphasis should be on getting across that one must always start any technological decision by defining the “what” of the needs before considering the “how” of decisions. Too many people get hung-up with how something will be done before they really define what needs are to be met. In all technologies, the “techies” start thinking about how before they understand what. Techies get prematurely physical; managers, MBAs and professors must not. Technology is all about leverage used to solve real problems and address real opportunities, and must start by addressing what you want to accomplish. These same goals must be the purpose of any technology. Having a certain technology, IS or otherwise, in order to have the latest and the greatest is a disaster in the making. It is not about the latest, it must be about using IS/IT and other technologies to:
The real MBA (that is real management) questions are: How can we manage or lead our IS/IT functions, or other technology-based functions such as R & D, robotics, and plant automation, to better meet our potential; and how can we use IS/IT or technology to improve our strategic management of the organizations we lead? It all starts with better use of existing tools, and then proceeds to innovation of processes, methods, and self, before it goes to invention and totally new applications. Most everyone can use IS/IT at a high level. To get any competitive advantage or innovative edge from this technology is very difficult, to say the least. Every technology you choose—IS or otherwise—should address at least the following seven considerations:
Note that in actuality there is a circular relationship between technology and business needs: they drive each other. IS has moved from the processing of transactions to providing data or information for the ‘C’ (Chief) Executive. That is in part the reason for the title of ‘CIO’. There is a tremendous value residing in information and forms of organizations and management directed at innovativeness (Service and Boockholdt, 1998). Business IS problems generally revolve around merging of the old and the new technologies. One example is using IT to address sustainable competitive advantage at any of the five points of Porter's five forces model: 1) power of buyers, 2) power of suppliers, 3) threat of new entrants, 4) possibility of substitutes, or 5) competition within your industry. Or, we might see in a global sense that internationally IT, and the resulting IS, is a force for social, political, and economic change. This could also be said of all new technologies. There are people disconnected or thrown out of work because they adapted technology for technology’s sake, intending it to replace or leverage human activities, mental or physical. We have become so fascinated by gee-whiz technologies that there is very little that we might predict about technology that would seem farfetched.
Given these very broad conclusions, how can a GM help the manager of IS/IT? Remember: We could be asking these questions of all types of technology, but we are using IS/IT as an example because it is the central area of our collective expertise. First, you must avoid the common pitfall in using IS, that is, the common approach to just automating the old instead of rethinking the new way of doing business given the potentiality of IS/IT as it currently exists. The best way to avoid the common pitfall is to exercise an extremely disciplined approach to making forecasts, judgments, considering the extremes or preferences too heavily, or letting emotions rule. We do this by listening to and looking at a lot of other possibilities that are outside our preconceived notions and that take into account the "common pitfalls" shown later in this article. One of IS's greatest potentials is in helping organizational leaders make more rational decisions by pointing out biases and alternatives outside of one's norms. You can build testing and disciplines into your Decision Support Systems (DSS) that can uncover errors in thinking before they become errors in decision and execution, or you can make them simply reporting systems. The design guidelines and basic approaches to using the systems are where the GM excels or takes a step back into the past.
The focus of the topic of discussion here is a complex set of hi-low-no-technology tools, methods, procedures, models, and methodologies tailored to meet clearly defined needs. And, as such, the best way to learn about the "tools" and their capabilities is to apply them. You are being asked this about IS/IT here, but you can ask the same questions about your technology. Simply put, MBAs (GMs) must learn the capabilities of and their expectations for technology before using the technology. We cannot go into a lot of detail about the required knowledge here, for that would require many volumes and a different Masters degree beyond the MBA. However, we can do the next best thing, which is to think through the application of some fairly well know tools using MBA (student) problems.
There has been an infusion of useful books and articles that could be of use in developing a better MIS course. For a representative sample of this category of literature see, Albrecht (2003); Barner (2000); Barney (1991); Becker, Huselid, and Ulrich (2001); Cohen and Prusak (2001); Collins (2001); Levitt and Dubner, (2005); Gaynor (2002); Goldsmith et al (2003); Goleman, (1995); Greenleaf (1991); Jick and Peiperl (2003); Pinker (2002); and Sternberg (1996). These authors look at topics such as teaming, developing innovative mindsets, evaluation and comparisons, leadership, and change. However, their real usefulness relates primarily to the attention needed for the human element involved in learning, managing, and leading a more “technical” function. The focus of a solid MIS course must not be on the technical aspect of IS/IT but rather geared toward the interactive human element, which is much more difficult to manage.
The [technology] doesn't manage, the people do (p.16). . . . You need to solve the management problems and get the relationships between functions sorted out before you can fire up the [technology] (Jacobs and Whybark, 2000, p. 12).
Future GMs (our MBAs!) must address the following two questions: 1) What drives managers to adopt new information technologies to improve work; specifically knowledge work? 2) How can IS/IT meet the need for increased responsiveness to customers, more speed, improved geographic reach, leverage of intellect, and faster organizational learning.
Appendix 1 provides success guidelines on what goals “strategic” IS must meet. In fact, the information in this Appendix has proven very useful in addressing many project development (technical or otherwise) issues that have arisen in MBA classes. For we often see that the implementation of IS to meet these pressing needs often changes the entire nature of the task, the management of the assignments, and the relationship of the task to other activities within the organization. Former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan said: “Information technology has begun to alter, fundamentally, the manner in which we do business and create economic value (Melloan, 1999: p. A27).” Indeed, the more capable the technology in terms of embedded knowledge or expertise, the more dramatic organizational change it generates.
In the information age, the organizations that survive will be those that succeed in using computer-based IS to provide sustainable competitive advantage. Competitive advantage refers to the ability of an organization to provide products or services that are distinctive and more desirable than those provided by the competition. In other words, the answer to the question of why someone would chose to do business with your organization rather than a competitor.
Greenspan further stated that these technologies did not "just happen, they were incubated," and that analyzing how this occurred could provide important lessons for organizations. A valuable MBA technical course must stress managerial, strategic, and design guidelines in order that students and professors might learn more about leveraging the available power of new technologies. Managing precludes using in importance for GMs; and we all want our MBAs to become GMs. This understanding for use requires new approaches and mindsets for those who hope to exploit new technologies. With that said, our next question becomes: How can students learn to manage those far-reaching changes? Hopefully, we have demonstrated a little of how MBAs can be guided to consider how IS/IT can be better be utilized by organizational management. We also trust we have offered some useful some hints on how an MBA MIS course needs to be designed to help managers of the future understand how to manage towards those ends. These limited basic guidelines and explanations will only be worthwhile if the reader learns to reflect and generalize from courses to new situations.
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