Whither MBAs: Rigour, relevance and results | Sunday Observer

Whither MBAs: Rigour, relevance and results

30 August, 2020

The MBA has always been a sought-after qualification among managers. It has been hailed as a competency builder on the one hand and hacked as a money spinner for mushrooming institutions on the other.

I read with interest the constructively critical insights  by Dr. Rakesh Khurana on the elite Harvard MBA. It reminded me of Henry Mintzberg, the veteran management thinker who was also critical about the typical MBAs on offer.

On the local front, we launched the newest overseas MBA study group in Bahrain amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. During a pandemic, the role of managers becomes increasingly critical. All these prompted me to discuss the rigour, relevance and results in relation to a sound MBA program. Today’s column attempts to shed light on these.   


‘From Higher Aims to Higher Hands’ is the title of the treatise of Dr. Rakesh Khurana. He  shows that university-based business schools were founded to train a professional class of managers in the mould of doctors and lawyers but have effectively retreated from that goal, leaving a gaping moral hole at the centre of business education and perhaps in management itself. He clearly calls for reforms in management education. His criticism of the Harvard MBA as a uni-polar MBA as opposed to being a multi-polar MBA is worth reflecting on. 

According to Khurana, a uni-polar MBA trains managers to have lucrative carriers in multinationals and large conglomerates. Instead a multi-polar MBA should prepare the candidates in becoming entrepreneurs, setting up SMEs in fostering innovation and partnerships in offering best-cost solutions. It gave me a sense of satisfaction,  as the MBA we offer has the scenario of making one out of five of its recipient’s entrepreneurs. In fact, we want to double this ratio through the initiatives of the Business Incubation Centre. 


“Management is a practice. And you learn management by practising management. Experience is critically important. You don’t become a manager in a classroom and you certainly don’t become a leader in a classroom. Leadership is earned on the basis of people who choose to follow you. It’s not granted or anointed by some holy water granted in a school.” These are the very words of Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management, at the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. 

As observed by Harry Costin, “Mintzberg provides a useful distinction between business and management. He argues that MBAs teach the fundamentals of business functions, not the practice of management. What is lost in the discussion is that MBA literally means master of business administration, and therefore, even following Mintzberg’s argument, the degree does not disguise what it is really about. In essence, the term MBA itself is viewed as a misnomer. 

There is a wave of criticism of MBAs around the world. Especially after the global credit crunch and the collapse of giants led by MBAs, this negativity has gathered momentum. I myself have heard from CEOs lamenting that some of their MBAs know a lot of theory but sadly lack the practical approach in applying them into real issues. 

Taking this issue into a broader perspective, an ongoing debate in the USA has even reached a point to say that MBA awarding business schools have an identity crisis. I am confident that we will not allow that to happen to us. Yet, it is better to be proactive than being reactive.

According to the Forbes magazine, Business schools have always juggled two missions: Educating practitioners and creating knowledge through research. Fifty years ago, as explained in the 2005 HBR article ‘How Business Schools Lost Their Way’, business schools shifted their focus from the former to the latter.

Management became a science rather than a profession. This shift had profound implications. Business schools rewarded professors for publishing their research in academic journals, and their curriculum began to reflect the narrow focus of the faculty. Business school professors became increasingly disconnected from practising managers and leaders. By the mid-2000s, it became clear that business schools had swung too far in one direction.

Ironically, we have seen a large number of people with MBAs move up in their career ladder in occupying leadership positions. I see the issue is not with what MBA is but more of how MBA should be. I presume it is with this spirit that late Prof. Uditha Liyanage, former director of PIMA said, “Do not do an MBA but be an MBA”. We have gone one step beyond in requesting the MBA aspirants to “be brilliant as an MBA”. 

There was a time in Sri Lanka where managers facing interviews were asked whether they have an MBA. Now the key decision makers are smart enough to ask instead from where they got their MBA. Amidst a proliferation of a multitude of MBAs, still the authentic products have a high demand. 

MBA as a transformation 

During a previous MBA inauguration of PIM in Sri Lanka,  Chairman of Laugfs Holdings, W. K. H. Wegapitiya recalled his transformation through the PIM MBA. He shared how he gained confidence and competence in handling complex business matters thanks to the MBA experience. He in fact challenged the aspiring MBAs to be thorough with analytical skills on the one side and innovative ideas on the  other. 

With rapid technological advancements, the need to have blended learning with the use of ICT tools is on the rise.  Greater flexibility among students and high standards in institutions need to be maintained with proper balance. We have realised the need to ensure quality and relevance at all times. 

It was  Senior Consultant, PIM, Dr. Travis Perera who shared his thoughts many times on the dual aspects of MBAs. They are, in a way, consumers of PIM, receiving the education from us. At the same time they are co-producers of knowledge and skills. Hence the term borrowed from the marketing echelons, Prosumer aptly demonstrates their nature. 

Whenever an MBA inauguration of PIM is held, it prompts me to go down memory lane. I indeed went through that transformational experience. As I started off as an Engineer and then switched over to management, I realised that the MBA would train the learner with a holistic view of a situation. In brief, the learner will enhance the functional knowledge through a cylindrical view to broad business knowledge through a conical  view. This interconnectedness transforms the learner to appreciate other functions with a broader perspective or holistic view of the business. 

A good MBA curriculum should consist of business realities, challenges, new ways of looking at issues and produce out of the box solutions. From my own experience at PIM by talking to the alumni of MBA holders the single biggest factor in what makes them stand out among fellow peers is the self-confidence they have gained in experimenting, creating, innovating new pathways and questioning the traditional way of doing things. As a result, the MBA inculcates a mindset to tackle issues in an innovative and integrated manner. 

Simultaneously, having an MBA will enhance the market value of a person. As for entrepreneurs, they will have professionals producing value for their organisations in a sustainable manner at the end of the day. The ultimate outcome is the birth of a powerful social network sharing calibre and leading to dynamic forces within organisations and of course pursuing higher benchmarks in professionalism. 

Speaking from my own experience, holding an MBA changes a person’s attitude to fundamentally challenge and stretch one self. In other words, enhancing one’s capacity to cope with many fronts and priorities and thus maintain work-life balance. This aspect reiterates or complements the aspect of enhanced self-confidence in an MBA holder. Finally, the time dimension is as important and must cater for strategic and operational aspects of the business for sustainability in the long term. 

As the educational thresholds are ever going up, the Accreditation system and Quality assurance are of paramount importance in offering a standard MBA.  I think that the success of an MBA program reflects essentially on its Alumni. It gives me pride in stating that PIM being the pioneering MBA offering institution in Sri Lanka, has during its over 30 years of existence, produced over 300  CEOs, 3,000 senior managers and 30,000 trained professionals in one way or the other. It highlights the value of an MBA with quality and relevance, locally and globally. 

Way forward

I quote the author Aldous Huxley: “At the end of the day what matters is not how much you know but how much you have done”.  Simply, the MBA should not be limited to a paper qualification. The purpose of the MBA is to produce professionals not theoreticians. Being brilliant as an MBA will bring out professionals who will possess a holistic view of a situation and hence will innovate new ways of thinking through the ability to think on the feet and apply knowledge more systematically. An MBA will always bring new ways of doing things to the table and deliver results for long-term sustainability of an organisation. Thus, the MBA is essentially employability and professionalism.

MBAs  should never be Mentally Below Average. It should always be Mind Before Action. It reminds me of what Asian wisdom has taught us, the Seeing–Doing nexus. Samma Ditti (Right seeing) should lead to Samma Vayama (Right action). A good MBA helps the learner to see things clearly and do things cleverly. That’s what we need in a turbulent world with chaotic competition all over.