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Masterclasses they're not

Sun, 27th Jun 2004

MANAGEMENT is in crisis and the MBA, the flagship course of most business schools, bears a substantial part of the blame. Such is the thesis of Henry Mintzberg's indignant and stimulating new book, Managers Not MBAs

Although the headline message itself is not new, having been refined over at least 15 years in countless revisions, this is nonetheless a powerful statement and a terrific read: Mintzberg is a fine writer with a caustic turn of phrase and to make his case he draws on inside knowledge as both member of the academy (professor of management at McGill University, Montreal) and a distinguished strategy researcher in his own right.

But what gives the book its resonance is that it is 'a book about management education that is about management'. Both the MBA and its practitioners are deeply troubled, in Mintzberg's view, but locked in an infernal embrace which means that 'neither can be changed without changing the other'.

This is because the assumptions of the classical US-based MBA - some accidental, some ideological, many self-contradictory - have worked themselves deep into the body commercial and politic, where they are rarely questioned. The consequences, Mintzberg believes, are deeply corrupting of education, management itself and the wider society.

He starts from the principle that try ing to teach management to someone who has never managed, as most MBA programmes do (Mintzberg specifically exempts some UK courses from his criticism), is as misguided as 'trying to teach psychology to someone who has never met another human being'.

Worse, by elevating management 'science' (analysis) over its equally important components of craft (experience) and art (vision), current business teaching equips unsuitable people with both potential weapons of mass destruction and the massive overconfidence to use them. Paradoxically, MBAs teach little about the real, messy, difficult business of managing: they teach business functions and management disappears in the interstices between them.

'MBAs haven't been trained to manage, and many don't have the will for it,' Mintzberg writes. 'But they are determined to lead. So a trajectory has been developed to take them round management into leadership. The trouble ... is that many of these people make dreadful leaders, precisely because their hands are off the business. In fact, the landscape of the economy is now littered with the corpses of companies of headstrong individuals who never learned their business.'

An exaggeration? If MBAs are so disastrous, how come the US, the home and capital of the MBA, is still the most vibrant economy and its companies the most powerful in the world? Mintzberg's answer (implied, not fully spelled out) is that American companies have succeeded despite rather than because of current business education. A striking number of the most admired managers (Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Michael Dell) don't have MBAs, and plenty of MBA-led firms, with Enron at their head, have plunged to disaster.

Moreover, the costs of today's paradigm - 'training the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences' - are escalating all the time. In the grip of their own business goals, business schools are legitimising practices they should be challenging. Businesses are frenziedly becoming leaner and meaner, driving people harder and exploiting both workers and customers in the name of (academically sanctioned) shareholder value. Startlingly, Mintzberg argues that, rather than producing flexible, progressive entrepreneurs (on the whole, MBAs aren't particularly entrepreneurial), MBAs are breeding a new race of big-company bureaucrats, at home in the world of formal analysis and control but ill-equipped to operate in the webs, networks and teams of today's evolving organisations.

As for society as a whole, how strange, notes Mintzberg, that an America so proud of throwing off the yoke of British aristocracy should now be congratulating itself on producing one all of its own. America, particularly, he argues is a society tilted crazily out of balance, its public sector distorted and demeaned by 'MBA management syndrome', 'ambling around like an amnesiac pretending to be business', developing mission statements, looking for 'customers' to serve and merging everything in sight.

Is there any light amid the gloom? Some. Mintzerg exonerates the UK from blanket criticism, noting the growing number of specialised MBA programmes (MBA without the A), including for public-sector managers, and long-established courses for practising managers (the right people at least).

A growing number of academics accept, at least in private, that something is amiss with a system that is as fragmented and departmentalised as the commercial firms it criticises, and that competes primarily on the basis of the salaries graduates can command rather than more fundamental criteria. Mintzberg is not alone in believing that breaking vested academic interests is an important part of the way forward.

Finally, thoughtful practicising managers are becoming increasingly troubled by the contradictions that MBA management leads them into. Although some corporate social responsibility is cynical PR, its huge and instant popularity can also be viewed as something more hopeful: a massive pent-up desire for legitimacy which today's officially approved management models can't provide.

Again counterintuitively, what management education needs is not 'relevance' and 'practicality', as the parrot cry has it. Managers, as Mintzberg points out, live practice every day. What they really need is insight: theories or models that enable them to make sense of practice, learn from experience and reach better judgments. That's what business schools should be for, not turning out MBAs.

Managers not MBAs, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall, pounds 24.99

The Observer, 27 June 2004


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