Here's a riddle: What does the MBA have in common with the literary novel?
The answer? They're both dead. At least, that's what commentators and career academics in both disciplines seem to believe. The honest truth of the matter is that "dead," in these contexts, really means "confronted with a changing world." Here's how some schools and business insiders are working to align today's MBA with the demands of a high-tech, global age.
Taking in the big picture
In the 20th century, it may have been enough for an MBA curriculum to present its lessons from the specific perspective of Western corporate capitalism. These days, though, when money and ideas can move around the world in a fraction of second, it's becoming necessary for MBA programs to approach a more diverse set of business paradigms.
Colombia Business School, for example, has opened the international context to students pursuing its general MBA track. The Manhattan institution's "global immersion" option contains intensive study of one country's specialized business environment and culminates in an opportunity to spend valuable time on the ground in that locale.
One of the more radical b-school innovations of the decade has to be UC San Diego's VirBELA, or Virtual Business Environment for Learning and Assessment. VirBELA uses an 3-D immersive online environment to help MBA candidates from around the world better visualize the challenge of distributed management. Working in teams, students are given the opportunity to run simulated companies and learn firsthand what its like to make strategic business decisions and compete for market share.
Doubling down on details
Savvy institutions have realized that an MBA should bring a different sort of value to a science or engineering career than it does to a purely business one. With that in mind, Texas Tech announced that 2014 will mark the beginning of a new one-year MBA specifically tailored to students with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The Lubbock school's STEM-targeted MBA has solid numbers to back it up -- according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the total number of bachelor's degrees earned in science and technology disciplines went up a staggering 252 percent between 1991 and 2011. The program's combination of specific demographic targeting and a comparatively small investment of time might help millennial MBA students get the sort of ROI that was expected out of the degree in its heyday.
Cornell University's Johnson School of Management is taking a similar tack with a 2014 debut offering tuned specifically for students hoping to work with tech startups. University brass reached out to startups and tech companies while developing the degree, and the resulting curriculum places a heavy emphasis on applying the knowledge learned in class and demonstrating valuable startup-ready skills like consumer insight and product development.
Leaving the classroom behind
According to Cliff Oxford, Emory '94 MBA and founder of the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs, a focus on skills, application of knowledge, and other hands-on elements of business education is long overdue.
"Entrepreneurs generally don't do well outside their preferred environment (the real world) and the students don't get any real sense of how fast the business world moves," Oxford writes in a New York Times op-ed. "While I wouldn't say the current traditional MBA is useless, it is pretty much like having athletes studying game film but never practicing on the field."
The MBA is dead, long live the MBA
In conclusion, yes, there is hope for MBA programs. The current period of transition may necessitate a little extra research to find the right program for your individual needs, but the MBA market is making big strides, and seems unlikely to fall completely out of step with the career market any time soon.
It's important to note, however, that the in-demand business degrees of the future may be unrecognizable to people who insist that the MBA of their generation is the only true MBA. In that sense, MBAs (and novels, for that matter) might rightly be pronounced dead after all.
"MBAs need a fresh set of skills for the 21st century," Kendall Roth, Financial Times, December 8, 2013, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/d1df89ee-46d7-11e3-9c1b-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2otQhirba
"The changing face of the MBA curriculum," John Authers, Financial Times, December 8, 2013, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b52b57d8-5d07-11e3-81bd-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2o3TekyCc"
"UC San Diego Rady School Launches VirBELA, a Virtual World for Business Education," Graduate Management Admission Council, Yahoo! Finance, September 4, 2013, http://finance.yahoo.com/news/uc-san-diego-rady-school-130100634.html
"Tech launches new STEM-focused MBA program," Blake Ursch, Financial Times, December 5, 2013, http://lubbockonline.com/education/2013-12-04/tech-launching-new-stem-focused-mba-program#.UsB1AbTflAN
"Cornell's New MBA Could Shake Up How Leaders Emerge In Tech," Alison Griswold, Business Insider, December 18, 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/cornell-johnson-tech-mba-2013-12
"Assessing Whether Entrepreneurs Should Get M.B.A.'s," Cliff Oxford, The New York Times, December 10, 2013, http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/10/assessing-whether-entrepreneurs-should-get-m-b-a-s/?_r=1