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Vision of the MBA Program

Robert F. Bruner* (March 1995)

Consider an MBA Program motivated by ideals for its graduates in the future:
Effective leaders as well as administratively competent managers. The leader-manager embodies a wide range of positive attributes including being an effective communicator, having a practical action orientation, behaving with integrity, compassion, and toughmindedness, and being able to create and convey meaning and vision to those around him or her.

Masters of a comprehensive core body of knowledge. Mastery includes not only familiarity with tools and concepts, but also the ability to apply them effectively.

Wise judges. Growth in judgment is the highest value-added in professional education. A business school's ability consistently to deliver on growth in judgment will be the foundation for continuing prominence in the MBA arena. Critical attributes of the wise judge include the ability to assimilate a wide variety of information, synthesize a useful systemic perspective from that information, assess practical business problems in all their complexity, formulate and test new hypotheses and frameworks that describe the world, and simply, decide well on average and over time.

Lifelong learners. The business world changes at an increasing pace. Competitive advantage will accrue to those individuals and firms that learn well, and on the basis of that learning, adapt. Graduates should cultivate a zest for ideas and an intellectual curiosity about the world. They should understand and be able to use the wide array of information sources and information technologies available to them. They should engage with confidence and sensitivity countries and regions outside of the United States.

Whole persons. If not already implied by the foregoing, graduates should be well-rounded individuals rather than narrow technicians. Graduates should be interesting people who carry themselves with high ambitions and ideals, and are able to converse on topics of interest and importance to business and society.

Vision of the Two-Year MBA Program

To achieve this ideal of the MBA graduate, consider a two-year program that develops students at four levels. These four levels are listed in rising order of "value-added" to the student, and to corporate partners.

Level 1. Basic understanding of core tools and concepts. The task of the student here is to acquire "the basics" of the Areas. The intellectual challenge is one of induction: to assemble a working grasp of core knowledge from its various parts.

Level 2. Applying good practice. The task of the student here is to develop sound judgment about the efficient and effective application of core knowledge. To "apply" means not only to use the tools correctly, but also to extract practical insights and actionable recommendations from the results of those tools. In our current program, this is as high a level of development as many of our students achieve.

Level 3. Modification and reinvention of practice: building critical judgment. The task of the student here is to develop an inquiring and challenging mind-set. Skills of advanced problem identification, clinical probing, capacity for independent and original learning, and systems thinking are evidence of attaining this level. Critical thinking should be a desideratum of any excellent university education.

Level 4. Creating new ways of thinking and new analytical tools. This highest level is characterized by an ability to invent: to take creative leaps from a base of commonly understood core knowledge, which has been applied well through an inquiring and challenging mind-set.

Levels #1 and #2 are the attainment of many MBA programs. A sustainable contribution by business schools to the world of business lies in providing an MBA education that advances students through the higher levels (i.e., #3 and #4). The neglect of these higher value-added levels in the B-school industry today is the very focus of critics of MBA education.

This assessment implies a rather different program from the one that presently exists at the typical school.

First, the program must deliver more depth of core knowledge mastery, and faster. If the highest value is added at levels #3 and #4, the program must help students progress to those levels as expeditiously as possible. To achieve this, schools must be prepared to resort to any pedagogical style and technique deemed most effective. Also, schools must explore ways to meet the needs of different segments of students, rather than assume that a one-size-fits-all program will do a good enough job.

Second, the program must exercise much more actively the higher levels of professional judgment and critical thinking. Most classes are pitched at levels #1 and #2. Business schools need to raise the bar. This will require a concentrated effort, the development of new teaching materials, and the exploration of alternative pedagogical styles and techniques. Education at levels #3 and #4 often will be delivered more effectively if it is decoupled from education at levels #1 and #2. Higher levels of professional judgment require that greater depth, complexity, and sophistication be achieved in the classroom.

Third, the program must motivate, and help model, a learning mind-set. The point is not to feed students' intellects for two years at business school, but rather to teach them how to fish for ideas so that they may feed for a lifetime. Business schools themselves must begin to emulate true learning organizations. This includes showing a high rate of continuous curriculum innovation, and providing more flexibility in pedagogical styles and in curriculum.

Fourth, the program must employ student camaraderie and sense of community among faculty and students to create a platform for student engagement throughout the two-year experience. This program should generate a sense of energy and delight across both years. This will provide a platform to promote greater student-centered learning and encourage higher levels of learning.

*I thank numerous colleagues at the Darden Graduate Business School for their comments and criticisms of this statement, and for their participation in vigorous debate at Darden in 1995, for which this statement is partly responsible. Though I drafted this document, a number of these ideas originated in conversations with so many others that I have lost the threat of their provenance. I offer this to others in the humanistic spirit of debate and reflection on our field.