Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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The End of Money Grubbing

Published By: The Independent - 19 Jan 2010

Are business schools to blame for the financial crisis? Have they churned out business leaders who can only think of profit, and nothing else? Most business school chiefs now willingly acknowledge that MBA programmes have not been as balanced as they might have been. There has been too much emphasis on gung-ho company case studies, on complex financial models, and on the study of leadership as an heroic, individualistic calling. Curiously, though, none believe that their own graduates have been part of the problem. Instead, like toddlers fighting in a playpen, they are keen to point to rival schools as the source of such tunnel-vision products.

Nevertheless, there is barely a business school in the world that is not now tweaking its MBA curriculum into a new shape for the post-crash world. Out is going yesterday’s confident financial swagger, in is coming new attention to collaboration, stewardship and human psychology. And this applies even to the most prestigious schools.

At INSEAD, for example, whose MBA is currently ranked 6th in the world by The Financial Times, there is a whole new approach to the way ethics is taught. Instead of having a single day devoted to the subject at the beginning of the programme, students now discuss ethical issues at the end of each unit of study. “In fact you can’t really teach ethics,” says dean J. Frank Brown. “What you are trying to do is develop people’s moral compass, so what you have to do is engage in a discussion about grey areas, and it’s a challenge because you have many different cultures and there may be very different perceptions of what the issues are. But what we are trying to do is to shine a brighter light on the whole area.”

He believes that one problem with business education in the past has been that too many students have come off programmes and “behaved like sheep, just following the next person. What we tell our MBAs is that through the rigorous training they have here, they should come out with the self-confidence to make decisions based on facts and be prepared to stand up against things they don’t agree with.

“I also believe we need to write more case studies. We need to look at some failure stories, and how failure can be turned into success. We perhaps have been teaching with rose-colored glasses. But too much of any single approach is never a good thing. We need to teach by case studies, by simulation and by action research.”

“Of course, you need to have a whole mix of things,’ says Chris Bones, dean of Henley Business School, “but our view is that you need a clear view of your purpose and what you think you are doing. Things did, in the past, tend to become all about ‘me’, and far less about ‘us’, but we changed our curriculum four years ago, which was prescient given what has happened since.”

At Henley, the aim is to develop morally-grounded leaders who will make the right choices for their organisations, themselves and their communities. Students now follow a course in personal development and, when studying finance, look at risk, responsibility and prudence.

However Bones, also stresses that it is vital that the right people take MBAs, pointing out that Henley tends to have older students than many other business schools, who are usually ready and able to reflect on such issues.

Valerie Gauthier, associate dean of the MBA programme at HEC, in Paris, also believes “the way you recruit students should change because with an MBA it is very important who you put together. People who are simply looking at an MBA as something for short-term profit and benefit are not going to be the people that you want, so at HEC we put a very high emphasis on the initial test and interview. We ask ‘What have you done to serve your family and community?’ and if we get a blank, then that helps us to sort people out. We believe that the more you give, the more you receive, and that is the mindset you have to have to participate at HEC. As a result, we are tending to see a huge increase in the number of our students going to work in non-government organisations, and this is affecting the spirit of all our MBAs, including those going into banking and consultancy.”

HEC is currently reviewing its elective programmes, looking to cut some finance courses and restructure others, and Gauthier believes that students also need a broader understanding of the world as a whole -- the role of public-private partnerships, the role of the state, politics and sport, and the history of finance. “If business schools have a responsibility it is that they should be training students to look to the future, to look at our environment and where we should be going.”

At IMD, the Lausanne-based business school whose MBA is currently ranked 14th in the world by The Financial Times, a raft of recent changes have been made to its MBA programmes, all designed to help grow responsible leaders, who will, according to president John Wells “always test what impact their decisions have on society, and what they have contributed.” These changes include the introduction of a course of “critical integrated thinking” designed to encourage students to be more thoughtful and questioning about the information they are given, and a new course on communication and networking skills. The school also offers an enhanced corporate social responsibility course. “Business schools have a very serious responsibility for developing leadership, and in that regard we have to make changes and we should look at doing more,” says Wells.

But Michael Luger, director of Manchester Business School, questions some of the criticism levelled at MBA programmes. “A lot of fingers have been pointed at business schools but some of that is an over-simplification. The use of quantitative financial models has come in for criticism, but we mustn’t forget there is some validity in studying those and, anyway, quantitative finance has only ever been a small part of what we do.”

Even so, he stresses, Manchester, which has a new MBA director, is constantly updating its programmes, “and after the crisis this is more important than ever.”

But for J. Frank Brown the issues facing business schools are much wider than merely their MBA programmes.

“I also believe business schools should play a bigger role in continuing education. You shouldn’t think that once you’ve got your education, then you’ve got it for life and wash your hands of it. There is a real need for people to stay current. And many companies, if they think about this at all, tend to focus on the softer skills, but you need the hard ones as well. People need to know what’s current in finance. So I think we need to be looking to do more in this whole area.”

Even so, in all his time at INSEAD, says Brown, echoing the views of many of his fellow business school leaders, “I have simply never observed the kind of greedy, money-grabbing MBA of popular legend.”