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Discussion: How scientifically sound are MBAs?

10 Post author: caffemacchiavelli 30 April 2014 09:06PM

I'm finishing up the first year of my distance-learning MBA, which has been a very confusing experience.

I went into the course partially as insurance against "unknown unknowns", i.e., lacking concepts important to building or running a business because I didn't know about them or underestimated their importance.

The first surprise within the course was the relative lack of explaining the utility of the particular models presented. Apart from the section on financial reporting, which did explain how you'd be able to solve practical problems by using particular budgeting tools or costing methods, concepts where generally presented as "This well-known management thinker came up with this, why don't you play around with it a little". 

Analysis and (subjective) discussion of course material was also the main focus of student assessment, which consisted of marked reports on a subject of the students' choice, usually a problem they'd be dealing with in their current position.

There were no quizzes, case studies with objectively correct answers (except for, again, financial reporting) or other problem-solving exercises.

Essentially, students are handed a lot of maps for whatever territory they're trying to analyze, but don't really receive any tool to judge the accuracy, let alone utility of said maps. For instance, I'd consider "Concept useful for describing why A does B well" and "Concept useful for helping A do B well" to be fundamentally different, but the course did not explicitly separate the two. (I've heard similar criticisms of Michael Porter's failed Monitor Group, so this may be a problem of business academics in general)

I fear that there will be a risk of training the stereotypically smug MBA, who has gained more confidence in their management skills even though they haven't proven their ability of making sound decisions.

I'm also starting to understand why so many entrepreneurs are dismissive of MBAs. Manoj Bhargava has a whole talk on the issue and Elon Musk isn't a fan, either. I'm not willing to argue that they're right, but on closer inspection, the field hasn't inspired much confidence in me. Even though I think that business administration should be taught in school, I can't help but feel that we're not quite there yet.

I still can't get the fog to clear completely and this post isn't as lucid as I want it to be, so I'd be happy to hear more arguments on the issue.

Comments (37)

Comment author: Lumifer 01 May 2014 04:24:45PM *  5 points [-]

distance-learning MBA

I think there's a lot of overgeneralization going on here.

In my subjective opinion, MBA programs are divided into three fairly different groups.

Group one is the top ten (give or take a few) programs (Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, etc.). Your peers are generally smart people and your chances of getting a good job once you graduate are excellent.

Group two is the rest of the accredited programs. To throw in some of my own overgeneralization, these are more or less useless. They can be useful for people who know precisely what they are doing there -- e.g. one guy I knew was an engineer who, his company said, needed an MBA to be promoted up, so he went and got one, and got promoted -- but are not good as education.

Group three is the non-accredited programs including all the online and correspondence courses. They are just useless and a waste of time and money.

As usual, YMMV.

Comment author: caffemacchiavelli 03 May 2014 03:12:35PM 2 points [-]

Do you think the Group 1 schools are superior to the rest as far as quality of material goes? I've been talking to a friend who goes to a well-known university in Europe and a fellow entrepreneur who visits an ivy-league US school, and while I don't have the full picture (or syllabus), they didn't seem much more impressed with the experience than I've been.

Comment author: Lumifer 03 May 2014 05:52:28PM 3 points [-]

Do you think the Group 1 schools are superior to the rest as far as quality of material goes?

What do you mean, "quality of material"? The textbooks they use, the business cases they discuss? That stuff is broadly similar.

The major differences are in who surrounds you (and, consequently, what the expectations are). The TAs and professors at top-tier schools can assume that there are very few stupid people among their students and so have no need to dumb down the teaching towards a low lowest common denominator.

It is also generally held as true that on the global scale all top-ten business schools are American.

Comment author: Barry_Cotter 06 May 2014 12:08:35PM 4 points [-]

It is also generally held as true that on the global scale all top-ten business schools are American.

Yeah, it's not really surprising that Americans think that. Being 5% of the world's population and 25% of its economy leads to understandable insularity of vision. The FT's 2014 businesses school ranking has London Business School, INSEAD in France/Singapore, IESE in Spain and HKUST in Hong Kong in the top 10. The latest Economist rankings have IESE in Spain and HEC in France in the top 10 as well.

The US is certainly dominant but it's not crushing dominance.

Comment author: redviking 10 May 2014 10:40:05PM *  4 points [-]

I'm a student at a top-ranked MBA program, and I spoke to caffemacchiavelli about this article. I agree with a lot of his points, and don't want to add too much right now since I'm in my first year and haven't fully had time to process and organize my thoughts around these complicated issues. However, I have a few points I'd like to make in response to people's comments:

  • Lumifer: Quality of people is different, but quality of education may not be that different at a top 10 school.

  • MattG: If you're in the Boston area and want to sit in on an MBA class, PM me. At my school, any MBA student can bring visitors into the class. And if you want to visit another school, just contact the admissions office and tell them you're interested in applying and would like to see what a class is like, they let people sit in all the time.

  • christopherj: I disagree that business is primarily a zero-sum game, there are a lot of strategies where you increase the size of the market and share benefits with customers (blue ocean strategy), employees (efficiency wages/Fordism), or even competitors (defining and creating new markets). E.g., a company my friend works for helps their competitor with safety issues, because bad press for their competitor would reflect poorly on their entire industry.

  • Aussiekas: It's true that MBA's as not useful for pursuing a PhD in business, and I think you're right that this is evidence against their educational value. At my school, they used to make the PhD students take MBA classes -- now it's optional, and PhD students I've spoken to say they like taking MBA classes to see how MBA's think, rather than for getting any educational value out of it. However, if you keep in mind that most of the value comes from the social experience/network, then it's not a case of the MBA being a ripoff that doesn't create value. As for whether the schools make money on the MBA programs, I can say that at my school, the MBA program actually loses money, and is subsidized by executive education (which is ridiculously profitable). Also the school makes money when its rich alums donate.

I've been reading LessWrong for a while and know a lot of people in the community, but this is my first time posting, so if I'm out of sync with any of the norms here, please PM me and let me know.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 May 2014 10:53:19PM 2 points [-]

Quality of people is different, but quality of education may not be that different at a top 10 school.

I don't think they are separable.

Education is not a function of what business cases you read or what does your syllabus say.

Comment author: christopherj 02 May 2014 12:53:58AM 3 points [-]

A huge chunk of an MBA'a job is to play a hostile asymmetric game against their employees (where their productivity has somewhere between negative value and positive sentimental value to them and their wages have negative value to you), and an approximately zero sum game against competitors, and a more neutral zero sum game against their customers trading quality and advertizing for price. These sorts of games are complicated and winning strategies change as the playing field evolves and your opponents change tactics. A working strategy could quite legitimately be described as "it simply works, don't ask why" because no one has quite figured out why. And different strategies will work better or fail miserably depending on who the other players are.

Comment author: sixes_and_sevens 30 April 2014 10:41:42PM 3 points [-]

I have very little knowledge of what an MBA syllabus consists of. Can you give some concrete examples of what you're talking about?

Comment author: caffemacchiavelli 30 April 2014 11:41:56PM 6 points [-]
Comment author: Davis_Goodman 01 May 2014 03:12:02AM 9 points [-]

I taught advanced English at the MBA level at one of Europe's most prestigious MBA programs and another prep course for a different well known MBA program. When I started the unit on market vocabulary I found that they couldn't explain what a publicly traded company was (towards the end of their MBA specialising in management and finance). I basically had to teach them both English and the fundamentals of economics, business and finance.

When I taught a unit on global warming and its effect on business...my students (most of them from Latin America) were sceptical that there was any evidence of global warming and they refused to do any research on it (I would have failed them for that but I was not effectively able to fail my student. I had to give them a second and third try. By then I realised I would be testing and retesting them (without extra compensation) until they passed. So I just passed them even though they barely studied or spoke English. They still couldn't explain what a share was and how it is publicly traded after teaching it three times in three different ways.

They had no idea what exactly an economic model was. The believed that investing in stocks was a very safe investment. They believed that chance plays almost no role in business and investing success. They believed that economic models (even though they couldn't tell me anything about it) was all the "evidence" one needed to justify any theory (the ones they agreed with such as full on pure free market capitalism).

Many of their teachers were CEOs of successful companies. The teachers did not use many sources of academic standard nor did they critically analyse much of their sources and "evidence" (let alone teach them how to critically analyse anything).

Some of the textbooks were OK in terms of university level material with chapters on how to objectively analyse theories, models, evidence etc. however those chapters were skipped.

Judging by conversations I've had with other students who have done MBA programs ... I have my serious doubts that MBA programs are scientifically sound. Good luck finding any funding to properly investigate this.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 01 May 2014 04:06:38PM 2 points [-]

Clueless students is not much evidence about epistemic status of the content of the courses they took. There are places that graduate similarly clueless physics and engineering students (who use the degree to get jobs doing something else).

Comment author: pianoforte611 02 May 2014 12:38:33AM 2 points [-]

Really? These students sound particularly clueless - the equivalent of a physics student who can't take a derivative or solve a statics problem. I'd be very surprised to find one of those in say MIT's grad school.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 01 May 2014 03:35:33AM *  2 points [-]

Nitpick: Investing in stocks can be safe...if their performance is sufficiently uncorrelated with each other.

Just to be clear (if you don't mind answering), are you referring to IE Business School? If so, I find this very surprising.

Comment author: Davis_Goodman 01 May 2014 03:28:14PM 1 point [-]

It was one of the highest ranking business schools in the world. It wouldn't be fair to "out" the school based on my own limited experience with one group of students.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 01 May 2014 04:13:40PM 0 points [-]

Okay, fair enough.

Comment author: brazil84 01 May 2014 04:07:59PM 1 point [-]

I taught advanced English at the MBA level at one of Europe's most prestigious MBA programs and another prep course for a different well known MBA program. When I started the unit on market vocabulary I found that they couldn't explain what a publicly traded company was (towards the end of their MBA specialising in management and finance). I basically had to teach them both English and the fundamentals of economics, business and finance.

When I taught a unit on global warming and its effect on business...my students (most of them from Latin America) were sceptical that there was any evidence of global warming and they refused to do any research on it

It's a huge red flag for me if someone tries to teach a controversial political issue in an English class.

However, I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that MBA programs are mainly selling credentials and not knowledge. If you are mainly interested in knowledge, you can probably get it for free online; in books; or by simply sitting in on MBA classes.

Comment author: Davis_Goodman 01 May 2014 04:48:34PM 5 points [-]

I used a case study (widely used in English classes in MBA programs) on how to deal with global warming in business situations. This ranges from predicting the future costs of global warming on business (or benefits), having a policy or stand on global warming, the benefits of using green technology in response to global warming etc. An international businessperson should be able to express their stance on environmental issues in English.

In continental Europe global warming is not particularly controversial in politics, public opinion, the business world or academia.

Far more controversial topics are taught in English classes. It's typical to open up a section of a class by stating an outrageous stance on a controversial topic to start up a heated debate. Students who otherwise stay quiet and uninterested in class engage in the class, speak spontaneously and learn to defend their views in English in a hostile environment.

Comment author: brazil84 03 May 2014 08:58:50AM *  4 points [-]

An international businessperson should be able to express their stance on environmental issues in English.

That sounds correct to me, however there is a danger that membership in a tribe other than that of the professor will undermine the student's grade or standing in the eyes of the professor. Which in fact looks like it may have happened in your case.

In continental Europe global warming is not particularly controversial in politics, public opinion, the business world or academia.

Well apparently it was controversial in your class. Anyway, so that I understand what you are saying, can you please tell me your definition of "global warming"?

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 03 May 2014 07:44:17PM 0 points [-]

Well apparently it was controversial in your class.

That struck me, too, so I reread, and the point is that disagreement was produced by mixing students from Latin America with a class in continental Europe.

Comment author: brazil84 04 May 2014 05:54:03AM *  3 points [-]

That struck me, too, so I reread, and the point is that disagreement was produced by mixing students from Latin America with a class in continental Europe.

I noticed that too, but I think it doesn't really undermine my point that he injected a politically controversial issue into an English class. Perhaps a better way to put it is to observe that he injected an issue where beliefs depend a lot on tribal membership so to speak. Even if most of the people where the university is located are members of the Correct Tribe, it's still a red flag.

ETA: Besides which, I am skeptical of the claim that "global warming" is uncontroversial in continental Europe as opposed to other parts of the world. (Of course it is unclear what "global warming" means and interestingly a lot of the fervent believers in "global warming" are not able to define the phrase.)

Here is the Wikipedia article on "Climate Change Opinion by Country."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_opinion_by_country

In particular, have a look at the maps in the upper right. It actually looks like people in Latin America are MORE likely to believe that "rising temperatures are a result of human activities" than people from continental Europe.

Comment author: MattG 01 May 2014 05:45:45PM 2 points [-]

or by simply sitting in on MBA classes.

How would one go about doing that? If you tried to just walk into a small graduate level class, wouldn't they just kick you out?

Comment author: brazil84 02 May 2014 12:18:12PM 5 points [-]

How would one go about doing that? If you tried to just walk into a small graduate level class, wouldn't they just kick you out?

I went to college and grad school classes of all sizes and nobody ever checked my ID to make sure I had a right to be there.

Comment author: Desrtopa 03 May 2014 03:29:53PM 0 points [-]

Were you officially allowed on campus at all?

Some colleges are more strict about letting people in than others, but particularly in city campuses, I've found that without prior appointment, you usually won't be allowed access to the areas where classes take place at all.

However, once you're allowed in for any reason, generally nobody will check whether you're supposed to be in any specific part of campus you choose to visit.

Comment author: brazil84 03 May 2014 04:53:20PM 3 points [-]

Were you officially allowed on campus at all?

I'm not sure I understand your question, but anyway I went to grad school in an urban area of a major city and there were no ID checks during business hours, i.e. when classes were held. There was security to keep thieves and other ne'er-do-wells out but not to keep people from auditing classes.

In theory you did need ID to get into the libraries but that could be easily circumvented -- apparently if the library has government documents they cannot deny entry to the general public.

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 May 2014 04:26:03PM 2 points [-]

It's a huge red flag for me if someone tries to teach a controversial political issue in an English class.

Why?

Comment author: brazil84 02 May 2014 12:19:01PM 0 points [-]

Why?

That's a good question . . . I will send you a private message with my answer.

Comment author: niceguyanon 30 April 2014 10:18:37PM *  3 points [-]

I'm also starting to understand why so many entrepreneurs are dismissive of MBAs

Entrepreneurs don't have to signal to themselves how smart and capable they are. However, for a white shoe management consultant firm, recruiting MBAs from target schools is just a routine filter, and not dismissed at all.

Comment author: caffemacchiavelli 03 May 2014 03:20:28PM 2 points [-]

Elon's and Manoj's statements caught my interest since hiring MBA-types is assumed to be a standard move for entrepreneurs who have completed the exploratory phase of reaching product-market-fit and are trying to scale up quickly.

Even if you're highly skilled in entrepreneurial and/or executive tasks, you'll need somebody who deals with monitoring, dissemination and handling low-key disturbances. To be honest, I always assumed that you should hire MBAs for this, but now I'm a little more wary.

Comment author: Aussiekas 03 May 2014 01:17:54AM *  1 point [-]

What wasn't mentioned here, but in passing so far, is the economic benefit to the university for running the programs. I have read about how these prestigious universities offering these coursework only masters degrees, of all types, do not even accept the degree as part of their PhD program. Say you went to Harvard and did a thesis based masters in business instead, then you'd be a shoe-in for the PhD program. But the coursework style Masters programs, including MBAs, are not useful for that purpose. This shows that the universities tacitly acknowledge that no useful academic knowledge has been imparted in their coursework masters programs. Ref. article here--> http://chronicle.com/article/Those-Master-s-Degree/146105/

Mind you, I'm only using this as a metric of value by the university of its own programs. I am not advocating some superiority of the PhD in the field of business where it has little known utility to me. I am attempting to bring across the point that the university's have found a way to sell degrees to make money and like any sales job the product is over-hyped; particularly in the case of the MBA offering a significantly improved level of knowledge, skill, or practical benefit in the workforce or entrepreneurial space.

When analysing the benefits and losses to businesses and students, it is important to remember the other players involved. The loan companies who often fund these students make money on interest and the universities make money as spectators and service providers to the possibly zero sum game of having an MBA for businesses or individuals. I try to use a simple tool of follow the money to see what comes up. If businesses and individuals are receiving only a questionable benefit, then I could considering it a cultural artefact with inertia or look for other parties who benefit, or more third alternatives.

Cheers!

Comment author: ChristianKl 03 May 2014 12:31:52PM 3 points [-]

This shows that the universities tacitly acknowledge that no useful academic knowledge has been imparted in their coursework masters programs. Ref. article here--> http://chronicle.com/article/Those-Master-s-Degree/146105/

Most people don't do an MBA to do academic work. There are a lot of skills that are quite useful in the business world that don't correspond to academic knowledge.

Comment author: Aussiekas 05 May 2014 10:36:18PM 2 points [-]

Indeed, I felt this point had already been covered/established; that MBA's are for business in practice and that they are increasingly less valuable as the supply has exploded while the quality of them has degraded. I was expanding the conversation to include a point about their utility being further reduced by the issuing authority also not placing a high value on their own degrees. Then I speculated on why the universities would do this and I posited a financial incentive, particularly in all these new programs in non-ivy league and non-endowment based universities.

Honestly, it could be a stretch, I think there is some case for the universities issuing these coursework masters MBAs as a case of arbitrage. They found a worthless product to sell which has a high cost and demand. The additional institutional cost is very limited as they simply hire a few more adjunct professors and use already build/under utilized classrooms to run the courses. All they have to do is stamp their seal of approval on a degree document, pay something like $1,000 per student for space and teaching, then collect $20-30,000. The universities found a way to print some extra money; even if the jig is up on something like an MBA, other coursework based masters programs will continue to rake in the money.

Comment author: MattG 01 May 2014 01:47:30AM 1 point [-]

As far as I'm aware, MBA's are completely uncorrelated to entrepreneurial success, and only slightly correlated to earnings in similar job positions, but can be highly correlated to actually getting the job in certain fields.

I don't have any studies I can find in my Evernote, so this is from memory, but I believe this is what you'll find if you consult the literature.

If you're going to be an entrepreneur, you could save some money by self-studying, which is exactly what myself and eeuuah are doing. Let me know if you're interested in joining our little study group.

Comment author: HungryHippo 01 May 2014 11:46:49AM 0 points [-]

I'm interested. Will send you a PM.

Comment author: caffemacchiavelli 11 May 2014 08:27:48PM *  0 points [-]

For the sake of completeness, the two best counter-arguments I've heard so far (IRL):

1) MBAs are useful as a baseline business sanity tool, so you can get a decent employee to a point where they'll understand the basic vocabulary of a lot of different disciplines. For instance, they'll have a rough picture of what segmenting and targeting a market means, even if they won't know how to use it in practice, let alone compete with a junior marketer. Someone who's already read a bunch of stuff and managed a business isn't going to learn as much and might be disappointed by how close to common sense everything is.

2) MBAs teach you how to maneuver the minefield of the large company, where the decision-making process is complicated by personal alliances, office politics and employee/boss conflicts. To an entrepreneur, this will seem unreasonably complicated ("Why don't you just walk in a straight line?"), but someone having to deal with a fair share of Dilbert-esque behavior, additional ammunition, whether business lingo or complex models, might come in handy.

I should also note that I'm the only one with a largely critical view and that the rest of my tutor group is quite happy with the program.

Comment author: DeliveratorMatt 08 May 2014 03:35:19AM 0 points [-]

I read somewhere that the MBA, when it was originally debuted at Harvard in the 20's, was originally intended for the people who were going to be the CEO's of like the top 10 or 20 companies in the US: i.e., a genuinely tiny elite.

But like all degree programs, the MBA has suffered from educational inflation and has thus lost its original intended purpose. The idea that every mid-level manager needs an MBA is silly and wasteful.

See also MFA in Creative Writing... :-/

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 04 May 2014 12:03:28AM 0 points [-]

I've read a couple of papers by Nicholas Bloom on operational management. I don't know if this material is covered in business school, but it could be because it sounds like it is (a) book-learning and (b) pretty general, such as keep the floor clear. In particular, he ran a randomized controlled experiment of consulting advice for Indian firms and it was pretty valuable. Presumably he chose Indian firms because they aren't already following this advice (OB).

Comment author: buybuydandavis 01 May 2014 01:38:24AM 0 points [-]

One of the great wonders of Jaynes is that he starts with a problem, not axiomatic mathematics.