B-Schools Soft on 'Soft Skills'

What business schools teach doesn't always correspond to what managers value, researchers find

When it comes to teaching students management skills, MBA programs deliver the bare minimum at best, according to a new study. Using survey data on more than 8,600 managers, 373 business schools, and 118 deans and program directors, the study finds MBA programs are lacking when it comes to emphasis on human capital and decision-making management course requirements—part of the curriculum area known as "soft skills."

In a paper to be presented Monday at the Academy of Management Conference in Philadelphia, Robert Rubin and Erich Dierdorff, assistant professors of management at DePaul University's Kellstadt Graduate School of Business in Chicago, examined Labor Dept. data on thousands of managers across 52 industries who identified the skills they found most valuable in managers. Rubin and Dierdorff grouped their findings into six main areas of management—human capital, logistics and technology, decision-making processes, administration and control, strategy and innovation, and task environment—and found that managing decision-making and human capital were at the top of managers' lists when it came to ranking skills in order of importance.

Rank and File

The researchers also looked at the core curricula at 373 B-schools and compared what the managers said was important with the required MBA coursework. So, while decision-making, for instance, was at the top of the managers' list, it ranked five out of six in terms of how well-represented it was in the core curricula of the 373 B-schools (29 of which were ranked among BusinessWeek's top 30 programs). In another divergence, based on their core curriculum offerings, business schools place the greatest emphasis on managing administration and control, an area that came in fifth out of six in terms of importance to managers, according to the researchers' analysis.

Why such a disparity? According to survey responses from deans and directors at 118 public and private business schools, programs often cater to students' interests, and most students, unlike their managerial counterparts, dislike soft skills—this puts pressure on business schools to limit such courses. "It tells the story that perhaps the customer is not always right," says Dierdorff.

Criticism of what B-schools teach isn't new. One longtime critic, Henry Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University in Montreal, says that the problem isn't necessarily that schools are teaching the wrong thing, but that schools allow too many young and inexperienced students through the doors. "We don't have it right because we let in the wrong people," says Mintzberg.

Satisfying Many Needs

Schools have taken notice of the need to revise core requirements to meet the needs of employers. Last year, Columbia Business School introduced its Program on Social Intelligence, which emphasizes team leadership skills through group simulations. At Yale, Joel Podolny, dean of the School of Management, says a recently revised first-year curriculum solved the problem of balancing hard and soft skills—often isolated into separate courses—by blending the two through team-taught classes combining professors from different departments, such as organizational behavior and finance.

The need to satisfy a range of constituents, including faculty, students, and the companies looking to hire them, makes curriculum development a constant challenge. "Each of these stakeholders will have different things they want to emphasize," says Podolny. At IBM (IBM), recruiters see one of the greatest deficiencies in the area of technology training, says Vera Chota, manager of university recruiting. But while this tech-focus may be industry-specific, Chota also says there's a need for more team-oriented training—a concern she has expressed to at least one MBA program director recently.

While critics may call Rubin and Dierdorff's study yet another look at how business schools aren't meeting the needs of employers, their findings offer some quantitative backing to the longtime argument that MBA programs are not as valuable as they should be. "When a school requires certain courses over others, that communicates a value," says Dierdorff. And in the case of many MBA programs, he says: "They fall well short where it matters most.."