Oxford Business Dean: MBA Programs Should Be More Than Driving Schools

Saïd Business School's dean argues that MBA programs should steer students toward futures that benefit not only their institutions but the world at large
Photographer: Getty Images

To some degree, MBA programs are advanced driving schools. We teach students how to operate one of the most powerful engines in the world: business. We teach how this engine must be finely engineered (operations), how it needs special fuel (finance), and how the parts need to work together (organization and leadership). We teach how to monitor the gauges carefully (accounting), how to steer our vehicles at high speeds and through rough weather (strategy).

Extending the metaphor, we have, in recent years, updated our curricula with modules on “Why do we drive?”—an existential question answered by legal principles such as fiduciary duties, philosophy, social norms, and even faith-based traditions like Catholic social theory. Why drives the recognition that businesses have responsibilities not only to shareholders but also to customers, employees, the communities in which they operate, and future generations. This discussion is healthy and overdue.

To torture the metaphor just a bit more, we're missing one step: Exactly where should our graduates head? Business schools have been largely agnostic on this question.  

Our failure to address where has subverted the evaluation of business schools and the content of our programs. Salary and salary growth, to a large degree, are key factors determining where MBA programs find themselves on various rankings by publications. Implicitly, this approach dictates where: Send your graduates to the highest-paying jobs.  

I recently had dinner with one of our MBA graduates who had been successful at a leading investment bank but who planned to work for a social enterprise. While I applaud her passion and fully support her, I would be naive not to acknowledge that she will damage our standings by heading to the “wrong” destination in rankings terms. The incentive to place well in rankings can lead deans to exhibit split personalities: praising people who will make a difference, or who are entrepreneurs, but secretly hoping that most will go into careers whose eye-popping salaries at the end of three years will improve the school’s rankings and support future donations.

The failure to consider where also damages our curricula. Strategy courses teach students which industries and firms will be the most profitable over a long term; they locate the sources of private value. But where do we show students the areas in which business can have the most impact on humanity—the location of social value?

In my meetings with chief executive officers, I ask them to list the forces that will fundamentally alter society (and hence, business) over the next quarter-century. One typical response focuses on demographic change: falling birth rates and increasing longevity. The aging of the U.S., Western Europe, China, and Japan will confront health-care systems, financial markets, housing markets, and consumer goods industries—virtually every sector of business.

I asked our new students whether they felt that they needed to learn about this sort of megatrend that will help locate social value. Their answer was a resounding “Yes!” We cannot expect our students to become experts in these topics, but they can think about the implications on industries and companies. If experienced CEOs and future business leaders both find this material useful, why has examining the intractable and pressing societal issues ahead been absent from our programs?

We don’t teach this material because we are captives of our organizations and their mindsets. Our professors teach how—be that finance, operations, accounting, or marketing.  Like driving instructors, teaching where is neither their job nor their specialty. We lack experts in demographics, natural resource scarcity, new technologies, geopolitical change, and other mega-topics.

Working with colleagues in other fields at Oxford, we put together a required course—Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford (GOTO)—that looks at such mega-trends as demographic change, big data, and water scarcity. Most 28-year-old MBAs don’t think much about fertility rates, old people, or immigrants. Once they do, ideas start flowing for new forms of housing for the elderly, health-care monitoring for senior citizens, and ways to simplify immigration processes. These are valuable contributions for both businesses and policymakers.   

GOTO is more than an acronym. It symbolizes that MBAs should be the “go-to” women and men that others turn to for results. Having persuaded ourselves and our students that we need to address social issues, courses like this will help them locate the opportunities with the greatest impact on humanity.

Business schools should be more than driving schools. We also need to be cartographers, providing maps to help our community find its way forward.

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