The value of an MBA

There was an interesting discussion on Radio 4 this morning about the value of an MBA and whether MBA study was worth the investment.   Josh Kaufman, author of ‘The Personal MBA’ argued that successful businesses are built on a few basic principles and that the greatest entrepreneurs learnt by experience, not in the classroom.

These views – that you can’t teach good leadership and that the MBA has little value – have been around for a long time.  Business schools do a good job of defending their position by highlighting the scope and rigour of the MBA and its importance in terms of career progression and earning power.  Still the debate rolls on.

It is well known that I have my criticisms of the MBA and have long argued for a fundamental review of the qualification (see my article in the FT on 16 April 2012).  However, despite its faults I still believe that MBA study is worth the investment (see my presentation to the City of London Business Library

So while I welcome the ongoing discussion about the MBA’s future and sympathise with some of the critics of the qualification, I take issue with the argument that is has no value.  In particular I do not accept the claim that you only learn how to do business by experience.

First most people’s experiences in business are limited to a single industry, sector and job role.  Granted, we learn a great deal from experience, but there is no guarantee that our experiences will cover all aspects of business and management.  The MBA fills those gaps in our work experience, giving us access to knowledge and skills that we wouldn’t acquire just by being ‘out there’ in business.

Second, learning by experience is only really effective if we reflect on that experience, analyse it and use it to inform our actions and behaviours in the future.  MBA study provides the environment, specialist support and structure for such reflection – encouraging students to share and discuss their experiences so that experience becomes the basis for further learning and improvement.

Let’s have an honest debate about the MBA and its future.  But let’s not pretend that experience is all you need in business.   It’s the depth of experience and what you do with it that counts.

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