The Best MBA Programs
Rethinking the MBA

The Best MBA Programs

Harvard Business School professors Srikant M. Datar and David A. Garvin and HBS research associate Patrick G. Cullen offer a detailed overview from 2010 of the best practices of America’s best MBA programs.

Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin and Patrick G. Cullen examine the state of the master of business administration (MBA) degree, touching on the nature of education, on higher education as an institution and a culture, and on the conceptual and practical demands business places on education and on its employees.

As the public’s expectations of business leaders have risen, so, too, have the accompanying calls for broadening the scope of business training.Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, Patrick G. Cullen

This worthwhile, detailed report, though a bit dry, offers an excellent overview of MBA programs in 2010, the year of the book’s publication, and it offers some lessons for the future. The authors shared an inside perspective from positions at the Harvard Business School: Datar, now dean of the school, was and still is the Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor of Accounting. The late David A. Garvin was the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration, and Patrick G. Cullen was a research associate.

Business Education

The authors considered the practices of the business schools that still rank among the best: Harvard, INSEAD, the University of Chicago, Yale University, Stanford University and North Carolina’s Center for Creative Leadership.

The number of students earning a master of business degree in the United States rose from about 21,000 in 1969-1970 to about 150,000 in 2006-2007. Students can choose among one-year, part-time or online MBA programs, or participate in workshops and seminars outside conventional academic settings.

Business schools are at a crossroads and will have to take a hard look at their value propositions.Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, Patrick G. Cullen

In 1998, international applicants to US schools accounted for 24% of the students who took the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) and applied to high-ranking institutions. By 2007, 42% of test-takers were from outside the United States; 21% were Indian and 8% were Chinese. Most enrollment growth occurred in part-time and executive programs. Employers still want to hire students from superior business graduate schools, but an MBA is no longer a “golden passport” to the best career opportunities. Some MBA grads stall, as firms promote from within, employ people with only undergraduate degrees or hire from other disciplines.

The MBA Curriculum

When the Harvard Business School (HBS) turned 100 years old in 2008, it asked its community what elements should go into an MBA degree. It turns out that the best MBA programs offer similar content. In one 1999 study, participating schools required courses in “finance, financial accounting, marketing management, microeconomics, operations management and organizational behavior.”

Even now, we know relatively little about the best way to teach practical managerial skills or the most effective way of instilling a sense of purpose and identity.Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, Patrick G. Cullen

The top programs use the same textbooks, articles and case law examples, though their teaching methods differ. One may emphasize lectures; another, case studies. Program structures vary considerably. Some schools insist that students proceed on specific paths, while others allow variety and specialization. All MBA programs train students to be generalists as well as specialists.

Debates and Issues

Business program leaders are torn between the competing cultures of academia and business. In 1959, the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation urged business schools to emphasize intellectually rigorous curricula. Schools offered more analytical courses and made graduate business programs parallel to the degree paths in other academic disciplines. This has resulted in a divide between theory and practice. Schools might train students to analyze, for example, but not to implement.

“Leadership Development”

MBA programs offer leadership courses, including classes on “ethics, values and corporate responsibility.” They also offer “leadership laboratories” that embrace the methodology of the Center for Creative Leadership, which specializes in focused training that links research with action.

Virtually all…the top business schools aspire to ‘develop leaders,’ yet their efforts in this area are widely viewed as falling short.Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, Patrick G. Cullen

The Center works with participants, who assess themselves as leaders and as individuals, and with their organizations. It identifies specific corporate challenges that demand new leadership skills and then teaches those skills to students through instruction and coaching.


Integrative thinking calls for synthesizing multiple approaches. Business schools find that incorporating this skill into a program built around a distinct academic discipline is difficult. Many programs expose students to different perspectives in their various courses and leave it up to the students to integrate these views.

Integrative curricula and integrative thinking help to rebalance the MBA program from knowing to doing and being.Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, Patrick G. Cullen

However, since students often had a hard time understanding and implementing integrative thinking without specific instruction, schools are now pushing for more faculty involvement in teaching this skill.

Innovative Thinking

Innovation and creativity have become primary economic drivers, but traditionally, MBA programs did a poor job of teaching these skills.

Even though MBAs are well-trained analytically, many executives and deans believe that they still lack essential innovative thinking skills. Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, Patrick G. Cullen

To boost innovative thinking, Stanford offers a “Creating Infectious Action” (CIA) course in design thinking, which emphasizes learning by practice. Faculty members teach design thinking, and students work on projects in groups. They formulate problem statements, observe representative users, brainstorm solutions to user problems, develop prototype solutions, test and redesign them, and then implement their solutions.

“Oral and Written Communication”

Faculty and business executives agree that MBA graduates must be able to think well and express their thoughts in writing and speech.

Executives and faculty have long recognized that critical thinking and its expression as oral and written communication are important skills required of business graduates throughout their careers.Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, Patrick G. Cullen

Recently, rather than assuming students will pick up critical thinking and clear writing, schools have instituted courses in these skills.


After the 2008 financial crisis, many schools started providing courses on “liquidity risk, credit risk, country risk and counterparty risk.” The Harvard Business School focuses its courses around case studies that promote discussion, verbal skill and active reasoning, and it continually adds new cases. After the 2008 financial crisis, HBS emphasized globalization and risk.

What’s Next?

Without surrendering academic rigor or analytical focus, MBA programs must redesign their curricula to improve the way they teach critical thinking and ethics and to embrace new teaching methods and experiential learning.

Disciplined Self-Evaluation

The authors’ examples are nicely specific, their prose is clear, and their commentary is honest and revealing. Their mission was to create a basic survey of the state of the finest MBA programs in 2010, and they accomplished it admirably. Their report still serves those seeking MBAs, those running MBA programs, anyone in human resources and anyone interested in how corporate culture treats new MBAs. Even a dozen years later, the authors’ rigor serves as a stellar model of disciplinary self-evaluation for educators running other programs.

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