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Can Liberal Arts Come To The Rescue Of Business Education?

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According to the 2016 mba.com Prospective Students Survey Report, consulting (32 per cent) and finance and accounting (31 per cent) remain the top dream jobs. The main driver of this perception is that these professions are the most rewarding post-degree. With the high level of compensation and other perks, other professions remain envious of these "elite" professions.

Business schools have been quick to capitalize on the scramble for "golden ticket" careers, as indicated by the 16th annual GMAC Application Trends Survey. GMAC found that "60 percent of full-time two-year MBA programs" reported application increases versus 10 years ago. What drives this continued growth? There are a number of factors including:

(1) Parental Influence: In many families, there is a strong tendency among parents to push children to pursue fields that provide "safe" career prospects such as accounting to ensure that their children have a better future. More often than not, MBAs are preferred versus supposedly "risky" ones such as liberal arts due to the desire of families to ensure their children enter "professional" career paths.

(2) Social Perception: Business leaders have long been bemoaning the competitive decline of the labor market due to the "willful" nature of youth and their lack of "proper" education in fields such as engineering and business. To these business leaders, their inability to find suitable employment candidates is a direct result.

While business leaders continue to insist on encouraging more students to pursue professional degrees, a few commentators are starting to question the rush. Commentators such as Kelley Holland of the New York Times in "Is It Time to Retrain B-Schools?" have questioned the worth of a MBA.

In today's chaotic business environment, one wonders whether the current business curriculum is sufficient to cater to future leadership requirements. Does today's business curriculum truly provide the tools necessary to deal with increasingly complex business issues, or is it merely providing a "secure" career path?

Then & Now

In the past, business education was designed to fill business knowledge gaps for career advancing specialists. As technical specialists advanced from technical roles to strategic management, businesses realized that they needed to educate technical specialists with basic business fundamentals. Times have changed however.

Tectonic shifts have occurred in today's economy including:

(1) Technology & Automation: Increasingly, automation is taking the place of human personnel. It is not only the executive assistant that is disappearing but also middle management. In Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Andrew McAfee developed the theory of the "great decoupling" which stated that automation through boosting productivity has negatively affected job growth - "Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills aren't keeping up."

(2) Corporate Downsizing / Rightsizing: As corporations go global, they are looking to minimize costs. Intel, Microsoft and many more have announced layoffs, citing a shifting business environment and rapidly changing business models.

(3) Individual Empowerment: Thanks to the Internet, it is possible for individuals to have the same influence of large corporations. While corporations such as Apple are still held in awe, increasingly we are looking toward individuals for business inspiration. Individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg are influencing larger groups to action thanks to the ubiquity of social media and other individually empowering technologies.

(4) Flexibility & Adaptability: Due to evolving technology, business fundamentals are changing. Individuals increasingly are expected to quickly adjust to business changes that render skills obsolete. Interpersonal skills as well as knowledge of significant ethical, social and cultural issues have become as important as basic business fundamentals.

(5) Holistic Versus Functional Approach: Today's business curriculum emphasizes traditional corporate knowledge. While providing a traditional business knowledge foundation is relevant, what is increasingly required is a holistic approach to business management. As individual empowerment grows, it is necessary to ensure that individuals are given the right tools such as greater individual employee autonomy to seamlessly integrate various corporate functions together.

(6) Practical, Concrete Experience: While today's business curriculum is slowly responding to demand for practical experience, that experience falls short of what is required. Success is increasingly about successful execution. Indeed, one could argue that the emphasis on rote learning is degrading the real need to identify individuals who can successfully execute.

So where does this leave the MBA? In its current form, the MBA continues to deliver individuals who are not ready for today's business challenges. The current business curriculum is training widgets rather than training innovative leaders. Businesses are realizing that to remain competitive, they need out-of-the-box thinkers, not followers, whose positions are increasingly being automated.

If the MBA curriculum is failing students, what can be done to adapt it to global economic realities? The field of liberal arts may provide a solution. While many business leaders may criticize liberal arts for being unable to provide potential employees with "hard" skills, a more interdisciplinary approach to business education can provide better perspectives in problem solving and critical analysis. It could provide relevant examples from the fields of history, psychology, cultural studies and others that might be useful in conducting a successful business.

Indeed, by integrating these "soft" disciplines into the MBA curriculum, there is the probability that businesses are more successful as they understand their customers holistically versus narrowly through artificial business constructs.

A liberal arts degree can provide the tools for individuals to express their ideas in a constructive and thought-provoking manner, the ability to execute artistic visions and ideas to transform them into profitable businesses. By integrating more liberal art constructs into the MBA curriculum, MBA graduates would gain mental flexibility and agility required in the current dynamic business environment. It would enable MBA graduates to be more innovative and take more calculated "smart" risks, behaviors that businesses increasingly need to remain competitive.

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