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Study: B-Schools Shortchange Business Strategy

But some experts say the survey, whose respondents skew overseas and pre-MBA, isn’t that meaningful.

Business strategy is a puzzle that business schools may not have mastered yet, a study suggests.
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Business schools don't focus sufficiently on teaching strategy, according to 60 percent of the current graduate business students and recent MBAs who responded to a recent survey from Which MBA?, a website of the Economist. Among prospective MBA students, who made up 75 percent of the 713 respondents, 80 percent hoped that b-schools would pay more attention to strategy. In another topic that the Economist identified as a core of an MBA program, 38 percent of current and former MBA students, and more than half of prospective students, thought b-schools shortchanged finance. 

"It is worrying that so many business school students, who will often pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and lost income to attend a program, feel that areas as fundamental as business strategy and finance are not being adequately covered," said Bill Ridgers, editor of Which MBA?, in an Economist release. 

That's an odd interpretation of the study, according to an article in Poets & Quants, which suggests that the survey ought to be flipped around into a positive light. Rather than focusing on respondents' criticism of strategy and finance training, the Economist might have played up the fact that at least 80 percent of both groups of respondents—prospective, as well as current and former students—agree that b-schools give a "good grounding" in business fundamentals, which represents "a significant endorsement of existing MBA curriculum," the Poets & Quants article notes. 

But some experts, such as Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a fellow in HBS's Strategy Unit, question whether the study is really that significant. 

[Read about how MBA courses address real-time news.] 

By crunching the numbers in the survey's methodology, Piskorski counts only 64 respondents (9 percent) who hold an MBA, and of those 64, only 21 percent are Americans—a total of 13 people. 

"There is a real gap between U.S. and a handful of European schools and the rest of the world when it comes to strategy," says Piskorski, who suspects that conducting the survey in the United States would yield "more satisfactory" results. 

According to Piskorski, it's very difficult to teach strategy, which he defines as a set of choices that helps a firm position itself to compete in a distinct manner in the present, without jeopardizing future profitability. That's particularly true, he adds, since strategy also involves anticipating competitor reactions. 

"Strategy requires a way of thinking that cannot be taught via textbook," he says. 

[See why b-schools seem to downplay writing skills.] 

But according to Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University's Lubin School of Business, the survey reflects the "real problems that some graduate programs have," namely that "far too many" graduate-level professors have never worked in a senior position at a business. 

"Many of the faculty members who have great scholarly credentials in terms of their academic publications have never worked as an executive anywhere," he says. "While some have consulted, consulting is not the equivalent to having to run a business or manage a product." 

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