The Real World versus MBA Textbooks

June 11, 2009
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The professional disciplines of law and medicine are codified with decades, arguably centuries, of a body of accumulated and layered knowledge. The discipline of management is not codified and structured to facilitate learning. Most managers learn from their prior managers. Ever work for a lousy manager?

One can get an MBA to learn about the discipline of management. I received one from one of the USA’s most prestigious university graduate programs. Its curriculum taught me about management, but I can candidly say it did not teach me how to manage. There is a difference. Management involves strategy, analysis, and decisions from choices. How to manage involves people. The types of people can be work colleagues, partners, customers and suppliers.

Admittedly there are courses in an MBA curriculum on organizational development and change management. Although I am an industrial engineer from my undergraduate education with its impersonal quantitative emphasis, the behavioral courses fascinated me. I felt a little like Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, the Vulcan who thought logically but was aware that emotion somehow plays a role in making change happen.

What can one do to overcome


The professional disciplines of law and medicine are codified with decades, arguably centuries, of a body of accumulated and layered knowledge. The discipline of management is not codified and structured to facilitate learning. Most managers learn from their prior managers. Ever work for a lousy manager?

One can get an MBA to learn about the discipline of management. I received one from one of the USA’s most prestigious university graduate programs. Its curriculum taught me about management, but I can candidly say it did not teach me how to manage. There is a difference. Management involves strategy, analysis, and decisions from choices. How to manage involves people. The types of people can be work colleagues, partners, customers and suppliers.

Admittedly there are courses in an MBA curriculum on organizational development and change management. Although I am an industrial engineer from my undergraduate education with its impersonal quantitative emphasis, the behavioral courses fascinated me. I felt a little like Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, the Vulcan who thought logically but was aware that emotion somehow plays a role in making change happen.

What can one do to overcome what an MBA degree does not provide?

Maybe I should have paid more attention to the MBA behavioral course of thirty five years ago. Why? Because I find that understanding how to influence, persuade, and educate people is arguably more critical to transform an organization than understanding the principles and concepts of Performance Management methodologies, such as strategy maps, measurement scorecards, dashboards, customer value management, and activity based costing. Business analytics software, such as offered by my employer SAS, can model Performance Management solutions. But it involves people and assumptions.

During the last five years of my business career I am realizing how much I underestimate the importance of behavior modification of people and especially overcoming their natural resistance to change. I do not believe this involves begging, badgering, and bullying people but rather educating them. My style is to enable senior executives to educate (training comes later) their subordinate and colleagues by reading one or more solidly written articles; and then bring them all together like a book club meeting. At this point ninety percent of the work for the executives is done! That meeting can cover what the each of the group learned, what issues and concerns exist to overcome, and actionable next steps.

Transformation is about people changing practices and systems – not the other way around.