Thursday, September 9, 2010

Is Management (MBA) a profession?

Is Management really a profession?

The perplexing question raises its haunting head again, this time out of the necessity of difficult decision making.

As I swing merrily with the rest of the crowd in the colourful ring of corporate circus, I periodically tumble against pestilence under the guise of Knowledge Champions. To carry aloft the fake torch of the so called knowledge industry I am often cajoled, coaxed, commanded and cautioned into pursuing corporate certifications.

My occidental outer shell, along with the semi Dutch genes, thankfully make it abundantly clear to my Indian managers, monitors and mentors that I don’t consider the certifications to be worth the paper they are written on.  And that is why, after several unsuccessful attempts, they have hit upon the unified idea of convincing me that the best alternative career path is to get an MBA. According to my seniors, this is what stands between me and exponential growth up the corporate ladder.

However, in spite of these domineering decrees, I cease to be convinced. May be once more my Dutch ancestry peeps through my American shell with obstinacy. The reason I don’t want to devote my time, more profitably spent curling up with a good book or going to concerts and shows, is that somehow I hardly ever end up thinking of MBA as a profession of any importance.

And I am not alone. Recently in an article in the Harvard Business Review, Richard Barker argues that there are not enough reasons to bestow the title of a profession on the MBA as one can on doctors, engineers and lawyers.

I agree, Will someone in his senses ask anyone but a specialist brain surgeon to operate on his cranial tumour? Can we expect an unqualified architect to design a skyscraper? The lawyers are often brunt of cruel jokes, but one such quip points out that he is the one who knows exactly which page of the fat law books the relevant answer lies and therefore is indispensible in a critical civil, corporate or criminal cases.

However, analogously,  is it absolutely necessary that any vital business venture will need to be managed by an MBA?

In my experience, the MBA is largely expendable. Often in such cases, decision makers – the wise ones – will stick to people with experience in the domain. And most often, the decision bears fruit.

As a reason for this, Barker points out the evident lack of technical expertise required for the job of a manager. It is his job to mainly integrate the contribution of the specialists – be they lawyers who draw up the contract, the skilled workers who do the actual work or the quality professionals who ensure the correctness of the deliveries. And it is a tough ask to put these integration skills into a body of knowledge and maintain a strict threshold of competence to allow entry into the profession.

It is also difficult to ensure responsibility to the society that professions such as that of the doctor, engineer and lawyer are actually entrusted with. Code of Ethics of Business in  this regard  is a jargonified oxymoron to say the least.

The other distinction a lawyer, doctor, engineer or a martial arts master has over an MBA is that the expert knowledge is difficult to muster even if explained in layman’s terms – something that does not really apply to the trained manager.

On the other hand, the preference for domain experience at the expense of the MBA is well founded. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his Outliers, expertise leading to success depends on a huge amount of hours spent on the same task. Be it musicians or computer programmers or sports personalities, it is first the opportunity for spending the number of hours, appended with the same number of hours well spent in the activity, which together amount to brilliance. For a professional who has spent a long, long time on the floor in the domain, working with the clients and customers of his field, has a much better chance of succeeding than an MBA whose experience is fed through text book curriculum and theory. Anyway, I find myself wondering how much authentic value the MBA curricula actually have – if prepared by the stalwarts of the profession which produces a lot of glitzy presentations signifying nothing.

A very glittering argument against the trained MBA is played out right in front of my eyes in the way the Indian companies manage business in the Netherlands.

With the focus on cost cutting, many Indian companies which are supposedly growing at break-neck speed revert to relatively young MBAs to expand their accounts in Europe. After careful scrutiny, I find these companies soon coming off second best, their focus shifting to the greener pastures of the United States with European market relegated to a nice to have, following the dubious principles of sour grapes.

Why? There are companies where grey haired experienced veterans, who have climbed up the ladder of the industry from the grass-root to the highest echelons, are asked to carry the expansion in Europe. These are the older firms that stay somewhat ahead in the game. The silver hair bring maturity and exposure, with the firms willing to pay the exorbitant cost of the education of the kids of these managers, most of them well established in the family way. The years of working with the Europeans have led them to understand the Dutch way of operations and they know what works and what does not in this consensus culture where there is no low hanging fruit.

The other group of companies, mostly newer ones touted as fast growing, tend to minimise their cost by refusing to look at the essential expenditures such as the education of children. So, the managers who have toiled their way up the corporate ladder are unwilling to continue their operations here for long, preferring to go back home or to eliminate the cost of International schooling by moving to English speaking countries like UK, USA or Australia. The companies try to tide over the problem by bringing in supposedly expert managers who are young enough to be unmarried or without children – namely MBAs from reputed institutes.

Without field experience, with the knowledge of collaborative work in classes full of either Indian or American students, these MBAs now try to manage operations through a combination of text book knowledge and rowdy arrogance. I have seen quite puerile strategies from this tribe of men, whose years have not yet blessed them with the patience needed to build businesses in Europe. They go about trying to implement the Walmart model of cheap labour, or the Starbucks model of proliferation ...or just wait for business to come to them through swanky powerpoint presentations that make a hit in the Manhattan.  Sorry, the Dutch are different, and so are the Swiss, the Belgians, the Germans, the French, the Swedes and all the other European countries.

There is also an arrogance that keeps them from knowing the culture and language. A couple of slides showing clogs and cheese and windmills is not an exposure adequate enough to enable carrying out fruitful business. And while the hookers of the red light district, who come in from Sarajevo and Turkey and Thailand, pick up Dutch in a few days to carry out business transactions, I have never seen a foreign MBA even making the necessary effort in the years that they stay here. So much for a knowledge industry.

The more I see them, the more it is apparent to me that the profession has miles to go to qualify as one. Barker in his article suggests some remedies, but I think those are just a start. To gain the trust of the public, to be in the same regard as the 'good doctor', is a journey that has not yet begun and I am not sure will even start off.

So, I continue to spend my time blogging, reading or enjoying myself instead of putting myself through the rigours of a business administration course. The net results may be negative, but then I would rather like meaningful time for myself amounting to nothing in euros rather than meaningless degrees which can bring home a lot of dough. To each his own.


  1. MBA = Master of Busy-ness Appearance

  2. While an MBA is not sufficient, it helps - in sifting the grain from the chaff. Also, if courses are taken industriously, it does equip people with a number of skills from different areas which help in industry. But yes - there is no substitute for domain knowledge and experience, & guys fresh from campus being put in senior positions is one of the dumbest things that companies can do.. but indeed do.

  3. I am pro - MBA...completely...In every profession, there are good and bad professionals - some are able to carry on the torch of the profession with pride, while others make it a shame to be part of the profession...this holds true even for lawyers and politicians who bear the brunt of many jokes. I know many good people who are lawyers and politicians excelling in their profession.

    An MBA being a master program comes after a bachelor in some basic education be it engineering or accountancy or whatever else. The master program bestows upon the candidate, the theoretical knowledge of diverse subjects, all necessary aspects of running an organisation and also the soft skills that need to go along with it. Most good MBA programs take in professionals with some work experience...not the fresh graduates who are still living in an academic world but those who have seen some aspects of working with real world exposure. So, generally, the output after the program should be as good/bad as other academic programs. It is unfair to single out the MBA profession! Expert knowledge is an asset from the program as well - it develops a well rounded individual with solid background in the Bachelor specialisation and overall idea of all other functions in an organisation.

    Entrepreneurs and MBAs are what we need in the world today...Mr. Senantix ki jai ho!

  4. You need two kinds of people to run an organisation -- a cadre of specialists, who have specific knowledge of, say, gas or linux or derivatives whatever is needed for specific line functions. But you also need second cadre of generalist, who know enough about a wider range of topics like marketing, finance, operations, behaviour, to (a) handle the general uncertainty around a business and (b) take a holistic view of things. Some people are naturally born into this second cadre, for others, the MBA is a good option compared to many others.

    Easy to criticise and ridicule MBAs but difficult to find any other group to take their place. An MBA is neither necessary nor sufficient to succeed in business, but in these uncertain times, it is not a bad arrow to have in your quiver ... unless you have a secret rocket launcher that you have at the back of your SUV!


Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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Amsterdam, Netherlands