Stairs_To_The_Top, Academic Disruptive Innovation, MBA, SteinVox, Andrew SteinThe Fall semester starts the MBA Class of 2015 at business schools across the nation. Candidates seek that special path to the top.  The question came to me: Is an MBA really the path to the top? And, if marginally not the case, why does academia educate students in this social era toward achieving an “MBA Degree” defined by its industrial era namesake curriculum? Specifically, is it time for academic disruptive innovation for the MBA degree itself. What about an MBI, or an MBL? Curious what these are? read on.

Stop for a moment, and recall your b-school days. You learned the tools to administer a business. Subjects like finance, accounting, operations management dominated the curriculum. Recently, the push in many schools is around innovation. Many study how Netflix, dominated Blockbuster, and how the product development labs at P&G work.  Other schools compare Google’s innovation environment of 2 hours a day (seems to have dwindled to less than 1 hour) with the democratization-driven innovation approach of Microsoft.  And, others take students through case studies to learn about the unique leadership at ServiceMaster or Virgin Airways.

The academic focus in many MBA programs today has evolved toward Leadership and Innovation. Why hasn’t the degree itself, in name, changed to reflect this evolution?


The challenge of administration, in the context of the title “MBA” is that administration, by definition, is doing the same thing, over and over, to levels of continually increasing efficiency. That’s my definition which I like, as it has parity with the colloquial definition of insanity. has a number of definitions, like “the duty or duties of an administrator in exercising the executive functions of a position.” All the definitions I read lack any suggestion beyond the performance of duties; as in duties in a predefined job description.

Academic Disruptive Innovation Challenge

Academic disruptive innovation required breaking decades of institutionalized academic structures and is a monumental challenge. But, as Coursera has shown, once it gains momentum, there’s no stopping it.

How do we change the focus of MBA schools away from primarily producing operational, financial, and accounting experts that can manage a business to zero growth and competitive disadvantage? We know this to be true (the MBA case studies show it, if viewed from the right perspective) when innovation in all aspects of the business is sacrificed by well-meaning MBA-degreed leaders and consultants.

Instead, we are watching economic decay occur from over-focusing on efficiency improvements to make and count the revenue from yester-year’s products that today’s consumers don’t’ need or want anymore?  That’s a broad statement, but if you read my “Strategic Innovation Trumps Efficiency Measures,” it’s extraordinarily clear why this is the case.


OK, if you read this far, now consider if business schools really practiced what they taught in the case studies on “disruptive innovation.” I challenge them to do what it takes to create these degrees and perhaps even deemphasize or drop the MBA degree defined back in the industrial age, last century.

Consider a degree called Master of Business Innovation (MBI). The focus of this degree would be primarily marketing, new business model development, and commercialization of invention. To make this radical change, the number of and focus on finance, accounting and operations courses will need to be reduced. Not eliminated, but reduced. But the product that business schools would produce with this degree would be what corporate business, and innovative firms just starting out, really need – over traditional MBAs.

Consider a degree called Master of Business Leadership (MBL). The focus of this degree would primarily be servant leadership, not the historical industrial-age command and control leadership that is often taught today. What if we could add the really profound stuff coming out of the modern Military into the MBL degree curriculum? It’s not hard to find articles describing how it has used embedded troop techniques to use servant leadership in the middle east to show them the way to peace. Anyone that has met and spoke with these leaders, knows how far forward our military has forged this path. Servant leadership research is ongoing at institutions like University of Illinois, at Chicago (UIC), and others – and the data is compelling. Let’s teach it!  Let’s produce graduates with a degree in it!

Stands to reason, if business can innovate and grow through leadership that focuses on being agile and market driving, they will win over reactive market driven companies that only know how to wait until market research tells them what the market already wanted, yesterday.

Kudos to the Business School that recognizes that trying to position the MBA is futile when the customer (global corporate enterprise) has moved on. It won’t be enough to just redevelop the curriculum. The positioning (marketing term) of MBAs continues to slide, as noted in the Harvard article, below. Kudos to the Business School that leads with both a new degree and new curriculum.

Insightful Innovation or Academic Blasphemy

Call me a heretic. Most new ideas label the thinker or messenger. With the social popularity of bashing MBA degrees, the time is ripe for heresy. We need the kind of heresy that a big name school like the University of Illinois, or Harvard, or Stanford, could lead with in this disruptive change.

Just last week, the article in Harvard Business Review (online) titled “An Old-Boy’s MBA Is Not High-Value Management Education” shows that even a leader like Harvard is aware of the dilemma, and the failure of business schools to be forward thinking to innovate the future instead of backward-looking to train business school graduates how to over-optimize obsolete operations of the past.

Somewhere, a Dean, provost or Trustee of the Board at some institution is reading this, and calling this blasphemy. Understand that I have an MBA, and don’t like the bashing. It’s the wrong approach. But I argue, using the marketing, positioning and business techniques we should be (and some are) teaching as a primary focus in MBA programs today, teaches us that this is precisely the disruptive innovation that is needed. Business School needs to show it understands what it teaches, and disruptively innovate – itself – make it as profound as the shift from the industrial age to the social era we experiencing right now.

Something to Ponder

Today, I help many companies deploy modern operating models for new initiatives. We look for and hire MBAs that have the innate aptitude and talent to be MBI’s and MBL’s. It will be a profound disruptive change when business schools produce the kind of Masters of Business Innovation or Masters of Business Leadership degrees by default. This requires visibly lowering the contextual focus on “administration.”  To be sure, and clear – administration is a necessary activity, as is efficient finance, operations and accounting functions in a business – and so is labor in the factory – but that’s not where you are going to find the next executives for the C-suite in a decade or two.

We see Business Schools trying to re-position their MBA programs as “innovative,”  “focused on innovation,” and even “leadership” MBAs. But the business enterprise, and new firm creation customer is not buying it. And the negative publicity for MBAs and the MBA academic program in general, continues. Understand I do have an MBA, and value it, but it’s the opinion of the customer is the only one that matters.  I learned that in my marketing classes in my MBA program.

If we have learned anything in the past two decades of economic ups and downs, it is not that better “administrators” are needed. We have learned instead that Business Schools must produce degreed individuals with a talent and skill for modern “innovation” and “leadership” – that is what makes the next Netflix, ServiceMaster or Virgin on this planet.

Image credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

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