“I swear, they’ll hand an MBA to just anyone these days. I saw Mr Potato Head strutting around like he owned the place in his gown and mortar board just this morning!”
Lots of my clients consider taking an MBA as a career-enhancing step. What is the value of an MBA? I remember enjoying Jonas and Kjell’s take on this in Funky Business:
“In the 1960s, US business schools graduated some 5,000 MBA students. Today (2000) the figure is 75,000. … Around 100,000 MBA graduates are let loose on the world every year. As they nurse their graduation hangover, they might like to contemplate the fact that much of their knowledge is already out of date.”

“Today, well over 1000 business schools, universities and other institutions across the world offer MBA programs” (MBA-courses.com)

So the value of an MBA does not lie in rarity.

Ridderstrale and Nordstrom’s analysis of subjects and textbooks used by many of the top MBA programmes revealed, unsurprisingly, a very high degree of … sameness. Even Wikipedia baldly states: “Most top MBA programs cover similar subjects within their core required courses.”

So the value of an MBA is not that it is rare or that it conveys scarce knowledge, or even the ‘book learning’ at all. Theoretically, I can walk into any bookshop and pick up an armload of tomes and work my way through to MBA-level knowledge on those subjects in the comfort of my own home.

What about the Top 100 ranking? What makes the Harvard MBA intrinsically more valuable than one from a no-name university? It’s not the topics covered or the textbooks, so if it actually is better, it must be down to the calibre of the academics and the variety and calibre of the participants.

And this seems to be exactly what the real value of an MBA is: sitting in rooms with lecturers who cause your worldview to shift dramatically while being surrounded by energetic people from widely varying backgrounds who will further expand your mind. Plus it always helps if you have guest lectures from ex-Presidents and bona fide captains of industry who can bring their real world experience to the classroom.

Thankfully – from Harvard et al’s perspective – you can’t bottle that.

But can you distil it to some extent? How about if you arranged a programme consisting of talks and discussions led by super academics, ex-Presidents and the uber-execs? Make it residential, over the course of a few weeks. Expensive, probably very expensive. Totally immersive. Lots of pre-work and research. Base it on problem-solving activities – perhaps one or two major problems determined by the hosts and participants of the previous year.

Such a programme would be truly mind-expanding. Dogbert’s one-day MBA programme [collect your degrees from the printer by the door as you leave] multiplied by TED. It could be mind-blowing.