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MBAs in the 21st Century

Changing curriculums reflect efforts by business schools to adapt to new times

Master of Business Administration courses, better known as MBAs, are facing a battle to stay relevant. Changes, such as updated curriculums designed to cover new technologies, for example, are being adopted by institutions in the United States and England in response to the declining number of applicants in recent years—data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), an international nonprofit organization of business schools based in the US, shows a 6.6% drop in enrollment in the country between 2017 and 2018.

In a recent article titled “Do business schools still have brand value?” published by Times Higher Education, professors from traditional business schools such as those located at the universities of Sussex, Bath, and Warwick in England and Findlay in the USA describe the identity crisis faced by many MBA courses, highlighting problems such as an obsession with theory, the growing gap between business and society, and a proliferation of schools with little concern for course quality.

“After completing an MBA course in the US or England, students receive a master’s degree, unlike in Brazil, where an MBA is classified as a specialist diploma,” explains Paulo Mattos de Lemos, executive director of education at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in São Paulo. In both countries, the programs demand a fulltime commitment, making it difficult to balance studies and work, leading many professionals to instead look for other short courses and certificates.

Having first emerged in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century, Brazil’s first MBA course was offered in 1982 by the Institute of Graduate Studies and Research in Business Administration at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (COPPEAD-UFRJ). In the 1990s, as the country’s economy grew and businesses became more competitive, the course spread nationwide. Although institutions in Brazil are not seeing the same decline in enrollment, there is still a debate in the country around modernizing the curriculum.

MBAs in Brazil

Aimed at those who want to deepen their knowledge on a specific topic or move into a new field

For professionals who want to improve upon existing management skills and experience

Who are they aimed at?
Professionals who want to develop and improve the skills needed for executive or management positions

What themes do they cover?
Economics, administration, marketing, foreign trade, information technology, project management, and more

How are students selected?
Applicants take tests and interviews; some schools require work experience

“The objective of an MBA is not to train academics, but professionals who know how to work in organizations,” says Lemos. “Modern curriculums must consider what business leaders need to know in order to work together, solve practical issues, and manage personnel,” he says. To keep up to date with the needs of professionals seeking MBA courses, FGV meets regularly with representatives from the human resources departments of a variety of companies. “In the future, programs will become more personalized, even allowing students to choose the disciplines that will comprise the first semesters of their course,” he predicts.

Data from a 2018 study commissioned by the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), a body that provides quality assessment and accreditation for business administration courses worldwide, suggests that changes are being made to meet the demands of the students themselves. The survey, which involved roughly 8,000 candidates for business schools in 90 countries, found that technology management topped entrepreneurship in the list of most valued skills taught by MBA courses.

Digital world
The increased interest in courses that focus on technology reflects the rise of companies offering digital services, which are looking for professionals capable of leading information technology teams. As well as managerial skills, these positions require specific knowledge of databases and big data. “This demand is growing every year,” says Francisco Louzada, coordinator of the MBA in Data Science at the Center for Mathematical Sciences in Industry (CEMEAI) and the Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences (ICMC) at USP’s São Carlos campus, which begins in January. “Many of the companies we are in contact with have told us that a large number of professionals are interested in specializing in this area,” he explains.

Leadership, however, remains the most sought-after skill among the respondents of the EFMD survey. “More than just a good relationship with the various departments of a company, leadership involves issues of sustainability and social responsibility,” explains Livia Barakat, academic coordinator of the Dom Cabral Foundation’s MBA program, which has schools in the states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. Aware of the international research suggesting that the content of many MBAs is not relevant to the real world, the institution has been applying a more humanistic approach that involves ethical aspects of leadership training. “This issue must be incorporated into every discipline and not treated solely as optional material,” says Barakat.

The diverse range of sectors where businesses now operate requires increasingly specific knowledge, meaning institutions need to be more flexible when planning their curriculums

In addition to this, the diverse range of sectors where businesses now operate requires increasingly specific knowledge, meaning institutions need to be more flexible when planning their curriculums. At USP’s Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP), for example, MBA courses take the characteristics of each class into account and cover areas such as agribusiness, project management, business management, marketing, taxes, school management, finance, and controllership, among others. “For every new class, we analyze the profiles of the students and discuss the course content, making adjustments to the program as necessary,” explains Ricardo Harbs, MBA course manager at the institution. Last year, the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) launched an MBA in partnership with the School of Marketing and Advertising (ESPM) that focuses on management, marketing, and innovation, aimed at professionals looking to study a combination of topics related to technological development, marketing management, and communication. The USP Polytechnic School offers MBA programs in various engineering fields, including software technology, for example.

Unlike the downturn being seen abroad, enrollment on MBA courses in Brazil remains stable. All are paid programs: even those offered by organizations linked to public institutions charge monthly fees. “We have been rethinking this kind of education for some time,” says Marcelo Orticelli, director of Executive Education and Institutional Development at Insper, in São Paulo. With around 400 students enrolled on the institution’s MBA programs, Orticelli notes that in order to remain attractive, curriculums need to use a project-based approach to learning, covering complex tasks that involve planning, research, and collaboration to solve problems.

“The analysis of real situations is an essential educational resource to help executives improve their decision making,” he says. Another factor that the Dom Cabral Foundation’s Barakat highlights as fundamental to maintaining the quality of MBA courses is case studies. “This methodology allows students to work on concrete aspects involving complex decision making and ethical issues,” she states.

One of the most prominent themes at Brazilian business schools, which are committed to modernizing their curriculums, is the importance of soft skills and interpersonal relationships. “The different departments of a company must be integrated, not competing. Managers must develop the skills needed to guarantee this harmony,” says Otavio Henrique dos Santos Figueiredo, coordinator of the executive MBA program at COPPEAD-UFRJ. Figueiredo emphasizes that to stimulate the development of emotional intelligence and other managerial skills, courses must ally this with the study of key management concepts. “Despite the importance of practical studies, MBA programs need to be grounded in theoretical references and not just what you read on the internet,” he notes.