Students working toward a master's degree in business administration usually learn all about theories of management, accounting and finance. Increasingly, they are also learning how to do lunch and survive a trek in the wilderness.
This isn't typical fare served up by most traditional master's degree programs. But then, few companies that recruit MBA graduates consider themselves "traditional" anymore. Almost all corporate executives have had to rethink the way they do business. They are looking for smart MBAs who can act in non-traditional ways.
Most of all, says a 1990 survey by the University of Pittsburgh's business school, recruiters from large companies want grads with communication skills who can relate to other people.
Business schools haven't been churning out graduates with those skills, complain some company executives. As a result, administration and faculty at many venerable B-schools, including those in Maryland, are holding up their MBA degree programs, shooting them full of holes and starting over.
The board of corporate executives that helps shape the curriculum at the University of Maryland College of Business and Management has been especially vocal in demanding change, says Rudy Lamone. Mr. Lamone is dean of the college also known as the Maryland Business School at College Park. Its board is represented by the likes of McCormick & Co., First Boston, the Ryland Group, Ernst & Young, Consolidated Freightways and several small businesses, from within and outside Maryland.
"They are our strong and close bridge to the business community," says Mr. Lamone. "They play a significant role in telling us what we're doing right and wrong."
What the business leaders want is more "soft skills" training for students -- working with others, business etiquette, making effective written and oral presentations, managing groups. The board also wants more emphasis on total quality management and international business in the Maryland Business School MBA program.
In response, starting with the upcoming fall semester, the business school will be bringing in more executives with market smarts to meet with MBA students, Mr. Lamone says. Individual students will be tested for their management skills early in the semester, then helped to strengthen weak spots and nurture strong skills during the rest of their program.
The previous requirement of a one-semester course in people skills has been stretched to two semesters, covering leadership, innovation and creativity.
The school will now require more quality and international courses for its MBA students, encouraging a semester of study in other countries. The entering class in August will also have a new five-day orientation, instead of just one day, to allow time for what Mr. Lamone calls "an Outward Bound experience," sort of a summer camp for MBA students. They will play games to strengthen confidence in themselves and others as a team.
"Our purpose with Outward Bound is to quickly build bonding among our students," says Mr. Lamone. "The Maryland program is team-oriented and students have to learn how to work with people they love, people they don't like, and people they can't stand. That's the real world."
Otis A. Thomas, dean of the school of business and management at Morgan State University, says the Outward Bound orientation would be great to offer his students too -- if only Morgan State could afford it.
Instead, says Mr. Thomas, Morgan State is focusing on making its MBA program more accessible and useful to students, and ultimately, more useful to corporations.
"Two years ago we revised our curriculum," Mr. Thomas says. "One of the additions was report writing and preparation in which students prepare written reports and then present them orally to other students." He says the new curriculum also requires stronger computer skills and more courses on quantitative business tools and techniques, like calculus. The goal is to develop management competence.
Mr. Thomas acknowledges the criticisms leveled against standard MBA curricula. But he says not all companies are looking for the same types of MBA grads.
"If you're looking for a highly skilled technician, I think the MBA program [offers] them. But if you're looking for broad skills, the course content is not designed to do that. Attention has been focused on high GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) scores, so you have a lot of technical people coming in." And schools that focus on technical skills can't always foster people skills, he said.
Jonathan Silberman, associate dean of the University of Baltimore's school of business, says the school's administration is "concerned about our MBA program" and working now to revitalize it.
"We plan to incorporate more of an emphasis on international business, managing cultural diversity, information technology and entrepreneurship," he says.