Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Morality AND Profits: A Study By Corporate Executive Board

I was out at the RSA again this morning to listen to a panel discussion on Corporate Ethics. The panel represented an interesting combination - Wendy Harrison, Programme Director Ethics and Compliance, Shell International, Dan Currell, Executive Director of Corporate Executive Board, Matthew Gwyther, editor, Management Today, and Patrick Donovan, Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer of Airbus and Chandrasekhar Krishnan, Executive Director of Transparency International - and the discussions were effectively steered by Matthew Taylor, RSA's Chief Executive.

The background of the discussion was research undertaken by the Corporate Executive Board, covering more than 30 countries and over half a million executives. Ably presented by Dan Currell, the research explored various issues around corporate ethics, including what makes people tolerate bad behaviour and what may be the effect of corporate corruption on shareholder value. The essential point made was integrity is good business, and usually the companies maintaining and striving to maintain ethical conduct are good long term investment. Indeed, this is commonly preached wisdom, but coming at the back of impressive research, this was valuable advice. Besides, the CEB has also identified seven attributes that influence a Company's culture of integrity, namely, Comfort in Speaking Up, Trust in Colleagues, Direct Manager Leadership, Tone at the Top, Clarity of Expectations, Openness of Communication and Organisational Justice. [More about this research can be found here]

The discussion more or less revolved around these points, with various speakers adding perspectives to it. Interestingly, Wendy Harrsion of Shell identified three main challenges that companies like Shell faces in maintaining a high ethical standard - the challenge of communication (how to keep it simple and understandable for employees who are simply trying to do their job), the challenge of supply chain and third parties (how to create shared values across the 'extended family') and the international challenges (how to make employees understand which law to follow). Patrick Donovan's ideas were on similar lines, though he made clear that corporate ethics and compliance starts and ends with people. He stressed the factors such as Tone at the Top, as well as Tone at the Bottom, and how ideas and opinions are shared and circulated across the company. Chandrasekhar Krishnan broadened the discussion by bringing the challenges faced by small and medium enterprises and how they follow different standards at their home country and at their international locations. He made one specific point which had some resonance with me: He was asking what does a small company do when their material, without which they may lose business, are held in customs for demand of a bribe. I did face a similar situation a few years back and ended up refusing to pay the bribe and lost some business as a result. Mr Krishnan's answer was valid - he talked about 'setting right expectations' and 'better planning' - that businesses should factor in such delay and refuse to pay bribes. He estimates that the cost of doing business will go up by 10% to 20% if the companies are accepting demands for bribery, and this will become 'a race to the bottom'.

Issues discussed in the session, though it was done mostly from a big company perspective, had deep significance for me. Ethics and ethical behaviour is of paramount importance in the sector I have chosen to work in, but this is one thing in acute shortage. Higher Education is over-regulated and under-innovated, a playground for dodgy business practises and unaccountable sole proprietors. Indeed, in some countries like Britain, it is going through a transformation, but corporate investment in the sector will not automatically make the companies more ethical. If anything, this may actually import some problems from the United States, where some of these private providers have been implicated in wrongdoing and mis-selling the courses. What we need is completely fresh perspective on business and people practises in the sector, and sadly, this isn't forthcoming. One should be optimistic and hope that the message, transparency is good business, will reach the industry soon: Till then, however, higher education will remain an industry in search of a long term future. 


Monday, November 28, 2011

Quality And Profits: The Case Study of Introducing Moodle in a For-Profit Business School


Dr. Kendall, the Programme Director of the MBA programme in a management college in the city, was recently advised by the accrediting university that the ‘student experience’ in the course must improve. During a recent conversation, the students told the University representatives that there was very little interaction outside the classroom hours between the tutors and themselves, and often they felt that they had been rushed through the programme. They also indicated that they felt that there wasn’t enough library resources, and they were not sure that the programme was preparing them adequately for a career in business.

There wasn’t a straightforward solution available to Dr. Kendall. First of all, his was a Higher Education programme in the midst of a Professional Training college, where most tutors were adjunct and they would not commit extra hours outside the contracted time for student contact. Library resources were hard to come by, as this wasn’t something the college administration really deemed necessary, given their background in Accountancy training. Furthermore, the majority of students were from overseas, balancing work and study, and were hardly available for any extra-curricular engagement anyway.

However, Dr Kendall was painfully aware that he must act, quickly and decisively. The university moderator was quite clear that he might not allow the college to take on any more new students unless actions had been taken to improve the student experience. The college management was equally clear that the programme wasn’t making money for them and they needed to take on more students and even be able to raise the student fees for the forthcoming intakes. Besides, spread over three campuses, the college management hardly ever interacted with the students, and did not see any reason for Dr Kendall’s alarm.


The Convergence of Interests

One solution, suggested to Dr Kendall by one of the members of the management team, Dr Eric Blair, the newly recruited brand manager of the college, was to create a student community. The rationale for this advice was more marketing than academic, but there was a clear pay-off for Dr Kendall : The community might pull the students to the college, making them spend more time and learning from each other and demanding more from tutors. What’s more, Dr Blair suggested rather persuasively, the students might feel more positively about the college if they were more involved, and this might reflect in their feedback, formal or informal, to the university. Using marketing-speak, Dr Blair talked about ‘engagement’ being the key to solve Dr. Kendall’s problems as well as something that may help the college raise the fees over time. Whatever was the merit of these arguments, Dr Kendall felt most persuaded to follow the advice because Eric had some budget to enhance student engagement.

Unbeknown to Dr Kendall, however,  Dr Blair was also keen to explore options. First of all, he was not convinced that the student experience at the college was good enough, and knew that any marketing efforts would be quite ineffective if the service levels did not improve. He was keen, from a business and marketing point of view, to help out Dr Kendall.

Dr Blair had a certain influence on the owners and board members of the business. His experiences in other large international education businesses were valued, but more importantly, he had the experience of raising money, from venture capital funds, for education businesses. The college wanted to tap such funding for its future expansion and this was the precise reason why Dr Blair was offered the position. Also, unlike Dr Kendall, Dr Blair was a business executive and spoke the language the board members understood: He set a goal – being able to charge double the fees for the MBA programme in twelve months’ time by enhancing the value perception of the programme – which was fully supported by the bankers, the Finance Director and the investors in the business.

The Baby Steps

Dr Kendall, therefore, was happy enough to accept the suggestion of building a student collaboration website which incorporates an online learning platform. This was to be a shoestring exercise, and an ‘Open Source’ platform, Moodle, was chosen. This was, however, a more difficult choice than it appeared: Both Dr Kendall and Dr Blair knew that to make Moodle work, it would need more time and effort than something that could be bought off the shelf. However, the upfront investment of buying a ready-to-use platform prohibited such choice: Dr Blair was simply reluctant to go back to the board asking for any significant investment upfront.

He could secure, however, a coalition of the willing within the organization. One of the senior managers, James, already tried using Moodle for professional accountancy courses, but it gained no traction as the tutors refused to post their notes on the site. Professional Accountancy training being tutor-driven as it is, James had very little negotiating power and had to abandon his plans to use Moodle for these courses. However, the infrastructure was already invested in, which Dr Blair could now use without any additional investment.

He also enlisted Daphne, the young IT specialist who recently joined the teaching staff of the college. Daphne had an Engineering degree, but completed Masters in Design from a Scottish University. She took up the teaching job being without an option in the recessionary job market, but was looking to move into User Experience work. Dr Blair convinced her to lead the task of running the Moodle for Dr Kendall’s students, arguing that this would give her enough ‘user’ facing time as she wanted to have and would allow her an opportunity to apply her professional expertise in the field of education.

Dr Kendall also mandated that all tutors in the MBA programme must use Moodle to post their notes and be available to answer student queries. Tutors were aware that they did not have as much negotiating power and mostly agreed to cooperate. However, they objected to extra work, particularly as they had to learn a new software. This was easily circumvented as Daphne, anxious to get the work going, volunteered to take on the job of posting all the notes, as long as these were supplied in Microsoft Word or PDF formats.

Finally, Dr Kendall also decided to review all contracts and move the tutors from an hourly to a package rate for teaching; the new contracts offered more money to the tutors but covered an undefined amount of extra work which must go into supporting students online. Most tutors did not see the students using the site anyway: They agreed.

Here come the students

When the first batch of students was registered on Moodle in October 2010, the expectations were rather modest. The site, despite the tacit agreement with the tutors, was bereft of any content at the time. This was not due to tutor’s reticence, but more because there was no content to give. Most tutors used whiteboards or overhead projectors in the class, and those who used Powerpoint slides were treating these as tools of the trade and did not see the point of giving them away. Desperate to register an early win, however, Daphne set up Moodle registration sessions, where she would hire out large classrooms with computer terminals, make all the students sit together and register into Moodle. This was effective: She had almost 200 students registered on Moodle in a matter of a few days.

These numbers were an important catalyst in a number of ways. Dr Blair declared an early victory and informed the board members that 90% of the MBA students registered on the Moodle platform within the first seven days of launch. It was an important half-truth: He never said that this was done through organized classroom sessions, but this allowed him to project this to be a popular initiative that the students love and ask formally for resources, including an Online Library subscription, to be integrated into it. He further pressed on the other departments, such as IT, to integrate various workflows, covering important other tasks that an overseas student needed done – such as request for council tax exemption letters, travel letters, holiday work authorization letters, turnitin access to check for appropriateness of referencing – to be integrated in the same platform.

Dr Kendall, meantime, sent the same message to the tutors, that almost all the students had now registered on Moodle and, even if they have no content to give, they should start answering the student queries etc on the Moodle forum.


The Unexpected Consequences of Being There

The students, however, started using Moodle straightaway, even before any content was posted onto it. The first post on Moodle forum, dated October 12th 2010, hours after the students were registered, read – “Moodle is the best thing that the college management has ever done. At least, we can now talk to each other about our studies, and get to know the students in other classes”. By October 17th, a Sunday, a student was writing about “forming a club of students which will run sessions… Can we have a petition to the college management to give us a classroom after the college hours?”

The first tutor notes came in a week later. The Marketing Strategy tutor reported that the students requested if the notes could be made available online, and he had to give in to them. Soon, almost all the module tutors got some notes onto the platform. The CEO of the company wanted to check out what’s going on and wanted to access Moodle: His first post, responding to the student request for facilities for the student club, was made on the November 24th, a month after the original post: “It is good to know that you wanted to take the initiative. Let your course administrator know when you want to organize this session and a room will be made available. I would love to attend the session.” The discussions with the course team resulted in formation of ‘Enterprise Network Club’, a monthly evening event where local entrepreneurs and employers were invited to talk face to face with the students. The first meeting of the ‘club’ was held on the 12th January, three months after the idea was proposed, and the CEO of the company did attend, much of Dr Kendall’s relief.

Everyone’s Baby

Despite its apparent success with students, six months after it was first launched, the site was still thin on content on some of courses. Two of the most highly regarded tutors refused to give any content for putting up. One of them wanted to protect his intellectual property and insisted that the site did not have the adequate level of security. The other argued that his content is mostly on Overhead Slides which he wrote by hand in the class; he also argued that he did not want to give his slides to students who did not come to the class. Some of the other tutors objected that they were having to do more work than they thought would be necessary, as the students kept sending queries through Moodle and annoyingly for them, N almost always did a follow-up.

Dr Blair was not successful in getting an Online Library subscription: The high cost of doing so deterred the board members. Instead, he secured an access to the university online library, which all students could use. This did not happen through Moodle, but he was happy nonetheless that this was now available. However , he had some minor wins: The board agreed to invest a modest amount in a Department library instead. The IT department was also lately persuaded to allow the Moodle to be connected to their databases, allowing the students to make the request through the Moodle rather than having to fill up a form physically.

Dr Kendall regards Moodle as a personal victory – he got annoyed when some of the tutors referred to it as ‘Noodle’; light-heartedly, they insist. He retained his accreditation, and has a greater quota nowadays. The university moderator is quite happy with progress, but the students are now complaining that access to Moodle is often difficult as the college does not have enough computer terminals for use of students. The university has now recommended that the college reviews its IT infrastructure, including the number of computer terminals and broadband access and load. Dr Blair has a new thing to argue about – giving a free laptop to students when they sign up for the course: He believes that this will enhance the ‘perception of the course, introduce a touch-and-feel dimension of the technology orientated nature of delivery’. The CEO contends that he recognizes the marketing-speak, but he would want to talk to some students first.    

Reflections

The experiences as narrated here cover a number of perspectives and relate to a number of theoretical perspectives on group behaviour and the research on introduction of technology in an organization. In the following paragraphs, we shall reflect on two such perspectives, one exploring the positive student experience and the other relating to the challenges such technology introduction usually faces.

One of the most puzzling aspects of this project is the students’ apparent satisfaction with the platform without content. It is possibly appropriate, in context, to look at the students as ‘digital natives’ and reflect on previous research on the Net Generation’s satisfaction with Online learning (Dziuban et al, 2010). This research identify six component areas from which such satisfaction emanates:

A.     Effective Institutional Responsiveness, or the feeling among the students that their institution is making some effort to accommodate their lifestyle needs.
B.     Increased Educational Engagement, or the satisfaction with the ‘enhanced ability to ask questions and clarify their concerns’.
C.     More Explicit Role Expectations, or knowing that the assessments are responsive and equitable, and having a clear vision of rules of engagement (achieved through interaction with others and tutors).
D.    Reduced Ambivalence, achieved through a ‘heightened sense of engagement and clearer understanding of expectations’.
E.     Increased Information Fluency, by developing an effective filtering mechanism, through interaction with others and tutors, of the information overload.
F.     Increased Commitment to Education, through empowerment with a sense of agency.
(Dziuban et al, 2010)

It can be said that the organizations commitment to deploy Moodle and engage students through this created the overall sense of empowerment, created the positive engagement and started the enabling conversations that the students craved for.

It is also interesting to look at another perspective, that of the people initiating the project inside the organization and the various challenges they faced in introducing the piece of new technology. An useful perspective is provided by Grudin (1994). In his effort to list the eight challenges that Groupware developers face in an organization, he touched upon various areas which remain valid even after a decade and half. Grudin’s list represents eight dimensions against which various aspects of this case can be explored:

1.     Disparity of Work and Benefit: The tutors saw additional work in implementing Online Learning, and the project would not have moved forward without the Project Coordinator stepping in to take on some of the workload. The benefits, increased student engagement, came only later.
2.     Critical Mass and Prisoners’ Dilemma Problems: The platform needed critical mass, and it would not have been helpful for any one individual to start using it first. The group registration session helped to get most people on board at the very beginning and was crucial for eventual adaptation of the site as the principal communication platform.
3.     Disruption of Social Processes: In some cases, introduction of Moodle laid open the students’ dissatisfaction with some of the tutors and facilities, and students took advantage of the direct communication facilities with the Executive Management. Some of the tutors and programme administrators felt undermined to a great extent. Their lack of enthusiasm, mainly due to this reason, had to be addressed.
4.     Exception Handling: The Moodle platform was not there to solve all the problems the students have, though there was an implicit expectation that it would do so eventually. In the areas where it fell short, the users were disappointed.
5.     Unobtrusive Accessibility: One of the most successful spin-offs from this Moodle experiment was the start of the ‘club’, a real group activity involving external participants and students on Moodle. The coordination of this activity was through the general forum, which was actually the least used area of Moodle, but turned out to be quite popular as this allowed the students to converse regardless of their course enrolments.
6.     Difficulty of Evaluation: It was difficult for the Project Team and its management sponsors to actually evaluate the impact of the project beyond anecdotal evidence. The communication aspect was well understood by all in the organization, but how it benefitted anyone was not entirely clear.
7.     Failure of Intuition: It was difficult for a management team to design an appropriate learning and collaboration platform for a body of students it did not know well. The project manager’s user facing design experience was therefore critical, but the project still suffered, at times, from the IT Team’s failure to understand the students’ needs and inability to communicate in the users’ language.
8.     Adoption Process: It was not just a piece of technology, but a culturally situated process of negotiation and involvement that was required to get the project going.
(Grudin, 1994)

The above model provides a framework to understand various aspects of introduction of a new piece of technology requiring group participation, and the narrative of this case can be explored in context.

References

Dziuban, C. D., Moskal, P. D., Bradford, G. R., Brophy-Ellison, J. and Groff, A.T. (2010) Constructs that impact the Net Generation’s Satisfaction with Online Learning; in Sharpe, R., Beetham, H., and De Freitas, S. (Eds), Rethinking Learning For A Digital Age, Routledge, NY.

Grudin, J. (1994), Groupware and Social Dynamics: Eight Challenges for Developers, Communications of the ACM, Vol 37 No. 1, January 1994, NY.


Quality and Profits: The Quest for Quality for an MBA programme in a For-Profit Business School


Background

This essay intends to explore the issue of educational quality in the context of a For-Profit Business School based in London. This is a privately owned business, which offers a Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme validated by a British university, and caters to mostly students coming from overseas.

The school has no degree awarding power and has to follow the academic regulations of the validating university. The MBA degree is awarded by the validating university after the students successfully complete 8 taught modules and a dissertation.

The Business School had to undergo an extensive review of its financial and academic capabilities to achieve validation to deliver the MBA programme. The validation was achieved following a well-defined university process. The university took great care to look at the financial records and management practices of the institution, as part of their initial vetting visit, and following this, the course, proposed by the business school, was assessed against the Subject Benchmarks published the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

After the validation, the Business School was free to recruit students. The school’s activity was monitored by the University regularly. The process of monitoring is represented in Figure 2 below. Such monitoring primarily focused on three main areas – Admissions, Education Delivery and Assessments. The university indeed maintained a close monitoring system, with the appointment of external examiners who vetted all assessments and a moderator, who had oversight of education delivery and assessment processes.


The university set the admission criteria, and the students needed a good first degree, proof of English Language competence at the appropriate level, and at least two years of working experience, to get admitted to the MBA programme. The students, mostly from overseas, would usually approach one of the agents or offices of the Business School abroad to submit their applications. After the students’ suitability have been reviewed by the Admissions team, the applications are then passed on to the MBA Admissions Committee, which included the college representatives as well as the Programme Moderator from the university. The committee would assess the students’ suitability for the programme before a confirmed offer is made.

On the education delivery, all tutors have to be approved by the university validation team before teaching in the programme. The facilities and student services at the Business School are regularly reviewed, and regular suggestions were made for improvement. Different feedback mechanisms, the end-of-course feedback, student-staff liaison meetings, were put in place. University representatives interviewed the students during the inspection visits. A Joint Board of Studies was periodically convened to review the experiences of the programme and to recommend enhancements or modifications.

On Assessments, University appointed external examiners who approved all the assessments and reviewed the marking. They attended the assessment boards along with all internal assessors, and confirmed the results. The assessment board was chaired by the Programme Moderator, a senior academician appointed by the University, and would be attended by all external examiners and examiners appointed by the Business School involved in marking the papers.

The programme was very successful for the Business School. It was profitable, and a large number of students were recruited in the programme. The student recruitment numbers for the Business School is given below in Table 1.
Table 1: Intakes & Number of Students

Intake
Number of students
September’08
16
February’08
20
July’08
34
September’09
152
February’10
110
July’10
120
September’10
156
February’11
61
July’11
52
  Source: Business School records

 

 


The student numbers exceeded those that the Business School management projected, and the school had to renegotiate its contract with the university to accommodate the larger number of students. This also led to a ‘quality’ problem, which had to be addressed through significant expansion of resources to meet the demand. 


This essay starts from the point of this perceived ‘quality problem’, which the validating university pointed out and the Business School resolved to its satisfaction. It would be argued that a narrow process-based or resource-based view of quality blurs the multi-faceted and complex nature of the issue, and in fact leads to a certain disregard of what should be the aim of an educational experience.

The Quality Problem

The management of the Business School faced a real dilemma in August 2009. Traditionally, a large proportion of the students in the Business School had come from South Asia, with India alone contributing more than 40% of the student population. The Indian students will traditionally come to do Professional Accounting courses, which this school was good at doing. However, their interests in the MBA programme were limited: They somehow preferred Australian schools, which had a good marketing presence in large Indian cities. However, in August 2009, Australia was getting very poor press in India, because of a number of race-hate incidents against Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney. Faced with persistent criticism in Indian media, Australian Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, tried to brush these off as isolated criminal incidents, causing a diplomatic row and drawing even greater publicity.

This led to a sudden surge in application for the MBA programme in the Business School. This was happening to almost all UK colleges and universities at the time, so much so that the UK Home Office relaxed the UK student visa requirements to take advantage of the surge in application.

The key issue facing the management of the school was that while the MBA programme, then in its second year, has been going well, the school did not have much capacity to handle the student surge. The contracted number with the validating university was only 60 students per year. The physical capacity was inadequate, and the tutoring team could handle only up to a certain number of students.

While physical capacity was a problem, competitive landscape was changing very fast. Newer colleges with spare capacity were accepting the students who have been turned down for the lack of capacity elsewhere. This was a competitive nightmare: By turning down the students, the Business School was creating its own competitors.

It is at this juncture that the management of the Business School decided to invest in creating capacity and ‘innovate’ in Education delivery. A formal request for expanding the contracted numbers was made to the validating university. A new management team was recruited, along with a number of qualified tutors. The Business School went ahead and leased an additional 38,000 square feet of space and created classrooms and facilities for the incoming students. All of this was achieved, as was only possible in a dynamic private business, within a period of three months. The students could come and commence their classes in a shiny new facility.

There were some issues, however, where the management of the school decided to seek more innovative solutions. Library, for example, was one such area. Cognizant that even the new premises will allow little space for reading rooms etc., the Business School sought out a deal with a leading Academic publisher to create custom text books. The books, produced under the editorship of an eminent economist, compiled a number of chapters from standard text books, held together by a commentary written by tutors of each of the modules. These books were intended to serve as a Knowledge-base for students to refer to during the programme, and each student was issued a set of books covering all the modules they have to do.

Besides, as the teaching load of the tutoring team was set to increase, the Business School invested in an Online Learning platform and licensed learning content from the academic publishers to be provided online. The students were also given access to an Online Library, and a team was appointed to coordinate with tutors to upload the learning materials on an ongoing basis.

Reflecting back, the senior managers of the Business School today regard this expansion project as a major victory, a clear example how the Private Sector, unhindered by the process requirements of various kinds, could respond quickly and decisively to emergent opportunities. On the issue of quality, they define this as the attainment of promises made to the students – in this case, a ‘great student experience’, ‘meeting the learning objectives’ and ‘being employable’ – which, they regard, their timely intervention with enhanced resources helped to achieve.

However, at the time, the university was not happy with this development, though. While they indicated that they are ready to increase the contracted numbers to a certain higher level, they indicated that they would need at least 3 months’ notice before they could validate a new learning facility. They were unhappy that the Business School moved the students, however good was the facility, before a validation could take place. They were also not comfortable with the increased number of students as they were unable to appoint external examiners quick enough.

Eventually, these issues will be resolved with time and the university will approve, even commend, the Business School’s marketing prowess and decisive action. Indeed, this particular business school became one of most profitable operations of the validation unit, and a sort of showcase for other partnering schools.

Reflecting back on the events, the University moderator pointed out that adhering to the processes laid down should be the foremost objectives of quality assurance. ‘The processes are there for a purpose’, he would write, ‘and these processes have known to ensure quality in education delivery in other similar settings’.  In general, he would define quality as adherence to set norms, which were well researched and ‘benchmarked’, because these were known to have ‘delivered a high-quality student experience’.

All About Outcome

In both the cases above, the resource based and process based views of educational quality center around the ‘student experience’. However, the students, when interviewed, seem to value outcome more than either the resources available or processes followed.

For the purpose of this essay, a sample of 30 MBA students were requested to fill out a questionnaire on what they think constitute ‘quality’ in the MBA programme they were attending. They were given six statements and were expected to indicate the ones, which were important to them for judging the quality of the programme. The  outcome of this survey is summarized below in Table 2.

Table 2: Students’ Perception of Quality


Statement
                           Respondents (Percentage)
The programme will prepare me for a suitable job
                               28 (93%)

The programme will help me attain a well recognized qualification

                              24 (80%)

The Programme will allow me opportunities to work in the UK

                              24 (80%)

The Programme will offer good teaching on current business topics

                             15 (50%)

The programme will enhance my personal skills and abilities even if they are not directly related to the subjects taught

                               9 (30%)

The programme offers all the resources that I need to complete my studies effectively

                               9 (30%)


Following this survey, two respondents were also interviewed at length to arrive at a greater understanding what ‘quality’ meant to them. While respondents differed on what they expected out of the MBA programme, they were in agreement that as long as the programme leads to a suitable job, the resources were ‘not that important’, and processes ‘could vary’.

These responses were of interest for another reason. They don’t just diverge from what the school thinks ‘quality’ is, and what the awarding university define ‘quality’ as, they also diverge from what a prospective employer will think quality of an MBA programme is. A similar survey of 10 employers, who have employed graduates from the validating university (and some from this Business School in particular), reflect a somewhat different set of priorities. Table 3 summarizes the responses.

Table 3: Employers’ Perception of Quality


Statement
                     Respondents (Percentage)
The programme will enhance the candidate’s ability to critically analyze business problems and handle uncertainty
                         10 (100%)

The programme offers candidates good teaching on current business topics
                         
                         10 (100%)

The programme offers the candidates suitable resources to enhance their skills and knowledge

                          8 (80%)

The programme will prepare the candidate for a suitable job

                          5 (50%)

The Programme will allow candidates skills required to work in the UK

                         4 (40%)

The programme will help the candidates attain a well recognized qualification

                         3 (30%)

Longer interviews with two of these employers also pointed out some of their major concerns with the MBA graduates: Their tendency to seek privilege on account of their qualification, their lack of enthusiasm to learn at work and their inability to integrate in a team. It seems that while the students mainly adopt an Outcome-based definition of ‘Quality’, the employers want these outcomes to be linked with real-life skills, and not academic abilities.

Grounded in Practice

QAA seems to have provided a framework within which all these competing aspirations can be reconciled. In its Subject Benchmark Statement (2007), the QAA states that a Masters Degree in Management should have four-fold objectives:

·      “The advanced study of organisations, their management and the changing external context in which they operate
·      Preparation for and/or development of a career in business and management by developing skills at a professional or equivalent level, or as preparation for research or further study in the area
·      Development of the ability to apply knowledge and understanding of business and management to complex issues, both systematically and creatively, to improve business and management practice
·      Enhancement of lifelong learning skills and personal development so as to be able to work with self-direction and originality and to contribute to business and society at large.”
(QAA, 2007)

QAA recognizes the ‘vocational’ nature of the MBA programme and recommends that ‘there is a strong practical and professional orientation to the curriculum and they may be linked to professional institute qualifications’. (QAA, 2007)

Regarding what an MBA programme should achieve, QAA states

“Graduates will have been able to ground their new knowledge within the base of their professional experience. They will be able to reflect on and learn from that prior experience and thus be able to integrate new knowledge with past experience and apply it to new situations. They will be able to challenge preconceptions and to remove subject and functional boundaries so as to handle complex situations holistically. They should also have particular strengths in analysing, synthesising and solving complex unstructured business problems. In addition to being able to communicate their findings, they should have developed the skills to implement agreed solutions effectively and efficiently. They should therefore have strongly developed interpersonal skills and to be able to interact effectively with a range of specialists.” (QAA, 2007)

In a certain way, this integrates various perspectives on Quality. This is the outcome that the university processes are designed to achieve, and this is, even if the students have not explicitly signed up to it at the very start, the promise of an MBA that the Business School has made. The outcome-centric view of the students and employers also revolve around these skill-sets and in a way, the QAA Benchmark statements help bring the two perspectives together.

Quality in Real Life

In a manufacturing business, quality of its products will be defined by its ability to meet ‘explicit and implicit’ requirements of the customer. The Principal of the Business School, when interviewed for this essay, rightly states that this becomes slightly problematic to define who the ‘customer’ of the MBA programme is. The students will be the most likely to fit into this description, since they are paying the fees. However, in Britain, since the education system is largely publicly funded, meeting the QAA benchmarks is considered to be a more important measure of delivering ‘quality’ education. Also, meeting the university’s process requirements is critical for being seen as a ‘Quality Provider’, though this seems little more than ‘ticking the boxes’. Finally, one can equally argue that the employers are the customers, who employ the students and hence define, in an indirect way, what the programme is worth.

Indeed, the five slightly different perspective of quality – the resource-based view of the provider, the process-based view of the validating institution, the outcome-centric view of the students, the practice-oriented view of the employers, and the academic-ability view of the national agencies – do not fully address the ‘implicit’ needs that an MBA programme may serve.

Status, for example, would be one of the implicit needs. During the interviews, the students indicated that they were looking forward to being recognized as MBA graduates by the employers and in their community. In fact, some researchers have indicated that ‘MBA does not yield advertised results’ (Pfeffer and Fong, 2002) and has only ‘selection value’ – ‘a selection mechanism that performs a useful information processing function in the market for managerial talent’. (Moldoveanu and Martin, 2008). Schools often stretch themselves to service the status needs of the students by submitting themselves to various MBA ranking mechanisms, with the expectation that even a mediocre ranking would help service the students’, and employers’, status needs compared to the schools who have no ranking at all. For Ghosal (2005), a critic of the status of the MBA, it cultivates ‘emotional landscapes, actional tendencies and cognitive habits that are counterproductive’ and is therefore, ‘bad for business and society’.

The students also indicate that they chose to do the MBA to be better prepared. The biographical details shared during the interviews indicate that they were not satisfied with their work, or thought their careers have reached a plateau, when they decided to pursue the MBA. Making sense of the world around them was cited as a strong motivating factor for doing an MBA in other studies (Bhandarkar, 2008). The grounding in practice and reflective learning that sits at the heart of the QAA benchmark statement may somewhat run counter to this, when one considers that the business landscapes are changing fast and what one does today may not have any relevance to the future. In fact, this seems to be a persistent criticism of MBA programmes elsewhere.

Looking at these implicit needs of the students and employers, it is useful to refer to Datar et al. (2010), who surveyed MBA programmes across countries and institutions and identified eight unmet needs, ‘many of them related to doing and being’. These are as follows:

1.     Gaining a global perspective – Being able to manage optimally when faced with economic, institutional and cultural differences.
2.     Developing Leadership Skills – Among other things, recognizing the impact of one’s actions and behaviours on others.
3.     Honing integration skills – While analytical skills are stressed upon, building judgement and intuition into messy, unstructured situation get missed out.
4.     Recognizing organizational realities and implementing effectively – Often the rule and model based learning in the MBA programmes run counter to real life organizations, where hidden agendas, political coalitions, unwritten rules and competing points of views play a part.
5.     Acting creatively and innovatively – The learning does not stop at the MBA or getting that job, and the candidate should be able to constantly experiment and learn and engage in generative and lateral thinking.
6.     Thinking critically and communicating effectively – Among other things, distinguishing facts from opinions.
7.     Understanding the role, responsibilities and purpose of business – Balancing financial and non-financial objectives
8.     Understanding the limits of models and markets – Questioning the underlying patterns, interests and assumptions, focusing on social impact and encouraging disruptive thinking

Conclusion

Discussing quality is always problematic: It means different things to different people. However, exploring and understanding various perspectives about educational quality is important, more so in the context of For-Profit education, an emerging phenomenon of sorts in Britain. The current understanding of quality, this essay argues, is inherently limited. While a suitable and exhaustive definition is outside the scope of current enquiry, the tensions are quite apparent even within the scope of this limited research. Some of the questions are quite fundamental, like who should be the ‘customer’ of an educational course: The usual business-like definition of whoever pays for it may not be sufficient or sustainable. In the coming days, as Higher Education ushers into a new competitive future and For-Profits are expected to play a greater role, these questions regarding customers, quality and ‘purpose’ will need to be answered with clarity and conviction.


 
References

Bhandarkar, A. (2008), Shaping Business Leaders: What B-Schools Don’t Do, Response Books, New Delhi, India.

Datar, S.M., Garvin, D.A., and Cullen, P.G. (2010), Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, Harvard Business Press, Boston, MA.

Ghosal, S (2005), Bad management theories are destroying good management practices, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Vol 4 Number 1, pp 75 – 91

Moldoveanu, M.C., and Martin, R.L. (2008), The Future of the MBA: Designing the thinker of the future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Pfeffer, J. and Fong, C. (2002) The end of Business Schools? Less Success than meets the Eye, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Vol. 1, pp 78 – 95

QAA (2007), Masters Degrees in Business and Management, QAA, Mansfield, UK. 


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