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Criticisms of MBA Degree: Modified Model of Professional Education

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Published: 3rd Mar 2022

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Although its flagship graduate management qualification, the MBA, is considered a passport to a managerial role, the business school is criticised for failing to adequately develop skills required for managerial effectiveness. The issue has been investigated through various lenses but there has been little discussion on applying a model of professional education to address the MBA’s perceived problems. How to prepare graduates to develop professional patterns of behaviour carries considerable research attention in the archetype professions, such as medicine and law, but it is insufficiently addressed in management.

The purpose of this paper is to explore how business schools could address criticisms of MBA education by assimilating a modified model of professional education. Four strands of literature inform this review: sociology of the professions; debate on management as a profession; critique of MBA education; and exemplars in education models used by archetype professions.

The literature harbours many examples of MBA interventions that steer business schools towards their professional mission, offering insight into bridging theory to practice, enhancing practice-based pedagogy and setting ethical standards for graduates. However, in the absence of a framework for integrating initiatives to support students’ professional development, MBA educators operate largely unguided in their efforts to optimise their curricula and pedagogies.

Leveraging concepts from professional work and learning as well as frameworks for evaluating professional degree programmes, this paper provides a conceptualisation of what constitutes embedded professionalism in the MBA degree so that not only can professionalism-related-performance of students be assessed and tracked but the extent to which professionalism is integrated within a programme can be evaluated.

Key Words – Business School, MBA, Management Education, Professionalism, Curriculum, Pedagogy, Role-Modelling, Assessment

Paper Type – Conceptual Paper, Literature Review


“there is a striking difference between the level of professionalism expected of an aircraft pilot and more ambiguous and less defined expectations we have of a manager” (Romme, 2016, p.2).

1.1 Business Schools Under Fire

The Ford and Carnegie reforms sought to emulate medicine’s transformation from a practice-based craft to a science-based profession. Their intellectual architect, Herbert Simon, proposed that business schools pursue a dual orientation: professional practice and fundamental research. Simon’s (1967) concerns of divergence between the two proved prophetic as rationalism misappropriated the idea of intellectually robust and professionally relevant education (Khurana and Spender, 2012). Paradoxically, management education has become a regulated profession without having professionalised management practice itself (Spender, 2007).

Hence, business schools are under fire to the extent that they risk their legitimacy (Starkey and Tempest, 2009). Management education is seen as removed from the human aspects of managing (Rubin and Dierdorff, 2013). Defined in terms of economic imperatives, it is criticised for prioritising shareholder value over societal stakeholders (Pirson, 2010). Some scholars claim that business school graduates are unprepared for the complexities of managerial work (Mintzberg, 2004; Khurana, 2007).

1.2 Criticism of MBA Practice and Pedagogy

These issues are reflected in the more tangible criticisms of MBA curriculum and pedagogy (Navarro, 2008). Focus on economic and rational-analytic methods (Spender, 2012) is blamed for creating a pedagogy-practice gap (Pfeffer and Fong, 2002; Bennis and O’Toole, 2005). Recurring themes include curricular irrelevance (Moldoveanu and Martin, 2008; Rubin and Dierdorff, 2009) and dubious ethics (Skapinker, 2010). Schlegelmilch and Thomas (2011) imply that the biggest threat to the MBA stems from its lack of definition. Despite its universal recognition, the MBA remains unlicensed.

1.3 The MBA as a Potential Platform for Developing Managerial Professionalism

To plan, lead, organise and control professionally, Despotidou and Prastacos (2012) suggest that managers should have [1] expertise [2] an ethical disposition and [3] a sense of purpose. Romme (2016) outlines four dimensions for evaluating managerial professionalism, namely: –

Professionalism=P  x  K  x  B  x  E
P = Share Sense of Purpose of the Profession K = Body of Knowledge
B = Actual Behaviour and Actions E = Expectations from Stakeholders

Since its genesis at Tuck Business School in 1900, the MBA has been among the most durable efforts to impart skills to manage organisations. Hence, a question arises as to whether professionalising the MBA could be a platform for improving managerial practice (Knowles and Hensher, 2005). Rubin and Dierdorff (2013) identified the MBA’s professional orientation as a focus for future research to improve graduate management education. Yet, a significant gap exists between prototype statements on professionalism in management, (e.g. Romme et al., 2015), and the rich empirical data in medicine, (e.g. Jakovljević and Ostojić, 2013).

1.4 Rationale for Literature Review

Scholars suggest that the MBA’s relevance and values would benefit from practices in professional education, such as solving practice problems and field immersion (Nohria, 2012). The objective guiding this literature review is to investigate how criticisms of MBA’s could be addressed by embedding professionalism and, thus, better promoting it in managerial practice. The review seeks to capture methods that could be used to develop professionalism. What would constitute a set of ideals? Against what criteria could students be evaluated? How might curriculum and pedagogy be adapted? These are merely some of the questions in considering how MBA’s could adapt practices in models of professional education. MBA educators may learn from other professions, however imperfect such comparisons may be. The essence of professionalisation is not only in its outcome but its journey.

1.6 Overview of Paper

The paper first leverages concepts from sociological studies of the professions, the nature of professional work and models of professional education. It continues with a discussion on the evolution of management practice and learning. This provides a basis for analysing the current debate by management scholars on management as a profession. However, distinct from a sense of occupational identification exemplified by professions, the focus of the paper shifts to the more useful, although less defined, concept of professionalism.

The literature identifies innovations in curriculum, pedagogy, student selection and role-modelling as a basis for a more professionally oriented MBA programme. However, absence of accepted guidelines for embedding managerial professionalism is problematic. This paper offers a conceptual framework for embedding professionalism in the MBA so that future research can generate the necessary empirical evidence for MBA programmes to train students as professional managers. In this context Khurana and Nohria’s (2008) proposal for a Certified Business Professional as a requirement for MBA graduates becomes more meaningful.


I hold every man a debtor to his profession; from which as men of course do seek to receive countenance and profit, so ought they of duty to endeavour themselves, by way of amends, to be a help thereunto” (Carr-Saunders and Wilson, 1933, p.284).

2.1 Etymology of the Professions

For a model of managerial professionalism to be credible, it must be informed by the historical work of professionals. Priests were perhaps the first to receive a professional education, albeit with little room for critical thinking. Punishment for opposing church dogmas provided the medieval context for the second profession, that of law, which emerged from Bologna in 1088 and Sorbonne in 1257. The early medical profession modelled the guilds system: it was conservative, reproducing old knowledge, evolving theory and practice slowly. In the age of enlightenment, medical students of the University of Gӧttingen, founded in 1737, were among the first to bypass theology. Instead, they focused on science, reading Hippocrates, advancing the medical profession considerably under scientific thinking (e.g. Pasteur et al., 1878).

Social innovations followed the Napoleonic wars, including the creation of new professions. It was not until the 19th century that the US established its first business schools. Of direct lineage to the German schools, Harvard was founded by Edwin Gay after completing his PhD. in Berlin (Heaton, 1968) and Wharton was influenced by Edmund James, a University of Halle graduate (Sass, 1982). With the rise of corporations, scholars suggested that management be a profession to curb its pursuit of self-interest (Tawney, 1957).

Using attribution theory, Carr-Saunders and Wilson (1933) claimed that attempts to distinguish professions from other occupations were arbitrary, hence, flawed (Table 1). With the expansion of knowledge, the list of professions has grown, requiring ever more specialised education and intensifying the debate on who has the right to call themselves a professional.

Table 1: Typical Attributes of a Profession

Source: Adapted from Carr-Saunders and Wilson (1933)

2.2 From Profession to Professionalization to Professionalism

Scholars disagree on the attributes that define a profession. Hughes (1958) argues that the differences between professions and other occupations were a matter of degree. His ethnographic studies show how professional identity is formed and reproduced by shared educational backgrounds, experiences and professional bodies. Most now consider professions as middle-class, knowledge-based service occupations, requiring high levels of education. Hence, research emphasis has shifted from attempting to define what is meant by a profession, to professionalism (Larson, 1977).

Less concerned with drawing hard demarcations between professions and other occupations (Abbott, 2001), professionalism encompasses the general nature of professions and is considered a socially stabilising value system worth promoting at work (Parsons, 1939). Friedson (2001) argues for professionalism as a core principle of service occupations in which control should rest with practitioners. It implies a high level of mutual trust in societies with advanced division of labour (Marshal, 1939). ‘Professional’ occupations are rewarded with autonomy and privileged status in exchange for ethical use of their expertise.

Friedson’s functionalist view of professionalism as a form of decentralised occupational control is rose-tinted, promoting collegiality, altruism and practitioner pride (Dingwall, 2016). Structuralist interpretations dismiss it as an ideology in pursuit of self-interest (Larkin, 1983). So, on one hand, professionals are praised for social conscience and ethical disposition. On the other, critics view professionalism as a rhetorical strategy to legitimise power. A more balanced narrative depicts it as a discourse for occupational improvement (Figure 1). Exuding appeal as something to which to aspire (Fournier, 1999), becoming a professional is seen as a way to improve occupational status and income.

Figure 1: Professionalism as a Discourse for Occupational Improvement

Source: Adapted from Evetts (2003)

It is also appealing at the micro-level as a form of inner-directed control, alleviating a need for close managerial supervision. Professionalism, as outlined in the early Dialogues of Plato, suggests that professionals acquire the expertise of their trade, technein, through significant education and training, and are well versed in their moral, arête, judgement (Plato, 1937).

2.3 Abbott’s Systems Perspective of Professionalism

The sociology of the professions is well theorised and supported by extensive empirical research. Abbott (1988) distilled this work into a theory that captures the general nature of professionalism rather than characteristics of specific professions.

Jurisdiction and Professional Identity:

Professions acquire exclusive practice domains (Friedson, 1995) through specialised knowledge in which they lay claim to relevant societal problems. A profession’s identity relates to its ability to carve-out a jurisdiction. Abbott (1988) considers jurisdiction to be in flux as professions compete for specific tasks to increase their prestige and influence.

The Nature of Professional Work:

Abbott (1988) defines professional work using diagnosis, treatment and inference. Diagnosis affords professionals a right to categorise important problems. Treatment requires specialised knowledge to solve problems. Inference applies abstract reasoning to complex problems that do not fit easily into the more prescriptive diagnostic or treatment categories.

Body of Knowledge and Academic Component of a Profession:

The academic component plays a role in jurisdictional claims. Research generates new knowledge that enables inference. Abbott (1988) suggests that this research should relate to professional practice. If too concrete, then the knowledge commoditises, eroding professional status. If too abstract, then the problems are considered irrelevant to practice.

Abbott’s (1988) concepts of diagnosis, treatment and inference have been used to derive the value of practice-based pedagogy (Bisman, 2001) and for revising curricula in occupations seeking professional status (Purinton, 2010). Professional education helps to foster identity, define professional work and establish standards of conduct, areas for which business schools are criticised (Khurana and Spender, 2012).

2.4 Professional Models of Education

Stark et al. (1986) framework suggests that education designed to prepare students for professional entry is influenced by internal, intra-organisational and external forces, which shape a professional preparation environment. This environment affects educational processes used to achieve expected outcomes. Aimed at enhancing higher education for entry into professions, such as accounting (Thomas, 2012) and nursing (Ralph, 2008), the framework’s value is in the factors it captures in moving a programme to a professional model (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Conceptual Framework for Professional Education

Source: Adapted from Stark et al. (1986)

Internal influences lie within the academic programme and are categorised into staffing, structure, curricular tensions and professional development. Intra-organisational influences are derived from organisational context. External influences outside the academic programme are categorised into societal and professional community influences.

Educational processes refer to strategies used to achieve professional preparation outcomes. With many possible influences, processes and outcomes for MBA education (Appendix I), disentangling these would constitute an important research contribution (Ball, 2006). Some factors are already well researched in isolation. For example, Rubin and Dierdoff (2009) focus on technical competence. Evidence based (Charlier et al., 2011) and design thinking approaches (Glen et al., 2015) deal with integrative competencies. Jarvis (2009) and Pouryousefi (2013) focus on ethical dimensions.

However, there has been little holistic investigation of what constitutes professional norms, values or behaviours for management, as a synthesis of all of these factors, both in terms of professional preparation outcomes or the teaching and learning processes used to achieve them. By contrast, this issue receives considerable research attention in the medical field (Swick, 2000; Cruess and Cruess, 2006; O’Sullivan et al., 2012).

2.5 Professionalism from the Perspective of Employers

Although professionalism is difficult to define, it does not justify a neglect of pedagogical interest in the matter. With business school missions focusing on leadership and potential for managerial success, developing professionalism seems integral to their raison-d’être. Career success depends on “… the process by which a new member learns and adapts to the value system, the norms and the required behaviour patterns” (Schein, 1967, p.220). In this context, Clark et al. (2014) suggest that professionalism qualities are just as important as technical training. Through an iterative ranking process of words drawn from literatures on leadership, teamwork, recruiting and human resource management, they constructed a concept of professionalism from the perspective of employers (Figure. 3).

Figure 3: Employer Perspective of Professionalism

Source: Adapted from Clark et al. (2012)

It represents how professionalism manifests itself through the interaction of three primary behavioural modes: interactivity, presentability and productivity. It suggests that behavioural issues cannot be ignored. The professional institution may be the standard bearer for a much deeper set of issues while institutions within the profession, such as employers, may determine behavioural norms.

2.6 Discussion of Professionalism Concepts

Romme’s (2016) equation, i.e. Professionalism = P  x  K  x  B  x  E, as a conceptualisation, is focused on management scholarship, not management education. It is similar to Despotidou and Prastacos’ (2012) conceptualisation except that it deconstructs sense of purpose into actual behaviour and stakeholder expectations. Underpinned by ancient philosophy, Despotidou and Prastacos (2012) explore managerial professionalism from the perspective of indivdual organisations. However, both models have their origins in sociological conceptions.

Realising that a “a firm definition of professions is both unnecessary and dangerous” (Abbott, 1988, p.318), research shifted to their general essence, i.e. professionalism. Functionalist and structuralist perspectives highlight the dichotomy between self-interest and altruism. Evetts (2003) more balanced conceptualisation replicates previous ariculations of a profession’s characteristics. However, the context in which it is used, i.e. as a narrative for occupational improvement, serves as a useful rhetorical device for the betterment of managerial practice.

Abbott’s (1988) systems perspective of professionalism outlines three interrelated components: jurisdiction and profesional identity; the nature of professional work; and professional learning. Somers et al. (2014) links these components to managerial work and learning.

Stark et al.’s (1986) framework for professional edcuation provides a useful metaphor for how to transition the MBA to a professional qualification. However, caution is warranted. There are differences between the MBA and programmes to which the framework has been applied. The MBA’s short duration affords little time for socialisation or developmental progression from foundational knowledge to practioner training. Many MBA students already have a professional background and established professional identity. The MBA is a post-experience qualification whereas as professional qualifications tend to be pre-experience.

Clark et al. (2014) work on developing professionalism in undergradaute business students provides useful insight from the perspective of employers. Less conceptual in nature, it, nevertheless, seeks to artiuclate those behavioural qualities synonomous with career progression. A comprehensive construct of managerial professionalism embedded in the MBA context must, therefore, take account of these concepts.

2.7 Relating the Theory of Professions to Management Practice and Learning

Professional schools tend to coalesce around a mutually supporting set of theoretical and practical challenges. MBA’s are criticised for not articulating a clear identity nor proper conduct for their graduates (Khurana and Spender, 2013). Weak jurisdictional claims lead to ambiguity about the societal problems managers are educated to resolve (Datar et al., 2010).

Somers et al. (2014) use Abbott’s (1988) concepts of professional work, i.e. diagnosis, treatment and inference to define competencies that business schools must develop to justify jurisdictional claims. In calling for practice-based pedagogy in graduate management education to “build skills in colligation and classification so that graduates can build the necessary diagnosis–treatment linkages”, Somers et al. (2014, p.50) present a jurisdiction based on the interaction of structural, relational, human, and process capital as a framework for societal problems that managers are best positioned to solve. It provides a basis for professional identity, in terms of what managers are uniquely qualified to do, and for standards of practice, i.e. the ethical reasoning required to balance competing needs of stakeholders.

2.8 Professionalism as a Managerial Tool

Professionalism is described casually as a combination of knowledge, skills, trustworthiness and altruism in those who commit themselves to service to others (Beaton, 2010). A metaphor of a lawyer or doctor as gentlemen who can be trusted on the ethical use of their specialist competencies, fact or fiction, conveys a powerful incentive that contributes to the appeal of professionalism (Evetts, 2014). Managers may be more successful if they exhibit professional behaviours themselves. The next section outlines a narrative of how management itself started out as a professionalisation project but dwindled to a point where it seems largely abandoned by its scholars (Trank and Rynes, 2003) and educators (Welsh and Dehler, 2007).


But surely if management had not emerged as a systematic discipline, we could not have organized what is now a social reality in every developed country” (Drucker, 1985, p. 18).

3.1 Introduction

Drucker (1985) links economic growth in the last century to a “management profession”. This raises an important question: how best to develop management in this century? This section dedicates analysis to understanding management’s evolution. Historical analysis assumes that particulars, rather than generalisations, are significant. It seeks to explain our behaviour without forgoing complexities in human experience. It, thus, helps to explain management’s journey from Oxford in the 1300’s (Richardson, 1940) to its currently perceived intellectual and moral cul-de-sac (Khurana and Spender, 2012) and to identify those factors that have influence management education’s current policies, curricula and pedagogies.

3.2 Cameralism as the Genesis of Contemporary Management

The embedding of rational thought in administration begun with the first purpose-built business school in Lisbon in 1759 (Rodrigues et al., 2004). It surfaced in the German Cameralist schools in the 1700’s. Cameralism pursued a less Machiavellian approach to state affairs (VonJusti, 1755). It focused on the wealth of nations and educated managers for the emerging private sector. New business schools forged strong ties with Cameralist traditions (Wilson, 1887). However, Cameralism also hid the vagaries of revenue-collection in a guise of rationality (Wakefield, 2009). It highlighted the politics of methodological choice (Locke, 1996) and rooted a rigour-relevance gap into management’s very foundation. Hence, to understand contemporary management, we must appreciate its Cameralist parentage (Lindenfeld, 2008).

3.3 Historical Phases of Contemporary Management Development

Khurana’s (2007) emic analysis of contemporary management identifies three Kuhnian phases, each with their own paradigm. The first refers to the 19th century when education sought to train managers for ‘social duty’. Harvard and Wharton became instruments to transform management into a profession with self-regulated modes of selection, education, certification, and appointment. From the onset, professionalism was promoted. Lowell (1923, p.131) implored business schools to make students part of “a powerful and honourable profession”. Management texts evoked social responsibility and moral rectitude (Jones, 1914). Linking management with university education grew from a belief that training could reinforce altruism, ensuring that monopolistic corporations, were managed in society’s interests.

By the twentieth century, a second era of managerial capitalism emerged with France’s Écoles de Commerce, Germany’s handelschochshulen, the UK’s commerce schools and the US’ business schools adopting curriculum, such as book-keeping work and operations (Thomas et al., 2013). Engineering methods trained managers to view firms as efficiency-seeking systems with scientific management providing new quantitative measures (Nelson, 1980).

World War II profiled behavioural analysis and quantitative methods in decision-making. Its aftermath led to the third period of investor capitalism. A belief that the social sciences, not professional practice, could improve management, gained traction. Economists espoused rational behaviour for corporate performance (Chandler, 1977). As firms grew, so did demand for MBA’s with tools for corporate finance, helping to model more diversified firms with measures such as market share and return on investment (Harris, 1984). To maximise returns for free-floating investors, asset-stripping became accepted so long as it made “financial” sense. Whilst associated with short-termism (Porter, 1992), this period widened firm ownership to a middle-class and spawned a new financial services industry (Spender, 2012).

3.4 Management’s Role in Casino Capitalism

Spender (2012) suggests that growth in financial services has led a period of casino capitalism. Casino capitalism relies on mathematical models to create synthetic products (Patterson, 2010). With investors no longer constrained to trading real assets (Sorkin, 2009), these products became detached from wealth-creation activities and the financial sector, a leading employer of MBA graduates, divorced itself from social duty.

3.5 The Impact of Historical Influences on Management Education

The Ford and Carnegie reforms are considered the genesis of many problems responsible for business schools’ current woes. Since, three interrelated periods of discontinuity have led to significant changes to the raison-d’être of the Business School (Alajoutsijärvi et al., 2014).

The first reform emphasised discipline-based scholarship. Scientific publications drove career progression. Insisting on PhD. qualified educators, practitioners were replaced by a classroom-bound generation. However, scientific approaches offered poor insight into complex social factors that might unearth the problems that managers face (Shoemaker, 2008). A second reform emphasised quantitative methods. A shift towards a belief that phenomena can be explained through theorising, rigorously constructed and empirically validated, coincided with market deregulation and erosion of state intervention. Embedded was an unchallenged assumption that managers must be aligned to shareholder interest. Engwall and Zamagni (1998) identified a further crisis based on the corporatisation of business schools. This led to the value proposition of career and salary enhancement without due regard for learning and the emergence of rankings, which (Podolny, 2009) believes, prevents business schools from returning their professional mission.

3.6 Synthesis and Design as the Basis of Simon’s Science-Based Professionalism

Calls to “balance” quantification with liberal arts recycle. Yet, qualitative skills remain subservient in management scholarship, creating a chasm between its educational products and professional skill (Austen, 2010). Simon (1967) went to the heart of what “balance” means, stipulating design as a key feature that distinguishes professions from the sciences. Simon’s assumption of rationality is problematic (Crowther‐Heyck, 2006). In analysing qualitative capabilities in the professions, Schӧn (1987) found that managers tend to rely on reflection-in-action and extended Simon’s work by connecting rational-analytic and self-reflective approaches. Rousseau (2012) identified design science (Van Aken, 2005), evidence based management (Barends, 2015) as mode 2 (Starkey and Madan, 2001) interventions to steer business schools towards their professional mission. There is an emerging view of professions as knowledge-based occupations with knowledge built on scientific principles (Brante, 2011).

3.7 The Need for Practice Based Pedagogy

Criticism of management pedagogy has led to the emergence of practice-based studies, driven by field immersion (Raelin, 2007). Although similar, the professional model is better grounded in scientific theory. It emphasises formal socialisation, professional identity and ethical guidelines for practice. By contrast, practice-based studies have a postmodern epistemology with emphasis on self-reflection, field immersion and context-dependent knowledge (Gheradi, 2000). Practice-based pedagogy is more experiential in nature. Given the complex nature of managerial work, Somers et al. (2014) points to the complementary nature of both approaches.

3.8 Summary

Bennis and O’Toole (2005) suggest that business schools lost their way. They may, in fact, have never found one other than to respond to market needs. Without an anchoring theory of management, or even robust heuristics that could substitute for one, its education may be rudderless. Khurana’s (2007) provides a historical narrative for the evolution of management. Whether there really was a professionalisation project, as Khurana suggested, is questionable but it serves as a rhetorical device for its birth, misappropriation and decline. The next section analyses contemporary arguments by management scholars on management as a profession.


“The physician as such studies only the patient’s interest, not his own.” Plato, The Republic.

4.1 Introduction

Management scholars have debated management using the theoretical trappings of professions. Brandeis (1914) argued that management’s professionalisation was a work-in-progress. Lowell (1923) attributed Harvard Business School’s establishment to management’s emergence as a profession. Debate on whether the discourse of professionalism is appropriate continued (Bowen, 1955; Donham, 1927; Andrews, 1969) with management still being considered only an emerging profession up to the 1970’s (Barber, 1963; Kanawaty, 1977).

4.2 Assessing the Level of Professionalism in Management

An assumption on both sides of the debate is that management has or lacks traits of a profession. In calling for ‘higher aims’, Khurana (2007) draws on some attributes of the profession without explaining why he chooses some over others. Using either Romme’s (2016) or Despotidou and Prastacos’ (2012) frameworks, it is possible to articulate that management scholars consider the level of professionalism in management to be low.

4.2.1 Body of Knowledge

As Pfeffer (2011, p. 38) implies, “it took more than higher aims to move medicine beyond quackery”. Barker (2009) argues that no consensus exists on management’s knowledge base. The MBA is not a prerequisite to management (Khurana and Nohria, 2008) and it is impossible to regulate entry (Iñiguez, 2010). A related issue is the gap between theory and practice. With few attempts to anchor management in a theory of the firm, its neoclassical assumptions fail to unearth complex managerial issues (Ferraro et al., 2005). Management is assumed to be data informed direction and control to optimise firm performance, i.e. a “generic rational activity… without reference to contexts” (Spender, 2013, p.4). Critique extends to MBA’s, which, Mintzberg (2004) argues, reduce management to decision-making and decision-making to analysis, sequestering knowledge into functional silos.

4.2.2 Professional Ethics

Khurana’s (2007) calls for MBA’s to be accountable to ethical codes. Two decades previously, management’s ethical-moral dimensions were high on academic agendas (Porter and McKibben, 1988). Three strands of scholarship on business ethics now exist. There are those interested in the teaching of ethics (Clegg and Rhodes, 2006). There are those who cite managerialism as an ideology (Goshal, 2005). Finally, there are those with a general interest in improving management (Ivory et al., 2006).

Citing codes for law, medicine and divinity, (Durkheim, 2013) questions why not one for industry? Along the lines of the Hippocrathic oath (Miles, 2004), Emiliani (2000) and Khurana and Nohria (2008) offer prototypes for serving public interest by enhancing value created by firms. To deal with moral ambiguity, oaths have three roles: aspirational, educational and regulatory (Frankel, 1989). With current prototypes largely aspirational, enforcement is challenging. Professional bodies investigate complaints and administer sanctions. Without one for management, society may suspect that managers enjoy the professional privileges whilst evading responsibilities (Khurana et al., 2004). One challenge in writing a code, suggest Khurana and Nohria (2008), is reaching consensus on purpose.

4.2.3 Shared Sense of Purpose and Responsibility

Professions tend to have a shared sense of commitment to a broader good (Pelegrino, 2002). For management, there are two challenges: its fragmented scholarship and its diversity of practice. Addressing the fragmented nature of its scholarship, some scholars, (e.g. Aguinis et al., 2014) call for a multi-paradigmatic approach. Rolin (2011) suggests this requires common ground. Diversity of practice also erodes a common sense of purpose (Pritchard, 1997). Stakeholder theories, (e.g. Donaldson and Preston, 1995), imply society and business are interwoven. Hooker (1996) summarises managers’ responsibilities as: to create wealth; to provide employment; and to contribute to social stability. So, when managers serve shareholders by generating profit, not necessarily maximising it, they are contributing to business sustainability, creating wealth and employment, thereby, providing a public good.

4.3 Lack of Critique

Definitional uncertainty (Cogan, 1955) obscures the debate on management as a profession. In citing the functionalist perspectives, both sides assume a rose-tinted view of professions. Problematic features, e.g. monopolistic tendencies, are overlooked. Given the lucrative nature of management education, attempts by management scholars to advocate for professionalism may be suspicious. Flexner, (1930, p.166) claimed that Harvard Business School failed in its professionalisation as its curriculum “raises neither ethical nor social questions”.

4.4 Alternative Conceptions of Management as a Profession

Pouryousefi (2013) implies that managers, as professionals, rely on an ethical disposition so they can use trust-creating mechanisms to respond efficiently to principal-agent market information asymmetries. The merits of this logic lie in its balance between altruism and self-interest. Managers can claim to act in society’s interests when guided by professional norms, not as altruistic saints. Spender (2007) questions if professionalism is the right discourse for improving management. Whilst rationality captures one dimension, art captures its complement. Today’s entrepreneurial culture suggests that we combine analytic reasoning with more creative skill-sets (Martin, 2009). This begs the question if art is a profession. Spender (2007, p.40) answers rhetorically “yes”, implying that a profession is a “community’s self-consciousness of constraints in which its imagine operates”.

Barends (2015) outlines similarities between medicine and management. He demonstrates that medical practice is also far from uniform. He claims that most managers have qualifications and, due to demand for well-trained managers, recruitment emphasises education credentials. Differences between the two, he suggests, lies in the rigour-relevance gap, which he blames on lack of an evidence-based culture. Managers use only a small proportion of behavioural science pertinent to organisational practice (Pfeffer and Sutton, 2006). Finally, leveraging Aristotle’s concepts of praxis, technein and phronesis, both Squires (2001) and Despotidou and Prastacos (2012) outline a philosophical basis for management as a profession. Squires (2001) posits that management may not be a cohesive profession but still has characteristics of one.

4.5 Summary

The literature on management as a profession reveals that management scholars tend to ignore previous problematising on the definition of a profession. There is also a tendency to dichotomise self-interest and altruistic orientations. Using a normative model of professionalism, Pouryousefi (2013) provides a more nuanced analysis, suggesting that managers are professionals given that an underlying ethic is required to improve efficiency in market transactions through trust. Crises linked to management failures occur occasionally as a distortion of professionalism. However, it may equally be argued that managers have been responsible for remarkable achievements. Perhaps, managers are trusted to occupy their position despite information asymmetry that renders them difficult to evaluate.

However, it remains inconclusive whether management should properly be understood as a professional role. Ferlie et al. (2010) argue for a ‘public interest’ model of business schools, rebranding them as management schools with a focus on identity, socialisation, self-regulation and ethics. The next section explores how the concept of professionalism can address criticism of MBA’s using Despotidou and Prastacos’ (2012) three-dimensional framework.


“The MBA degree is not a magic wand that transforms inexperienced and immature undergraduates into licensed managers” (Mintzberg, 2004, p.20).

5.1 Introduction

The MBA is among the few truly globalised graduate management education programmes. It has become a de facto credential for many executive roles. Implicit in recruitment of graduates is a belief in their potential to develop into successful managers.

5.2 Critique of the MBA

However, periodicals query the MBA’s value against its own mantra of career progression (Dundon, 2014). Its fit with an entrepreneurial society is questioned (Maynard, 2015). Critique identifies multiple contentions – curriculum irrelevance (Rubin and Dierdorff, 2009), apathy to social issues (Antonacopoulou, 2010), dubious ethics (Knights, 2008), its quantitative orientation (Spender, 2012) and its market ideology (Navarro, 2008). A cluster of MBA related scholarship exists in the Academy of Management Education and Learning (AMLE). This section synopsises critique of MBA education through the lens of professionalism.

5.2.1 Criticism of the MBA’s Expertise and Jurisdiction

A recurring theme is misalignment of graduate skills to employer requirements (Rubin and Dierdoff, 2009; Rynes and Bartunek, 2013). MBAR (2012) and Costigan and Brink (2015) indicate that the problem is abating. Courses facilitating managerial practice through corporate (Inamdar and Roldan, 2013) or entrepreneurial (Erickson and Laing, 2016) experience are emerging and there is renewed interest in soft skills (Bedwell et al., 2014).

MBA’s also suffer from a theory-practice gap (Kieser and Leiner, 2009). Whilst AMLE focuses on the teaching-practice gap, evidence based management (Charlier et al., 2011), research synthesis (Rousseau et al., 2008) and systematic reviews (Geyskens et al., 2009) focus on the research-teaching gap. Burke and Rau (2010) outline ways to reduce the gap, including rewards for research integration and grounding management texts in research.

Addressing integrative competence, leading MBA’s have followed Rotman’s lead in embedding design thinking (Dunne, 2008), which uses abductive logic to solve wicked problems. Stanford revamped its MBA along interdisciplinary lines (Datar et al., 2010). Haas focuses on innovation with students integrating diverse ways of thinking (Beckman and Barry, 2007). Yale swapped traditional curricula for organisational stakeholder perspectives (Wallace, 2010). This direction reflects that managers rely less on a systematic body of expert knowledge and more on integrative thinking (Leavett, 1989). Such expert knowledge would require a theory that explains why firms exist (Coase, 1937). From a ‘management’ perspective, Spender (2015) assumes that firm value derives from managerial imagination in response to uncertainty (Knight, 1921) and bounded rationality (Foss, 2002) and posits that judgment and rhetoric complement rational decision-making.

5.2.2 Criticism of the Ethical Moral Dimensions of the MBA

Mirtoff (2004) claimed that ethics was a subversive force in MBA education. Despite accreditation criteria (AACSB, 2004; EFMD, 2014), questions remain on whether MBA’s educate students to behave responsibly. With AMBA (2009) reporting that students rated ethics as unimportant, there is concern that MBA epistemology remains ethically flawed (Hühn, 2014). The MBA’s economic logic leaves little space for alternative perspectives and espouses causal modes of explanation that sideline ethical implications (Henisz, 2011). Crane (2004) claims that MBA’s reduce students’ ethicality and Giacalone (2004) implies that MBA curriculum fails to inculcate values worthy of professional conduct.

Yet, academics are rebelling: “the stereotype business school teaching people how to be bastards and make money” is no longer apt (Parker, 2015, p.42). Emerging levers are devoted to Critical Management Studies. MBA’s are rebranding, claiming to be “critical” (University of Leicester, 2017). Aspen (2011) ranking of MBA’s on ethical education found that the proportion of schools, requiring students to pass a relevant course, increased from 34% in 2001 to 79% in 2011. With more curricular revisions including ethics (Weber et al., 2013), research focus has shifted to their effectiveness (Doh and Tashman, 2014).

5.2.3 Criticism of the MBA in instilling a Sense of Purpose and Responsibility

Anderson and Escher (2010) outline norms of professional conduct for Harvard MBA graduates based on (Rawls, 1971) commutative, distributive and contributive justice. Parkan (2008) highlights how oaths form a rite-de-passage in which initiation focuses on purpose and responsibility. deBruin (2016) argues that they foster professionalism under conditions of publicity, ceremony and function. The risk is that cosmetic promises generate a false sense of moral inoculation. Selection and socialisation also play a role (Schein, 1968). Values and identities may be formed long before an oath is taken. Values and careers are connected (Okenado and Samuelson, 2015). With more MBA graduates choosing finance than not-for-profit sectors, it is unclear how MBA’s affect value change (Arieli et al., 2016).

Romme et al.’s (2015) statement of purpose is consistent with the MBA Oath. They advocate that management should be a profession in which: practicing and knowing co-constitute each other; there is shared interest in outcomes; and pluralism is articulated through dialogical encounter. Datar et al. (2010) invoke discourse of knowing, doing and being, the ‘being’ representing values that form managers’ professional identities.

Hence, solutions to address MBA criticisms fit with professionalism concepts. As the MBA’s knowledge domain moves towards integration, its core syllabi, i.e. the nature of firms and how they are managed, may have a theory (Spender, 2015) that could anchor its knowledge base. Rasche’s (2013) analysis of Beyond Grey Pinstripes data, conveys a mixed message. More ethics courses exist but ethics is not being well embedded across the curriculum.

5.3 Can professionalism address criticisms made against MBA’s?

Although liberal arts degrees face criticism in favour of professional qualifications, support for a professional model of education is not pervasive. Despite interest in aspects of professional education, some question if it is suited to educating managers (Raelin, 2007; Chia and Holt, 2008). Whilst the professional model partially addresses the pedagogy-practice gap, Chia and Holt (2008) claim that it does not go far enough. Somers et al. (2014) suggest that this could be overcome by adapting practice-based pedagogy to managerial work.

Solving practice-based problems requires students to behave ethically. Professional education emphasises codes of conduct, which communicate expected professional norms. Jarvis (2009), for example, calls for students to be morally accountable for designing solutions to field problems. Design, as a key activity of professional schools, devises “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1996, p. 130). Romme’s (2016) model deals with the fragmented knowledge base behind MBA education. Although not a panacea, professional education can address criticisms of MBA’s by bridging theory and practice, setting ethical standards and conveying expected norms (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Using a Model of Professional Education to Address Criticisms of the MBA

5.4 Approaches to Developing Student Professionalism

In medical education, five processes for developing student professionalism have been identified: student selection and socialisation, curriculum design, pedagogy, role modelling and assessment (Passi et al., 2010). Although examples of good practice exist in MBA education, an integrated approach along similar lines has not yet been emulated.

5.4.1 Student Selection and Socialisation

Socialisation is synonymous with formation of professional identity (Weidman et al., 2001). Petriglieri and Petriglieri (2010) find that business schools are adapting to a broader mandate to teach professional skills and to provide a holding environment for the professional identity of managers. MBA student selection focuses on the GMAT. However, the GMAT’s validity is changing. Design requires students disposed towards divergent thinking (Dunne and Martin, 2006). Shepherd et al. (2008) finds that the GMAT prejudices entrepreneurial applicants. The risk of medical graduates behaving unprofessionally is reduced by screening applicants (Knights and Kennedy, 2007).

5.4.2 Curriculum Design

Rubin and Dierdorff (2011) argue that curriculum relevance produces well-rounded professionals. Hence, curriculum design, including that of informal and hidden curriculum seems key to professionalising the MBA. Entrepreneurship (Edelman et al., 2008), cultural awareness (Bell et al., 2009), ethics (Wright and Bennett, 2011) and sustainability (Rusinko, 2010) exemplify curricular innovations that help to prepare students for professional practice. Design oriented curricula (Moldoveanu and Martin, 2008) align with Simon’s (1996) conception of professionalism. However, no accepted theoretical model or practical guidelines exist for embedding professionalism into MBA curriculum.

5.4.3 Pedagogy

Teaching and learning is the core focus of AMLE. It suggests that most MBA educators subscribe to a Deweyian philosophy of education, encouraging students to think creatively. Some scholars encourage experiential (Nohria, 2012) and reflective practices (Johnson and Brown, 2015). Examples of problem based learning (Sharp, 2003), service learning (Coffey and Wang, 2006), critical pedagogy (Currie, 2003) and case-studies for teaching professional judgment (Musson and Cohen, 1999) underscore the importance of creating space for MBA students to voice how their experiences shape their professional lives.

5.4.4 Role-Modelling

Business schools place significance on their alumni with their most successful lauded as role models. Alumni networks play a role in career progression (Hall, 2011) and professional idendity formation (Dobrow and Higgins, 2005). Yet, Roth (2014) suggests that role-modelling is creating “arrogant” MBA graduates who are trained to exercise strong opinions and emulate reductionist behaviour. One opportunity for role-modelling is through teaching teams (Helms et al., 2005). The challenge is in agreeing a set of desirable role-model charcteristics. Three characteristics in medicine seem transferrable: technical competence, teaching skills and personal qualities  (Cruess et al., 2008).

5.4.5. Assessment

Professionalism should be assessed for students to consider it important (Stern, 2006). For MBA’s, the difficulty is that there are no agreed standards for its assessment. In contrast, assessing medical professionalism is more evolved (Lynch et al., 2004). Clinical training provides an environment to grade students’ professionalism, either as a single comprehensive construct or as a multi-dimensional score profile (Hamilton, 2005). Arnold (2002) suggested that qualitative assessment methods should complement quantitative approaches and that assessment environments should be researched.

5.4 Operationalising Professionalism on the MBA

Sections 5.4.1 to 5.4.2 suggest that professionalism can be developed with appropriate educational processes (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Educational Processes in Professional Models of Education

If the MBA is to be professionalised, measurement instruments are needed. Oaths offer a basis to discern metrics (Appendix II). They usually include statements on compliance with professional standards, beneficiaries to whom signatories shall serve and commitment to fulfil certain responsibilities. A difficulty with relying on oaths is that their normative definitions of professionalism over-emphasise professional identity as a set of positive attributes. They ignore contextual concerns (Martiminakis et al., 2009). Assessment that focuses on behaviour may ignore the knowledge base, attitudinal elements and ability to deploy behaviours in practice. Hence, definition and measurement cannot be based on oaths alone.


 “The entire MBA curriculum must be infused with multidisciplinary, practical and ethical questions and analyses reflecting the complex challenges business leaders face” (Bennis and O’Toole, p. 104).

6.1 Summary of the Literature

History depicts management education as an altruistic response to corporate monopolistic tendencies. MBA’s have become synonomous with the creation of a social identity for professional managers (Baruch and Peiperl, 2000). Critiques emphasise three broad issues.

The “relevance” critique suggests that management scholarship produces little actionable knowledge of relevance to managerial practice and that MBA’s over-emphasise theoretical concepts. “Business schools are becoming decoupled from practice and from the institutions that hire their MBA students” (Tushman et al., 2007, p. 346).

The “values” critique suggests that MBA’s do not foster appropriate ethical values. “By propagating ideologically inspired amoral theories, business schools have actively freed their students from any sense of moral responsibility (Goshal, 2005, p. 76). Trank and Rynes (2003) connect the erosion of ethics to de-professionalisation in management education.

The “pedagogy” critique suggests that MBA’s deploy ineffective teaching and learning processes. MBA’s have become “specialised training in the functions of business, not general education in the practice of managing” (Mintzberg, 2004, p.2).

Professionalising the MBA suggests scope for optimism. Professional education emphasises ethics en lieu of asymmetrical knowledge that professionals hold over others. Expected to be ethical towards their clients, professionals take oaths that oblige benevolent use of power that knowledge bestows upon them. They are also expected be responsible to society as a whole. This is also true of business professionals, whose explicit raison d’être is to generate profit.

Yet, not everyone is convinced that management is a profession (Raelin, 1990). With a fragmented body of knowledge (Rolin, 2011) and rigour-relevance gap (Pettigrew, 1997), diversity in managerial practice precludes a shared sense of purpose (Khurana and Nohria, 2008). However, debate on management as a profession has been mainly limited to whether or not management displays the more desirable attributes of professions.

In emulating developments in professions, such as medicine, some management scholars have shifted their research focus to the concept of professionalism, as a normative set of values and behaviours, (e.g. Jarvis, 2009; Despotidou and Prastacos, 2012; Pouryousefi, 2013; Romme, 2016). The literature suggests that there are linkages between adopting practices in professional education to help students develop professionalism and addressing the MBA’s problems of irrelevance, undesirable value-driven behaviour and pedagoy-practice gap.

The literature harbours examples of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, student selection and role-modelling used by MBA’s for this purpose. However, there is a gulf between prototype statements on managerial professionalism  and the more evolved studies of professionalism in medical education.

6.2 Research Objective Revisited

Prior studies used to test theories of managerial professionalism typically examine professionals in their field (Imse, 1962). However, some studies highlight the importance of professionalism as a latent attribute and the developmental factors that have contributed to it. These studies either focus directly on student professionalism (Nino, 2014; Hilton, 2013) or link educational experiences to later profesionalism behaviours  (Hall, 1968).

As one dimension of managerial professionalism, considerable scholarship exists on student ethics. Lowry (2003) investigation of business students found that their moral awareness scores dropped with progression. Piper’s (1993) study of moral reasoning ability in MBA students found that they had very limited understanding of societal injustice, hence awareness of potential consequences of their decisions. Carpenter et al. (2004) found a correlation between prior academic dishonesty and present dishonest behavior in the workplace.

Yet, unlike medicine, there is currently no widely accepted guidelines nor underlying conceptual framework on how best to embed professionalism in MBA education. In the past, the concept has been defined either so broadly as to obscure its consituent components or so narrowly as to as to preclude a holistic picture.

How to establish the elements that constitute managerial professionalism in order to develop and assess them on the MBA would represent a significant research contribution. Hence a refined research objective and set of research questions are proposed: –

6.3 Conceptual Framework Development

To support the proposed research, a conceptual framework is required to facilitate cross-programme comparison. A useful starting point is to articulate the key dimensions of professionalsim used in prior studies.

6.3.1 Dimensions of Professionalism

Most scholars highlight expertise as a key dimension of professionalism. It represents the body of knowledge that justifies a profession’s jurisdiction. Typical indicators include: specialisation of study, competency ratings, academic performance etc.

Social agency represents the ethical values and behaviours that professionals are expected to convey. It is measured by individuals’ perceptions of societal issues and of their contribution to these issues. Instruments, such as the defining issues test (Rest, 1979), can be used to measure ethical disposition.

Moore and Rosenblum (1970) identified autonomy of judgment as a key component, measured by ability to make independent decisions based on expertise. Typical indicators include critical thinking, problem solving ability, confidence and expertise. Several scholars refer to this concept in professions such as law, medicine, and accounting (Hall, 1968).

Haywood-Farmer and Stuart (1990) added ‘self-concept’ as a dimension of professionalism to predict readiness to carry out the duties and responsibilities of a professional role. It tends to be a latent attribute that students develop as they acquire expertise. Items used to test it on nursing students include self-confidence derived from expertise, communication, leadership and ability to develop relationships (Hensel, 2009).

A comparison of constructs used in frameworks to guide prior empricial studies or concepts of managerial professionalism suggest commonality in the constructs used (Figure 6).

Figure 6: A Comparison of Conceptual Framewoks for Professionalism

However, the proposed study is not merely a study of professionalism, per se. It is proposed to investigate the extent to which professionalism is embedded in an academic programme.

6.3.2 Proposed Conceptual Framework for this Study

Figure 7 presents the proposed conceptual framework for this study. With respect to RQ1, professional competencies, values and behaviours can be captured within Stark et al. (1986) framework (Appendix I) and presented as professional preparation outcomes. For illustration purposes, Despotidou and Prastacos’ (2012) dimensions of expertise, ethical disposition and sense of purpose as categories of professional preparation outcomes.

With respect to RQ2, the development of students’ professionalism can be captured within the identified educational processes of curriuclum design, pedagogy, assessment, selection and role-modelling (Passi et al., 2010). Hilton (2013) suggests that academic staff development should also be included as an internal influencer.

With respect to RQ3, assessment falls within educational processes. Measurement encompasses broader conceptions of professionalism (Figure 6). deBruins (2015) work on oaths provides a reference for what students would strive to achieve. Oaths document principles of professional practice, such as judgment, doentology and compliance.

Figure 7: Proposed Conceptual Framework

However, the MBA does not have a definitive professional preparation environment. A transition from foundational knowledge to managerial practice is required (Somers et al., 2014). Starting with integration of foundational knowledge, student colligation abilities would be developed to define problems in managerial practice. A transition to inital practice-based learning would provide experience of managerial work in a controlled environment. This would develop diagnosis and treatment skills and nascant professional identity as a manager. Finally, a graduate field immersion would develop inference skills.

What emerges as a conceptual framework, therefore, constitutes a combination of three previous conceptions [i] Stark et al. (1986) framework for professional education [ii] Somers et al. (2014) linking of management education with professional work and learning and [iii] key educational processes to develop professionalism  (Passi et al., 2010).

6.3.3 Limitation of the Framework

Oaths typically specify the beneficiaries of the profession. How they benefit is critical to the generation of trust, on which professions operate. Patients take it on trust that their doctors know what they are doing and litigants trust their lawyers to act in their best interest. Pouryousefi (2013) shows that when trust is high, managers can lower transaction costs.

Due to assymmetry of knowledge, it is often only when unethical behaviour or lack of expertise become apparent that trust us reoded. In a student context, trust could be captured, as a proxy, under assessment scenarios where faculty make judgments on students’ trustworthiness to perform as professional managers.

Trust involves the profession, the client and society as a whole. Commitment to public trust represents one side of a social contract, which, in return, society grants a level of autonomy. A study of trust would require a longitudinal analysis to evaluate the impact of professional preparation outcomes on the societal contract. Hence, trust is excluded from the analysis.

6.4 Steps Towards Implementation

There are a number of challenges with respect to answering the three research questions.

First, “the MBA” is a metaphor for MBA’s in general. While there are differences in curriculum and pedadogy across MBA’s, these tend to be variations within a shared conceptual framework and discourse focused on the private-sector firm (Spender, 2014). Whilst this facilitates generalisability, a representative sample of MBA’s is required to make robust findings.

Secondly, the research questions infer that the aim of the study is to explore the stus-quo. This leaves no room for any learning intervention. Ruling out action research, observations must be removed enough not to influence the normal course of events and, concurrently, be sufficient in frequency and data acquisition to track the development of students.

Thirdly, the literature demonstrates that professionalism is a multi-dimensional and multi-perspective construct. This implies that there must be some shared understanding of what managerial professionalism means among the constituent stakeholders of the MBA, including: students, faculty, programme administrators, graduates, employers and MBA associations.

It is, therefore, proposed to undertake a phased approach to the research, beginning with defining the major elements of professionalism in an MBA context and culminating in a pilot measurement of students’ professional development, on a voluntary basis, as a result of pre-existing educational processes identified within representative programmes (Figure. 8).

Figure 8: Phased Approach to the Proposed Research

6.4.1. Defining the Major Elements of Managerial Professionalism

The first phase is aimed at converging on a shared meaning for professionalism in an MBA context. It is proposed to invite representative stakeholders to undertake a discourse analysis in focus groups to identify multiple discourses used to frame managerial professionalism. The intention is to share different paradigmatic perspectives so that MBA educators, students, graduates and employers can describe professionalism in a common language.

6.4.2 Analysis of MBA Learning Outcomes and Curricula Documentation

The second phase aims to identify which learning outcomes align with professional norms, values and behaviours identified in the previous phase. The Bologna Declaration places desired professional competencies at the centre of curricular design (Jurše and Tominc, 2008). Using learning outcomes (Appendix III) from a sample of accredited MBA’s, it is proposed to construct, through inductive coding (Miles and Huberman, 1994), professional preparation outcomes and map them to previously identified norms, values and behaviours.

6.4.3 Exemplar Education Processes

The third phase aims to identify exemplar educational processes used to help students develop professionalism across the three phases of foundation knowledge, initial practice-based learning and field immersion. Any MBA could be viewed as a coherent set of educational processes designed to produce desired outcomes. Precisely how these processes are implemented will be acquired through in-depth interviews with programme directors and educators on a smaller subset of MBA programmes. Of course, it is not enough to merely identify the processes. Establishing causality is equally important.

6.4.4 Generative Mechanisms

The fourth phase aims to unearth the generative mechanisms that answer why interventions in a particular contexts leads to certain outcomes (Pawson and Tilley, 1997). The key question with respect to exemplar educational processes is: what is it about them that helps students to develop professionalism?  This question may be answered in terms of stimulus-response or stimulus-organism-response mechanisms, which can be established through interpretative analysis and engagement with both students and teachers.

6.4.5 Agreeing Measurement Instruments

Students typically exercise more energy on expectations that are rigorously assessed. Clear standards are more likely to crystallise links to curriculum and pedagogy and, thus, strengthen the assessment, feedback and improvement loop. The challenge is that there cannot be interference with the existing assessment processes. It is proposed that the fifth phase would identify appropriate measurement instruments that could be used to a small number of track students’ professional development over the duration of their studies or part of their studies. (Veloski et al., 2005) suggests that the measurement instrument should have underpinning evidence of content validity, reliability and practicality.

6.4.6 Pilot Study of Student Professional Development

While a selection of measurements may help to track the professional development of students through their studies, it is also proposed to engage with the students directly, on a periodic basis, to solicit feedback based on their own self-reflections. The purpose of these engagements is to extract, from a student perspective, what aspects of the MBA’s educational processes having been particularly beneficial in shaping their professional identity as a manager and to establish if, and to what extent, they have affected value or behavioural change.

Accreditation bodies specify standards to evaluate whether MBA’s achieve an “appropriate balance of academic and professional engagement” (AACSB, 2016, p. 38).  From an educator perspective, two outputs from the proposed research may assist with enhancing MBA programmes. First, a concise set of practical guidelines, aimed at management educators, on how to optimise the MBA for developing managerially professional graduates would be beneficial. Second, an MBA Professionalism Embeddedness Survey, could be viewed as an important toolkit for identifying the factual elements on an MBA programme that contribute to students’ professional development.


“… management by its very nature cannot be defined as narrowly and precisely as a profession, and that the essence of an MBA resides not in professional training but in the broader experience of the business school as a learning environment” (Barker, 2009, p. 55).

Management education is in an intellectual and moral crisis or so the rhetoric suggests. Many scholars believe there is some truth in this message. The debate, therefore, has evolved to how should business schools respond.

Some experts, such as Barker (2009), argue that it is inappropriate to narrow MBA education to professional training. Others, such as Podolny (2009), strike a middle ground, suggesting that aspects of professional education should be pursued to improve managerial practice. Others, such as Khurana (2007), Nohria (2012) and Romme (2016) have embarked on campaigns to rejuvenate the professionalisation of management.

There are merits to all arguments but the debate, itself, remains “academic” without first understanding the extent to which professionalism is already embedded in the MBA. Whilst emerging prototype statements and codes of ethics are laudable, they are a world away from the rich empirical data available on professionalism embedded in the educational programmes of medicine and law. MBA educators may learn from the professionalisation journeys of other professions, however imperfect comparisons may be.

Management literature highlights many examples of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment that assist with the professional development of MBA students. However, the challenge in emulating the development of professionalism in, say, medical education rests on a shared understanding of what managerial professionalism means in the MBA context.

In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, professionalism is more crucial now than ever before to society’s economic, social and moral wellbeing. Society has a right to trust implicitly that MBA graduates will adhere to standards in their managerial roles that are, in many respects, unenforceable except for their sense of professionalism.

Vaara and Faÿ’s (2011) bourdieusian perspective suggests that the concept of ‘habitus’ may explain how values and behaviours are inculcated during MBA studies and that the reproduction of ‘doxa’ impedes change. Without initiatives to take stock of and, perhaps, upset the status quo, MBA education may genuinely risk obsolescence (Schlegelmilch and Thomas, 2011). For this reason alone, the proposed research is worth pursuing.


APPENDIX I: Adaptation of Stark et al. (1986) Framework for Professional MBA

Examples of Internal, Institutional and External Influencers in MBA Education

Examples of Professional Preparation Outcomes for MBA Education

APPENDIX II: Prototype Oaths, Codes and Statements on Managerial Professionalism

‘May I suffer a painful and ignominious death if I fail to carry out my solemn oath to defend the honour of the king.’ (Sulmasy, 1999, p.333)

APPENDIX III: Cursory Analysis of Four MBA Programmes


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