Does an MBA make a person a better worker or is it just hype?

By: LUKORITO W JONES

There was a time when the Master of Business Administration was held in high esteem, with its holders (referred to as MBAs) having an edge when it came to career advancement. MBA holders sold — and still do in some quarters — like hot cakes. Lately, however, the programme has received mixed reviews by human resource practitioners and economists, with a few claiming that the post-graduate degree is no more special than any other university qualification.

Paul Ngare, 37, is an MBA student who says the degree has had a positive impact on his career path. “I enrolled for my MBA two years ago at Kenyatta University, and it is something I would do all over again with no regrets whatsoever,” says the chief financial officer of a leading maize miller in the country.

Though he is yet to graduate, Mr Ngare, who is through with his course work, has already earned three promotions in the two years that he has been studying for his MBA.

“For my undergraduate, I took a Bachelor of Commerce degree and majored in finance,” he reveals. “I had been working as an accountant since my twenties, but the decision to do an MBA has made me achieve higher goals.”

While the MBA has greatly improved prospects for the accountant, a secondary school teacher in Kiambu County is ruing her decision to pursue the course, terming it an absolute waste of time and money.

Mrs Anne Kimanzi, who graduated with an MBA 10 years ago, says: “My husband, who wanted me to get out of teaching, pushed me to do the degree saying it would boost our combined income.” Studying for the course itself was demanding as she found it tough trying to balance tending to her family, her teaching job and the MBA course work. Worse still, her employer, the Teachers’ Service Commission, declined to grant her study leave, arguing that a master’s degree would not directly enhance her teaching skills in the classroom.

“It has been 10 years now and I cannot say the MBA was worth it,” she rues. “It got me a salary increase but the amount was too small to even recover the fees I spent on the course. I had envisioned getting out of teaching and joining the corporate world for greener pastures just as my husband had said. It now seems like employers don’t really give a hoot about my MBA,” says the chemistry and mathematics tutor.

City-based economist Joy Wanjiku not only empathises with Mrs Kimanzi, but also firmly believes that the MBA degree is on a downhill path to becoming irrelevant.

“It appears like the script is slowly but surely changing. Quite a significant number of successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have come out to openly deride the degree, often terming it irrelevant in the Twenty-first Century,” she asserts.

According to Ms Wanjiku, start-ups are reluctant to hire MBA graduates because they don’t learn the techniques that today’s entrepreneurs actually use, like strategic thinking, leadership and effective interpersonal skills.

However, Ms Wanjiku’s views do not go down well with two MBA lecturers at Kenyatta University, which currently has more than 2,000 students registered for the course. Mr Gerald Atheru and Dr Stephen Muathe, both senior lecturers at the institution, vehemently deny that the MBA is becoming redundant. If anything, they say, the need for professionals with MBAs will only go up.

“Our MBA programmes are designed to fine-tune managers and business executives, not only in broad aspects that involve the day-to-day running of organisations, but also in soft interpersonal skills that help them relate better with employees,” says Dr Muathe, who is also the Chairman of the Department of Business Administration at KU School of Business.

“The head of any organisation will find the MBA immensely useful. This is because a leader needs to have a general grasp of what goes on in the different departments in his organisation, even though that does not mean he or she will micro-manage the departments,” says Mr Atheru, the dean of the School of Business.

He says the core areas covered in KU’s MBA curriculum are finance, marketing, human resource management, entrepreneurship, project management, management information systems, strategic management and procurement.

“An MBA might not necessarily make you an expert in any of these fields, but it will certainly give you an idea of what goes on in these departments, making you a more vigilant supervisor,” chips in Dr Muathe. “A CEO who does not know how to interpret a simple statement of accounts, for instance, puts himself at a higher risk of being finagled by his accountants. Such risks can be effectively eliminated by taking up an MBA course.”

However, Ms Wanjiku is not convinced that MBA skills can help turn around businesses in today’s diverse, globally-dispersed and technologically connected world. “We are in an era of entrepreneurship, where many successful business people are dropping out of the education system instead of enrolling in business schools,” she says.

The problem with the MBA, she argues, is that it confines the graduates’ minds to employment as they look to go up their career ladder. Consequently, MBA holders become completely oblivious to the fact that entrepreneurship is the engine that drives today’s world, not job-seeking.

TEACHING LEADERSHIP

Her assertion provokes a sharp reaction from the academics. To them, it borders on the spurious notion that leadership is an inborn trait that cannot be taught in specialised schools. “It is true that some of the most successful business people like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs are college dropouts,” Mr Atheru acknowledges.

“However, these people are in the minority. The vast of majority of people out there need to be trained in business skills. Even those who never acquire MBAs always look for management certification courses and surround themselves with a clique of MBAs,” he explains, citing the case of Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore who never went to the university but surrounds himself with highly qualified executives.

“Even when a leader is born with exceptional leadership skills like the late Njenga Karume, he still has to impart those skills to his employees for the success of his enterprise. Taking an MBA course will teach them how to transfer their knowledge and experience to others,” Dr Muathe chips in.

Interestingly, Mr Ogenche Michael, a Kileleshwa-based entrepreneur who publishes a line of local magazines, says he does not put an MBA high on the list of requirements when hiring staff. “MBAs are the type of people you hire if you fancy memos, meaningless meetings and boring PowerPoint presentations. I prefer to have my employees learn on the job,” he asserts.

Dr Muathe is quick to point out that that could not be further from the truth. “Our MBA curriculum undergoes rigorous reviews every four years to align the course with current market demands. This review involves all stakeholders, including employers, who tell us which sections of our programme to retract and what to add,” he explains, adding that the students are given an opportunity to start their own ventures at the university’s incubation centre.

The two academics dispel the notion that employers do not value the MBA by citing cases where employers themselves have approached Kenyatta University, asking to have MBA courses tailored for their employees.

“A commercial bank recently asked us to design a new MBA course — MBA in Finance and ICT — and requested all its mid-level executives to enrol for the course,” reveals Mr Atheru, the dean, offers.

“There are also certain jobs that require an MBA degree as the integral qualification. The vice-chancellors of all universities, for instance, need to have MBAs from recognised universities.Certain job groups in the government are also strictly reserved for MBA holders,” he adds

So, if people like Mrs Kimazni have not benefited, is it because there are too many MBAs in Kenya?

While the number of people graduating with the qualification keeps rising every year, Mr Atheru is adamant that the demand for their qualification spans a wide range of industries, and that they can never be enough.

“We do not necessarily teach students to get into the job market. We encourage them to be job creators such that even if they’re not absorbed in the job market, they can use the skills they learn in class to start their own ventures,” he says.

Approximately 95 per cent of the students in Mr Atheru’s class are working.

“The MBA courses that we offer are not meant for every Tom, Dick and Harry, as happens in undergraduate courses nowadays. Most people decide to take up MBA courses of their own volition after they’ve seen how it can help them advance in their careers and grow their businesses,” he says.

END OF LEARNING

Meanwhile, Dr Muathe counts among his students an architect, a nurse, self-employed business people and even a priest. The priest was sponsored for the course by his bishop, who wanted to put him in charge of projects and the day-to-day running of the diocese’s affairs.

“Employers often offer to pay for their employees’ tuition after asking them to sign a contract bonding them to the organisation for a number of years after they graduate. I do not entirely advocate for this arrangement as it makes an employee lose their freedom,” says Dr Muathe

Meanwhile, the one thing Mr Atheru does not encourage is the trend where people who have completed their undergraduate courses proceed directly for an MBA. He says that it is good for a person to get some relevant job experience because an MBA without experience is of little value.

“An MBA does not solely predict that one will automatically be a successful leader. Employers need to look beyond the academic credentials and analyse a person’s innate values, for I have seen MBA holders who end up being terrible managers,” says Ms Wanjiku.

Mr Atheru and Dr Muathe, however, warn against broad generalisations, arguing that they leads to an unhealthy bias. According to the dons, MBA holders are also human and just because a few of them fail to deliver the desired results does not mean the entire course should be shunned.

The problem with some MBAs, the lecturers agree, is that they stop absorbing knowledge once they graduate. MBAs should understand that the business world is dynamic and hence frequently attend seminars and short courses to update their skills.

Of importance to note,” emphasises Dr Muathe, “is that an MBA does not give you an alternative to your career. It only adds soft skills that enable you to move forward in your current line of work.”

“Attaching MBA to your name will have a positive effect on your chances of getting hired, your networking abilities and management skills. But whatever you do, don’t jump into the MBA programme without doing all the necessary research and analysing your career aspirations,” concludes Mr Atheru.

MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES

How the popular course began

Early in the twentieth Century, the United States began to industrialise. It industrialised on a grand scale, putting it firmly on the path to becoming the super-power it is today.

With hundreds of industries mushrooming across the country, companies were left grappling with a myriad management challenges. They sought scientific methods of management, creating a need for universities to train top-level company executives. Thus the Master of Business Administration, commonly referred to as MBA, was born.

The Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration established the first MBA programme in 1908, with 15 faculty members and 80 students.

The programme continued to enjoy favourable response and enthusiasm over the years, growing to be arguable the world’s best known and widely recognised post-graduate degree a century later.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION