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MBA certification: boon or boondoggle? (Forum on Business & Economics).

An organization called the International Certification Institute (ICI) of Mocksville, North Carolina, recently made a very big splash in the world of business education by announcing its intention to provide and promote a certification exam for candidates in, or graduates of, Masters of Business Administration degree programs. The idea has been compared to medical boards for doctors or the bar for lawyers, a way of measuring and assessing an MBA's fitness to serve and of holding MBA schools accountable for what they teach. In a world wracked by the Enron, Tyco, and Worldcom scandals, this idea has a certain appeal. But it also raises some hard questions.

THE MBA: BUSINESS BOOTCAMP

First, let's consider what an MBA degree really is. The MBA degree was originally envisioned as a vehicle for providing solid business education to individuals who had earned undergraduate degrees in non-business areas. As professionals in any field rise to positions of leadership and business responsibility they begin to realize that they may not progress much further in their careers without an understanding of the principles and methods of business. This demand first materialized in the engineering professions, and schools of business designed the MBA degree initially for engineers. For example, when engineers became managers in engineering or manufacturing firms, they could pursue the MBA both to gain an understanding of business for their work and to prove to all potential critics that they were prepared and indisputably qualified to manage. Other professions were not far behind -- lawyers running law firms, artists running art galleries, computer scientists running computer companies, even doctors runni ng clinics or hospitals. Most of these people came to the MBA classroom with little or no formal business education. And they had to learn everything from scratch.

So, what is an MBA? The MBA is a business "bootcamp" that crams most of an undergraduate business degree, plus advanced coursework in one's major (often called a "concentration"), into an intense two-year full-time program. The first year of most MBA curricula is similar in that business foundations in each subject area must be covered. The first year or so generally includes basic courses in accounting (financial and managerial), economics (micro and macro), management (including organizational behavior), management science (which includes sophisticated business statistical methods), marketing, information systems, and a basic course or two in business law. All degree candidates take this (or a similar) sequence. In most cases, these foundational courses must be completed successfully before moving on to the upper-level coursework in the second year of the MBA.

Even within this framework, though, the potential for variation is significant because different schools emphasize different areas of specialization. The content of the basic courses can vary importantly and legitimately from school to school. This difference is illustrated by the so-called Techno-MBA degrees that were all the rage a few years back, in which mathematical modeling and information technologies were strongly emphasized across the MBA curricula of some schools.

THE ICI's GOALS AND 0B3 ECTIVES

ICI believes that its certification program, the CMBA, will inspire confidence in an MBA-qualified job candidate's mastery of basic business skills and thus in the candidate's performance potential on the job. The Institute further maintains that the CMBA confirms for MBA students and employers alike that the candidate has a certifiable command of business fundamentals and is "Certified for Success" (their words found on www.certifiedmba.com at the time of this writing). ICI also believes that a certification of MBA graduates can "level the playing field" and make it possible for MBAs from less-prestigious universities to compete with graduates of the top tier neutralizing the effect of graduate-program reputation in hiring.

These are lofty claims. There is no doubt that, with the economy in decline, an abundance of MBAs is available in the job marketplace. Employers would love to have a way to differentiate between the ones that will be most successful in their businesses and those who will not. At first blush, the idea is interesting because of this hiring quandary. If employers could know, on the basis of an objective test, who is likely to be successful and who is likely to fail, then such a certification would be valuable indeed. Such testing could alleviate a fundamental and costly problem in personnel management, that of hiring the wrong person for a key job.

PROBLEMS WITH ICI's APPROACH

ICI proposes to assess the business understanding of an MBA candidate or a recent graduate. How can this be accomplished? The Institute proposes to develop an exam to verify mastery of the core material in typical MBA coursework. This verification (they say) would include assessing one's understanding of financial reporting, analysis and markets, human behavior in organizations, and a few other first-year topics that are usually taught in MBA curricula. The focus is on resting one's understanding of the common foundational material found in most MBA programs.

It is difficult to see how one can make the logical jump from testing someone's grasp of first-year basics to predicting that person's ultimate success in a business organization. Suppose we actually do test a group of MBAs in this way. Assuming we get a range of scores on the exam, what precisely would a high or low score on such an exam tell us? More importantly, what would it tell us about individuals' potential for success beyond their undergraduate GPA and, for that matter, their MBA GPA as well?

Also, it should be noted that the overall curriculum of an MBA degree varies widely from school to school. Most MBA'S include a concentration or even two, in subject areas such as accounting, marketing, management, information systems, finance, and the like. Companies hire people in business to do specific jobs based upon their advanced coursework in these areas of concentration. ICI claims that the CMBA could help businesses better evaluate MBA job candidates and improve their MBA hiring decisions. But it is difficult to envision how one could better screen candidates for (say) an accounting position using a test that by definition does not test advanced accounting theory, principles, and practice. The same is true for the other disciplines. It simply does not seem possible that such a test could provide much, if any, additional insight into an MBA's understanding and content knowledge that would be relevant to the hiring decisions at corporations.

Now, could such a testing program really level the playing field between the top-rated business schools and lesser institutions? This claim is also very difficult to substantiate. How could such a test possibly make an Emory or Penn State MBA equivalent to a Harvard or Stanford MBA in the eyes of corporate recruiters? Nothing against Emory or Penn State; they are fine schools. But a test over some standardized first-year MBA curriculum is simply not going to matter at all to corporate recruiters in this equation.

The question of standardization really gets to the heart of the issue. Who decides the standard for the first-year curriculum anyway? Certainly not ICI, I suspect. In an Associated Press article on the subject (S. Giegerich, 10/29/02), several business-school administrators decry the specter of business-school faculties "teaching to the test." A standardized test, they argue, would pressure schools to conform to whatever standard had been assumed in creating the test, limiting flexibility and adaptability in curriculum as business practices and technologies evolve in the future. This kind of standard would be a dangerously restrictive idea for universities, and I cannot imagine colleges of business moving in this direction.

What about the idea that a CMBA is something like the medical boards for doctors or the bar for lawyers; does this make any sense? I do not think that the medical boards test one's mastery of just the first year of medical school, and the bar exam certainly goes well beyond the first year of law-school instruction. Also, one cannot even practice these professions legally without passing the required boards. That is certainly not the case with the proposed CMBA.

WHAT RECRUITERS REALLY WANT

The Wall Street Journal and Harris Interactive surveyed corporate recruiters on the attributes that they believed were most important in hiring decisions for MBAs (www.harrisinter-active.com/bschools/). The top ten in a long list of results from the survey in descending order of importance were the following: Communication and interpersonal skills, ability to work well on a team, analytical and problem-solving skills, ability to drive results, quality of past hires from a given school, leadership potential, fit with the corporate culture, strategic thinking, likelihood of recruiting stars from a given school, and "chemistry" (that is, the recruiter's general like or dislike of the candidate). In addition, Business Week annually ranks university MBA programs (www.businessweek.com/bschools/). The procedures used for these rankings reiterate the importance of teamwork ability and the importance of analytical skills in hiring decisions. The Business Week ranking procedures also focus attention upon understanding ethical i ssues as a key factor in recruiting today's MBAs.

It seems very unlikely that a test devised to measure one's understanding of the first year of course content in a hypothetical standardized MBA curriculum would measure any of these critical factors beyond a purely cursory level. Yet these are the capabilities that really matter in corporate recruiting. Furthermore, it does not take very long in an interview to eliminate a candidate who is less than knowledgeable in the business fundamentals. In fact, in most cases, the pool of applicants will surely be screened initially for both GPA and work experience. Only the top candidates are then invited to interview. So the likelihood of individuals being selected for an interview who are ignorant of the basics is nearly zero. Under these circumstances, certifying the first year of MBA coursework does not seem very useful or worthwhile.

CONCLUSION

The basic questions remain. I fear that certifying MBAs in this manner is wrongheaded and inherently meaningless. How could an exam (and subsequent certification) of this kind possibly differentiate in any way between those destined for business success and those destined for business failure? And what could it possibly add to the hiring decisions facing corporate recruiters? The answers to these two questions are surely "it cannot" and "nothing," respectively.

Charles K. Davis is a professor in the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a past chapter president of Phi Kappa Phi. He has taught previously at the University of Houston and held analyst and management positions with IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank, Occidental Petroleum, Pullman Incorporated, and Deloitte & Touche
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Title Annotation:International Certification Institute proposes to certify Masters of Business Administration degree programs
Author:Davis, Charles K.
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:1763
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