By Andrew Orta, author of Making Global MBAs: The Culture of Business and the Business of Culture
The MBA won’t die – despite reports of declining enrollments and programs closing. This evergreen news story has been told many times over, particularly when crises tarnish the capitalist brand. Recurring public ambivalence about the MBA—the degree and the person—seems to stem from an awareness of the poor fit between the claims of capitalism about the world as these are embodied by the MBAs and the world itself. And yet the MBA routinely makes a virtue of the limits and failures of capitalism. When facing death, the MBA, somehow, manages.
My recent book, Making Global MBAs, is an ethnography of MBA training in the U.S. The book focuses on the ways contemporary MBAs are trained to do business globally: how they come to think about national and cultural differences as business opportunities, and how programs promote a sense of emerging business leaders as agile global actors, endowed with innate talents, cultivated through their MBA experiences, enabling them to act effectively in situations where nuts-and-bolts business analysis is confounded by the excess of cultural differences.
The book is a study of what the ways MBAs learn about culture can tell us about contemporary global capitalism. And this returns us to the latest (un)death of the MBA.
The MBA focus on global differences follows an earlier paradigm heralding frictionless markets spanning a flat world. This dates from the booming 1980s and the consolidation of “the MBA” as a cultural figure against the backdrop of institutionalized neoliberal policies. U.S. MBA programs expanded dramatically (irrationally, even), and program capacity was soon well beyond any sort of sustainable domestic demand. MBA programs have since become dependent on international students, who have taken up the enrollment slack, composing nearly half of the cohort in some programs.
As they’ve gone global, business schools have marketed their continuing dependence on international students as offering domestic MBAs a global experience without ever leaving campus. Of course, they did more than this. They infused international cases in core classes, they taught explicitly about “culture,” and they developed short international trips for MBAs that soon became standard in top programs. In all of this, business schools balance a view of the global as a high-risk source of the differences necessary for capitalist business with techniques for engaging differences in some of the least unsettling ways possible. In routinizing the ways global MBAs approach the world, business programs are also routinizing the sorts of differences MBAs find there.
The U.S. MBA program has been the privileged ground of professional encounter between aspiring domestic MBAs and their global counterparts. The hegemony and influence of U.S. business schools may be among the last vestiges of the flat world global fantasy of the late 20th century. The current enrollment declines in U.S. MBA programs are led by a precipitous drop in international applicants, many of whom are now opting not to study in the U.S. and find themselves with a world of options for business education elsewhere. This more globally distributed network of MBA programs creates opportunities for a wider decentering of business training. But if the zombie past of the MBA is any guide, it is unlikely that we are witnessing its death.