How Valuable is an MBA

My perspective on this is from working with MBAs. Although I could have spent the time to get one, I never felt the need, as I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and have been involved in a lot of high finance software projects, consulting jobs in business process redesign and startup ventures, and other challenging types of things that eat MBAs alive, screaming as they disappear into puddles of intangible goo. Such projects appear to them much as a gelatinous cube to first level D&D players: moving inexorably forward despite a lack of substance they can see. The terror tends to dissipate a little once they see a spreadsheet and some charts, but don’t ask them to maintain it.

All this to say: an MBA can be quite valuable if you are working in a traditional field like real estate, insurance, banking, manufacturing a well understood product or importing or retailing. In a lot of other fields, they set you up with the wrong habits.

An MBA can actually be a liability in projects where most of the value creation is intangibles (goodwill, talent retention, extending lines of credit and retaining investor confidence, political influence, extended contact networks) and the deliverables aren’t so measurable (software service quality, consulting throughput, research and development outputs, policy changes from government, referral prospects). The kinds of frameworks that an MBA learns can be extended to deal with these situations, but not very easily, it takes a keen grasp of scenario analysis, regret minimization, visioning, hedging and ethics. People with a mathematical sociology background do better at such projects, as they’re using to measuring some rather fuzzy connections between people using the social science instruments. It may be years before any such connections are realized as cash deliverables. The long sales cycles of consulting, often five to eight months, wreak havoc on the prettiest spreadsheets. And don’t even try to explain a “burn”. A degree in statistics and combinatorics would do much more for you than an MBA if this is the world you work in.

Imagine the movie business. Or sports. In either, you have irreplaceable/unique individual talent at all levels from performers to coaching to marketing experts and technical specialists. You have instructions and contract relations that are so complex that if you convey them even slightly wrong your final product is worthless, or worth at least much less. All your employees and service providers have complex trust relationships that are sufficiently valuable that everyone will bolt if you start to behave oddly or against the rules of the industry. Your human capital is your biggest cost item, but it’s also your biggest marketing draw. An MBA doesn’t do much to help you understand any of this. You’d be better off taking psychology.

Imagine forestry or home building or any other business where you affect the land. You have to understand something about where you are, know where the wind blows and sun shines, and have at least some idea of where the rain will drain, where the new trees will sprout. An MBA isn’t much use in understanding nature’s services or the natural capital they rely on. You’d be better off taking ecology and environmental studies of specific regions you want to work in.

All that said, there are some MBA programs worthy of respect. The case-based ones in particular, like Harvard’s, where you’re expected to come up with some answers in class in a hurry, and where some of the difficult industries are actually explored in some depth. I’m willing to be convinced. But don’t come to a project telling me that your financial abstractions describe anything more real than the capital assets or the operational glossary or the business processes or the regulations and norms and contracts or the team’s own ambitions… a good grasp of all that is worth more than any degree.

And if you were expected an answer to “how valuable” in dollars, you’re really very confused. The value of any education is measured, as in the projects above, in its intangible contribution to your life and career, which only slowly comes visible as expanded freedom and opportunity to live the life you want. That has little to do with money, in the end analysis. It has much more to do with who you get to work with, what projects you get to work on, what achievements you can claim in your life by its end, and how proud you are of managing to do all that while still doing all the things other human beings do: living a rich emotional life, being part of a community of friends and family, leaving the Earth a better place than you found it.