You are on page 1of 11

Abstract One of the espoused virtues of an MBA programme is that it can provide management students with an opportunity to develop

key business skills in addition to their acquiring considerable specialised and general business knowledge. Yet research on the extent to which an MBA programme is able to actually facilitate students development of important business skills is still in its infancy. This paper examines and discusses MBA students and employers views of desired and actual skill development for five broad business skills acknowledged as important in the extant literature: decision-making, analytical, leadership, interpersonal, and communication skills. By critically evaluating the existing state of skill development at one business school in particular, Warwick Business School, the research evaluates and discusses major challenges and implications for skill development facing management educators in todays increasingly diverse business school programmes. Key words: management skill development, management education, key business skills, MBA programme

The increasingly competitive job market facing todays MBA students has prompted many market-focused MBA students to look for ways to enhance their preparedness for the business world in ways that go beyond the acquisition of specialised and general business knowledge. The development of key business skills, such as decision-making and leadership, is one area that is receiving increasing attention not only among many MBA students but also among academic researchers (Humphreys, Greenan & McIlveen 1997; Day & Montgomery 1999; Deshpande 2001; Dacko 2002), business school administrators, professional bodies (AMA 1998) and national governments (McClean, Reid & Scharf 1998/9). Increasingly, the virtues of MBA programmes, in terms of their ability to develop key skills, have become the focus of multiple programme constituents. Yet, for all the attention focused on skill development in MBA programmes, relatively little is known about the extent to which students of management education are actually developing various skills. For example, the nature of MBA programmes involving essay and exam preparation is such that written communication skills are almost certainly going to be developed among students, but what about other important skills such as analytical and interpersonal skills? This paper examines student and employer views of actual skill development in an MBA programme for five broad business skills identified as important in the extant literature: decision-making, analytical, leadership, interpersonal, and communication skills. Understanding and explaining to what extent, why, and how MBA students are or are not developing key skills can potentially lead to better management, marketing, and pedagogical practices within an MBA programme. By actively researching, assessing, and evaluating the case of one business school in particular, Warwick Business School

at the University of Warwick, the problems and opportunities for a business school to manage skill development become evident as it enables a contextually-based discussion of challenges and issues that would otherwise remain much more abstract.

Business skills development research has a relatively short history in terms of research concerned with the business school and management education content. It is only within the last twenty years or so that business skills development has been examined conceptually in significant depth. Over this period, the topic of skills has been examined under conceptualisations including employability, transferability, and key skills. Employability skills are those skills required to acquire and retain a job (Saterfield & McLarty 1995), whereas transferable skills are those abilities which can be applied from one job to another. Key skills are skills generally considered to be important for successful careers in the future workplace, where the emphasis on career scope varies from the specific to the general, e.g. a career in marketing, management, business, or simply work. The conceptualisation of key skills suggests focus on skills valued beyond initial employability and suitability for particular jobs, yet with generally more career specificity than transferable skills which implies value across multiple and potentially divergent career paths. At the same time, it must be noted that the literature on skill development is not always consistent in defining such conceptualisations and there are also additional terms used in categorising the scope of skills. For example, Fallows and Steven (2000) view key skills as including not only employability and transferable skills but also life-long learning skills, while Blackmore (2000) refers to alternative terms of key skills, generic skills, and soft skills under the umbrella of transferable skills. Furthermore, broad skill-related terms including meta21

International Journal of Management Education

competences (Burgoyne 1988) and meta-abilities (Butcher & Harvey 1998) are also found in the literature in relation to their roles in facilitating an organisations capabilities, while skill terms incorporating multiple skill elements (e.g. information literacy as examined by Hilliger and Roberts 2001) are acknowledged as valuable as well. It is in this varying context that skill development research has been conducted on skills that either are, or ought to be, developed by institutions of higher education in management. Research on employability skills includes a survey of employers by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (1995). Conducted as a means to encourage universities to produce graduates with a greater appeal to employers, the study found that employers place a high value on skills such as oral communication, leadership, and interpersonal skills among MBA programme graduates. However, the extent that business schools are successfully producing graduates with these particular skills was not examined. Focusing solely on skills defined as transferable, Stewart and Knowles (2003) examine the development of communication, leadership, team working, and adaptability skills in business management programmes at the undergraduate level. In particular, the study evaluates the potential contribution of mentors in providing feedback to students to help them develop and assess more clearly their skill levels in these areas. While the emphasis of the study is on developing effective student-mentor relationships, the study is clearly influential in highlighting the vital need for management students transferable skills to be developed to a greater extent relative to traditional pedagogical means. In examining the area of key skills, a major study by what is now AACSB International (The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) examined the extent to which nine key business skills (i.e. analytical, computer, decision-making skills, initiative, leadership/interpersonal skills, oral communication, planning/organising, risk taking and written communication skills) were being emphasised and should be emphasised in American MBA programmes (Porter & McKibbin 1988). Although it is not clear how these precise skills were chosen for study, their inclusion not only emphasises their perceived importance to a business schools success but also the implicit view that they should be viewed as key student learning outcomes in addition to knowledge acquisition. Particularly insightful in the study is the finding that, in evaluating the perceptions of the extensive North American survey of business school students on the amount of emphasis being given to skill development efforts, far greater emphasis was and is needed in developing all of the nine skills examined. In the same vein as the work by Porter and McKibbin (1988), other research has also been conducted on the extent to which business schools are developing key skills in their students through student and alumni surveys. For example, research by Davis, Misra and Van Auken (2002) examined the extent to which one

business school is producing graduates with necessary skill levels as a result of an alumni survey. The results of the study concluded that the schools alumni perceive that they are under-prepared in the area of skills and over-prepared in the area of knowledge. Similarly, Duke (2002) examined student perceptions of skill level and importance in the context of learning outcomes. Although the emphasis of Dukes study is on demonstrating specific rating criteria and a technique for allocating resources in programme changes, the findings clearly suggest, for example, a strong need for business students to develop their interpersonal and leadership skills to a greater extent. Collectively, these and other studies, including that of Burgoyne, Hirsh and Williams (2003), clearly suggest that individual skill development is an important part of the value provided by business education. Implicitly or explicitly, the view adopted in the extant research is that students skill development contributes to increased organisational performance. Such a view is also apparent in many MBA programme promotional materials. Burgoyne et al. (2003), for example, argue that many MBA programmes tend to pitch skill development, and leadership skills development in particular, to prospective students, even though current evidence on the actual effectiveness in developing leadership skill is a very mixed set of evidence, far short of a strong case for positive performance impact (p.12). From a governing body and professional organisational perspective, there is also broad and increasing interest in appropriate business skill development, with considerable interest in the UK in particular. For example, the Marketing and Sales Standards Setting Board (MSSSB) was established by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in 2001 to set standards of competence for marketing and sales occupations (MSSSB 2004). Although the report falls short of developing a concise list of key business skills, it nevertheless suggests numerous important skills, such as analytical skills, to address changing customer expectations and leadership and people skills. The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) has also launched initiatives aimed at setting, planning, and developing improvements in what it sees as key skills. Their online Knowledge Hub (www.cim.co.uk/standards) provides a Professional Marketing Standards Framework (CIM 2005). Organised by marketing roles, the framework identifies business competencies such as analytical skills in terms of being able to analyse information as part of research and leadership in terms of being able to lead the implementation of strategic and creative use of pricing. As such, the CIM framework also identifies an array of important skills, where such skills are phrased in terms of role-specific and organisational level-specific business competencies. Operating even more broadly, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has made it a requirement that all Higher Education (HE) institutions were to introduce progress files for their students in the 2005/06 academic year. The progress file term denotes
International Journal of Management Education

22

a requirement to move beyond simple transcripts of achievement to now explicitly include means by which students can monitor, build and reflect upon their personal development with the overall aim of students becoming more effective learners and improving their career management skills and skills valued by employers (QAA 2005). The implication of such a broad UKwide initiative in the UK is considerable; HE institutions now have little choice but to play a more active role in students skill development. While examples of skills cited for general business and management include selfstarting, individual initiative and enterprise (p.5), the spirit of the QAA initiative goes well beyond such examples to allow focus on any or all skills that are essential for graduates career success. Despite the extensive interest in developing important skills in graduate business students, there are, however, many challenges facing management educators. Most notable is the increasing diversity of students enrolling in many graduate business programmes and MBA programmes in particular. For example, students will invariably enter with different skill levels. How do such differences influence skill development in an MBA programme? Starting-skill levels aside, students also vary in age, work experience, gender, nationality, and even in graduate management ability as measured by tests such as the GMAT. Do such differences influence skill development? Is a one-programme-fits-all approach equally effective for all such individuals? The research of this study aims to provide insights into the nature of skill development in a full-time MBA programme given diversity in student backgrounds. In determining a set of appropriate skills to consider in terms of their development by business students, it is striking to note that while there may be differences in the extant literature in categorisations of skills, including transferability, employability, and key skills, there are certain skill terms found in all three of these areas. More specifically, there are five skill terms that are recognised as important within each of these areas, and hence also across each of these areas: decision-making, analytical, leadership, interpersonal, and communication. For example, Porter and McKibbins (1998) study on nine key skills included an examination of each of these five skills, where communication skill further consisted of oral and written communication skill. Dukes (2002) study of key skills as business programme learning outcomes includes these five skills as well, along with technological, global economy, ethics, and business practice skills. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (1995) study found communication, interpersonal, and leadership to be important employability skills. In addition to communication skill, decision-making and analytical skills are further identified as important employability skills according to Mallough and Kleiner (2001). Meanwhile, Stewart and Knowles (2001) show that interpersonal skills and decision-making skills are important transferable skills, whereas the same authors further cite communication and leadership as important transferable skills in their later study (Stewart & Knowles 2003). Finally, analytical

skill is considered an important transferable skill within and across business professions by various professional and management research organisations (Cytraus 1995; Melancon 1998; Good 2006). Consequently, for students of management, the relative importance of developing decision-making, analytical, leadership, interpersonal, and communication skills cannot be understated. As such, these five skills may reasonably be termed the top five skills, or major skills, for business school graduates due to the commonality and extent to which they are discussed in the literature. (See Table 1 for a summary of skill studies for management education, where important skills are identified.) Yet, while it is acknowledged in the literature that students tend to leave business programmes generally under-developed in these top five skills, relatively little is still known about perceptions of their development from multiple perspectives e.g. those of students and employers as well as the extent of their development and variability in development by students of different backgrounds. By examining the nature and extent of skill development at one particular business school in the UK, Warwick Business School, where longitudinal research on skill development was conducted, these aspects can be critically and systematically evaluated. In particular, the following four research questions are posed and critically discussed in the research of this study: To what extent are MBA students actually developing the top five business skills in an MBA programme? To what extent does an MBA programme actually emphasise the development of the top five skills? In particular, how does their emphasis compare to student expectations? What are employers priorities for skill development in an MBA programme? Are they the same as, or different from, student priorities? What are employers perceptions of skill levels actually attained by students? How can they be used systematically to further students own skill development? To be able to address such questions systematically, it is considered essential to capture the views of stakeholders where they are all influenced by the same context, namely, the state of current practice in skill development at one university business school. As such, skills surveys of the majority of students enrolled as well as the majority of employers having first-hand exposure to the programmes students provides two key stakeholder perspectives on actual and desired skill development to be compared and contrasted with that of the skill development literature.

International Journal of Management Education

23

Author/ Written Organisation Comm. Year: Research Emphasis Porter & McKibbin AACSB (1988): Accreditors view of key mgmt. educ. skills

Oral Comm. Analytical Leadership Interpersonal Decision-making Other

Planning/ organising, initiative, risk taking, computer Teamwork, enthusiasm, motivation, initiative, commitment, organising, foreign language Problem solving, financial

Assoc. of Graduate Recruiters (1995): Employers view of employability skills

Cytraus (1995), Melancon (1998): Prof. assocns views of transferable skills Stewart & Knowles (2001): Researchers view of transferable skills Mallough & Kleiner (2001): Researchers view of employability skills

Initiative, creativity, motivation, teamwork, organising Planning, coordinating, foreign language listening, goal setting, time management Technological global economy, ethics, business practice Quantitative skills, teamwork, problem identification, workable solution Team working, adaptability

Duke (2002): Researchers view of key skills as learning outcomes Davis, Misra, Van Auken (2002): Researchers view of key skills as learning outcomes development Stewart & Knowles (2003): Researchers view of transferable skills Burgoyne, Hirsh & Williams (2003): Researcher & business school assocn. view of employability skills CIM (2005): Prof. mktg. orgn. view of key competencies Good (2006): Recruiters & employers views of employability skills Table 1: Skills studies for management education: skills identified as important

Self-management, direction setting, business efficiency People skills, numerous other role-specific competencies Team building, ability to comprehend complex data

24

International Journal of Management Education

The MBA programme at Warwick Business School (WBS) offers a 12-month full-time programme which enrols 50-120 students annually. In the first nine months, all students must complete seven compulsory modules (accounting and finance, economics, marketing, management modelling, operations, organisational behaviour and strategy) as well as six elective modules on specialised topics from a list of around 30. The remaining three months are spent on a supervised summer project and dissertation, where the effort traditionally involves students being employed for consultancy-style projects with UK-based or international employers. About onefifth of the students enrolling tend to be female, and half of the students enrolling tend to be British, with the other half from countries around the world. The average student age is about 30. Similar to many other MBA programmes, WBS makes references in its promotional materials to the potential for developing key skills, but such references are still rather general (e.g., you will develop your personal capabilities for leading and motivating others). As such, it is evident from promotional materials that WBS acknowledges skill development as being part of the programme but does not go so far as to make promises about skill levels that will actually be achieved. It is in this context that a series of surveys of both students and employers was conducted over multiple years with the aim of understanding these constituents skill development priorities and obtaining multiple perspectives on perceptions of students actual skill development.

the MBA programme. This question was asked to establish participants perceptions of the extent of the programmes actual emphasis on developing key business skills during the year. Second, participants were asked to indicate on the same scale to what degree each of the same skills should be emphasised in the MBA programme, thereby giving participants an opportunity to express their views on the extent to which particular skills should be given greater (or lesser) emphasis in the programme relative to their expectations. Collectively, these two questions were useful to establish actual programme performance in emphasising skill development in multiple areas as well as participants relative priorities for skill development. A third part of the email survey involved asking participants to rate their actual skill levels on 1 to 10 scales (where 1 is very low-skilled and 10 is very highly skilled) for each of the above skills relative to their peers at the end of the programme. The purpose of this question was to contribute to understanding participants perceptions of relative strength and weakness for a range of skills as a result of their participation in the MBA programme. Participants were then asked a fourth question, where they were asked to reflect on their own skill levels a year earlier, and were specifically asked to subjectively rate their skill levels on 1 to 10 scales for each of the same skills at the beginning of the programme. By examining participants responses to the two questions, we were able to obtain insights into the degree of participants perceived changes in specific skill levels as a result of their going through the MBA programme. In addition to the survey conducted at the completion of the MBA programme, a survey was also conducted at the beginning of the participants MBA programme with the purpose of assessing their expectations of skill development as well as their particular business interests. In this earlier survey, participants were also asked to indicate on 1 to 10 scales to what degree each of the skills listed should be emphasised in the MBA programme, enabling comparisons of participants priorities for skill development before their MBA experience and afterwards. Finally, information on participants sex, age and nationality were obtained from publicly available resumes as a means to relate responses to student demographic. For the email surveys conducted at the beginning and at the end of the year, participants were given two weeks to respond. Where there was a lack of response, participants were sent reminder emails that also included the survey questions as a means to further increase survey participation. Where there was a lack of a response to a second email, a third and final email was sent two weeks later, also including the survey, as a means to obtain the views of the majority of programme participants. In all cases, as an incentive for participating in the survey, the participants were told in the e-mails that, in exchange for their participation, they would receive a summary of the results of the study when the study was complete at the end of the year.

A series of surveys of students and employers were conducted across multiple years which obtained views and feedback on actual and desired skill development and starting and ending skill levels for a range of skills including those of decision-making, analytical, leadership, interpersonal, and communication. Surveys were administered by email, fax and telephone to students and employers, where these skills were included in a list of 17 additional skills suggested by the literature as being potentially relevant for business school graduates (e.g. time management, crisis management, business etiquette, etc.). In terms of student surveys, the study conducted an email-based skills survey that was given to all full-time MBA students who completed the one-year MBA programme. Using personalised e-mail messages, participants were asked to respond to questions in four major areas. First, participants were asked to indicate on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is not at all and 10 is very much), to what degree a particular skill (contained within the larger list of skills) had actually been emphasised in

International Journal of Management Education

25

Subsequent analyses of student views involved statistical analyses to identify areas of difference in their perceptions of actual skill development over the course of the year and also analyses aimed at identifying and exploring the which skills are being developed more (or less) than others in the MBA programme, where the primary aim is to understand better the extent of aggregate perceived skill development within the programme. Analyses were also performed to understand the extent of students expectations for further skill development relative to their views on actual skill development emphasis in the programme. For employer surveys, the study implemented a skills survey which was given to employers of MBA students on summer projects. Using telephone, fax, and e-mail, all participants, consisting of the students immediate supervisors, were asked to respond to questions in two major areas. First, participants were asked to indicate on a scale of 1 to 10 to what degree a particular skill, contained within the larger list of skills, should be emphasised in an MBA programme, thereby giving employers an opportunity to express their views on which particular skills should be given greater or lesser emphasis in the programme relative to their expectations. A second part of the e-mail survey involved asking participants to rate the students skill levels on 1 to 10 scales for each of the above skills, where again 1 is very low-skilled and 10 is very highly skilled. The purpose of the questions was to contribute to understanding employer perceptions of students relative strength and weakness for a range of skills. Upon completion of data collection, both student and employer views were then analysed individually and collectively, where student demographic information was additionally integrated. The specific analytical approach involved comparisons of means to determine the extent and degree of significant differences present in terms of starting vs. ending student skill levels for each skill; actual vs. desired student emphasis on skill development for each skill; employers vs. students desired emphasis on skill development for each skill; and employers vs. students perceptions of student skill level attained for each skill. Further analyses included comparisons of means between student categorisations where, specifically, students were categorised into male vs. female, old vs. young, British vs. non-British, high vs. low average starting skill level, and high vs. low GMAT score, where mean values established cut-off points between the latter two categorical comparisons.

For the employer survey, 72% of employers, or 38 employers, participated, and commented on their own skill development priorities and their views of the student skill attainment levels for an earlier cohort of students that they supervised. While employer views on skill attainment levels were for an earlier MBA cohort, the employer views nevertheless provide valuable insights into ongoing skill level attainment by MBA students since both the Warwick MBA programme admission and selection criteria and the programme structure remained constant over the duration of the study. Finally, in the case where an employer employed multiple students, the employer was asked to respond only once, thereby giving one employers view for the set of students whom they employed. Table 2 summarises the perceptions of student respondents regarding their skill levels for the five key skills at the start and end of the MBA programme. The results show that, for each of the five skills, students perceived ending skill levels were found to be significantly higher than perceptions of their starting skill levels, suggesting that the students perceive they are developing their skills in each of the five areas to a significant extent. In the table, skills are presented in order from highest to lowest in terms of the calculated percentage increase in perceived skill level achieved in each area. At the bottom of the table, averages for each of the above values are also shown for purposes of comparison. In terms of individual skill areas, the greatest increases in perceived skill development were in the areas of communication skills and analytical skills, areas that are clearly related to the nature of the content and instructional methods used in the programme. More specifically, students must regularly engage in a process of communicating both orally and in writing preparing for and delivering oral presentations, developing and preparing essays, and then completing their end-of-year dissertations all of which necessitate clear expression of their views. While there may be relatively more personal opportunities for formal written as opposed to oral communication in the programme, in-class presentations do become a focal learning opportunity for students oral communication skills as they are very public and critical demonstrations where immediate feedback is obtained from peers as well as lecturers. As indicated in the table, analytical skill is also perceived as developed to a significant extent. The fact that students are continually confronted with business problems throughout the programme which require analyses as a means to obtain clear insights and arrive at fresh conclusions and substantiated recommendations is likely to facilitate analytical skill development. Hence, the pervasiveness of opportunities for analyses and the relative centrality of analytical activity may ultimately combine to help students increase their analytical skills. Lesser but still significantly positive skill level increases were observed for leadership and interpersonal skills. Each of these skills tend to be more developed among students outside the classroom, such as in syndicate

76% of all full-time participants, or 73 students, participated in the skills surveys conducted at the beginning and the end of the academic year. 23% of participants were female. Participants ages ranged from 24 to 46 and the average participant age was 29.4. Participants came from 29 different countries around the world, of which 48% were from European countries.

26

International Journal of Management Education

Skill Development Area Communication Written Oral Analytical Leadership Interpersonal Decision-making Average

Starting Skill Level 6.96 7.00 6.92 7.33 6.59 7.10 7.11 7.02

Ending Skill Level 7.60 7.73 7.46 7.76 6.90 7.41 7.34 7.40

% Change (Significance) 10.74*** 12.17*** 9.12*** 6.79 *** 5.55 *** 5.08 *** 3.76 *** 6.38

Table 2: MBA students starting and ending skill development levels


Significant differences observed: * p<.05 **p<.01 ***p<.001

group projects where students are able to take turns leading group efforts to solve business problems. Ultimately, all students must recognise the need to work together as effectively as possible if they are to be successful and, as such, recognise the value of appropriate leadership as well as cooperation and compromise. Still, under such conditions, developing leadership skill is not so much mandatory as it is an option, as some students may only be willing to lead or interact with others to the extent they are comfortable in doing so. Finally, decision-making skill is also shown to be significantly developed, though much less so than the other four skills. Here, it is likely that this skill is developed not only from students learning to apply and use a wide variety of business models and concepts to increase the quality of business decisions but also from their immersion in the year-long MBA experience which leads graduates to feel more confident. At the same time, however, students also learn that there is often much more to making good decisions than was recognised at the start of their MBA experience. In other words, while they have had exposure to the tools to facilitate their choosing from

among alternative courses of action, they are also more conscious of the complexities and possible pitfalls in the process of making sound decisions. Although students perceive skill development in the MBA programme, Table 3 provides evidence that students also perceive a need for much greater emphasis on skill development for almost all skills. Specifically, the table shows MBA students views for actual versus desired emphasis on skill development. The percentage increase (or decrease) in desired skill emphasis is shown in the final column and is calculated from students views of desired skill development emphasis relative to their view of the actual emphasis given in the MBA programme. This latter set of values shows that students are least satisfied with the extent they are able to develop leadership skill, following by decision-making and interpersonal skills. Of lesser concern among students is the shortfall in emphasis on analytical skill development. Analysis of communication skill development shows a desire to emphasise oral communication skill to an even greater extent, while students perceive written communication skill development emphasis to be % Increase (Decrease) in Emphasis Desired 50.00 *** 34.15 *** 24.78 *** 9.33 * 6.97 20.27 (4.63) 23.50 ***

Skill Leadership Decision-making Interpersonal Analytical Communication Oral Written Average

Actual Emphasis 5.88 6.68 6.73 7.54 7.31 6.92 7.69 7.02

Desired Emphasis 8.32 8.62 8.15 8.15 7.75 8.12 7.28 8.20

Table 3: MBA students views on actual vs desired emphasis and resulting implications for percentage increase in desired emphasis
Significant differences observed: * p<.05 **p<.01 ***p<.001

International Journal of Management Education

27

generally appropriate, as the difference between actual and desired emphasis is not significant. Such findings therefore point to a need for greater focus on skill-specific development opportunities, where both opportunity frequency and quality may be issues. For example, since leadership is not absolutely imperative for students to develop, and since it is not the focus of any formal assessment opportunity as it is just one aspect of many in group interaction processes, opportunities may be frequent but not always capitalised upon. Highlighting the process of leadership skill development and its important role in individual as well as group success may therefore be a step in the right direction. An important consideration in skill development is not only the student perspective but also the employer perspective. Are student views on the extent to which an MBA programme should develop different skills consistent with employer views? Table 4 compares the views of employers with students and finds no significant differences in views for each of the key skills examined. In other words, student priorities for skill development are consistent with employer priorities. Such a finding is encouraging in that students have a developed sense of what skills and skill emphases are needed to succeed in their future careers; perhaps their average of seven years work experience is something they can draw upon to make such judgments. Even though student priorities for skill development are consistent with employer priorities, this is not to say that employers are ultimately satisfied with the extent to which graduates are developing key skills in all cases. In other words, priorities may be the same but perceptions of successful or appropriate development may differ. Table 5 compares employer perceptions of student skill levels attained, where views are for an earlier student cohort, with another cohort of students perceptions of skill level attainment. While most comparisons are not significantly different, suggesting consistency in individual skill level evaluations from employee and employer perspectives, the one comparison that is significantly different is for decision-making skill, where employers perEmployers Desired Emphasis 8.12 8.11 7.92 7.91 7.61 7.43 7.76 7.93 Students Desired Emphasis * 8.62 8.15 8.32 8.15 7.75 7.38 8.12 8.15

ceived their student workers to be less skilled in decision-making than more recent students perceived themselves to be while student workers. Such a finding clearly suggests an opportunity to develop and assess decision-making skill development from multiple perspectives. While adding a recruiters perspective on a students classroom learning experiences is argued by Feldman Bar and McNeilly (2002) to be beneficial, the findings of this research suggest further including new perspectives including those provided by students employers under conditions of work-based projects in actual organisations. At the very least, employer feedback to students on their decision-making quality in their role as employees, where shortfalls are evident, may lead students to reflect on how their decision-making abilities may need refining or additional development to be appreciated more in a dynamic organisational context. In sum, while the findings suggest the students perceive they have made significant progress in the development of five key business skills, opportunities are clearly evident for even greater emphasis, particularly with respect to leadership skill development. In particular, the results show that, participants perceived their overall skill levels to increase by an average of just 6.4% over the programme. In addition, the study finds that desired skill development emphasis needs to be increased by an average of 23.5%, with communication skill, and written communication skill development more specifically as the only skills which are perceived as not requiring an increase in emphasis, as the percentage changes for these skills as shown in Table 3 are not statistically significant. Thus, the results suggest that much more needs to be done in emphasising focused and prioritised skill development. Promising in this study is the finding that students and employers share the same skill development priorities for skill development. Yet, the fact that there are at least some perceptual differences in actual skill levels, as shown in comparing employer and student perceptions of students decision-making skills, suggests a need for Employers Perceptions of students skill level 7.72 7.24 7.25 7.22 7.22 6.70 6.59 7.09 Students Perceptions of own skill level 7.41 7.60 7.73 7.46 7.76 7.34* 6.90 7.40

Skill Decision-making Analytical Leadership Interpersonal Communication Written Oral Average

Skill Interpersonal Communication Written Oral Analytical Decision-Making Leadership Average

Table 4: Employer vs MBA student views on desired skill development emphasis


* No significant differences observed

Table 5: Employer vs MBA student views on desired skill development emphasis


Significant differences observed: *p<.05 **p<.01 ***p<.001

28

International Journal of Management Education

greater objectivity and recognition of multiple perspectives in appropriately evaluating skill levels achieved. Also a concern is the extent to which skills are developed equally or uniformly among students. Specifically, there are cases where some students developed certain skills to a great extent while others did not develop particular skills at all. Further analysis of the data, for example, reveals that those students who rated themselves highly in terms of their average starting skill levels, and thus categorised into the upper 50% of the cohort as opposed to the lower 50%, were significantly more likely (p=.038) to indicate a positive change in their decisionmaking skill levels when compared to students who were in the lower 50% for average starting skill levels. Such a result indicates that higher starting skill level makes a difference in developing decision-making skills the stronger the student is initially, the easier it is to positively develop decision-making skills. Acknowledgement of this finding among students and staff may therefore lead to refinements in how students can and should develop decision-making skills to a greater extent if the aim is to level the playing field for all students in this area. A similar finding for positive changes in decision-making skill levels is also found in comparisons between older and younger students, with younger students significantly more likely (p=.026) to indicate positive changes in their decision-making skill levels. Such a finding suggests more mature students have greater difficulty in taking advantage of opportunities in the MBA programme to positively develop decision-making skills relative to younger students, an issue that may have implications for a programmes student recruitment strategy as well as its offerings. While gender and GMAT scores do not make a difference for any of the skills examined, being British as opposed to being non-British evidently does. Specifically, non-British students were significantly more likely (p=.044) to have reported positive changes in their written communication skill development, perhaps because some non-British students have recognised they have covered more ground in mastering an effectively British-based written communication style (including written English itself) and therefore needed to work more and try harder to develop written communication skills, a finding that also has implications for student recruitment strategy as well as for potential offerings of added learning opportunities for written skill development among various participants. As the above findings suggest that views on the development of at least some skills varies according to student characteristics, an important consideration therefore is to understand how such characteristics may influence both the perception and reality of skill development. For example, for some individuals, perceptions may be different from reality, that is, where students have actually learned much more than they think or perceive and are indicating lower-than-actual perceptions as a result of being overly critical of their true abilities in their comparisons with peers. Thus, while gender differences are observed to not be significantly different for each of the skills, it may be the case that at least some

females might under-rate themselves on their final skill levels achieved for these very reasons (Heilman & Kram 1978). In other cases, where a student is from a nonBritish country, where business environments and communication styles and approaches differ from those of the UK, such differences may lead a student to believe they are still somewhat under-developed relative to their within-country peers in terms of the skill levels they have set out to achieve. The implication of views such as these is that business school marketers, administrators and teachers must do a better job of managing and adjusting student perceptions and expectations to reflect the view that an MBA programme enables them to actually develop key business skills to a greater extent than they have led themselves to believe. Yet another explanation for cases where students perceive a lack of development in a particular skill is that the perceptions of these students actually reflect reality, suggesting less-than-desired skill development for a particular area. As just one example, a student whose first language is not English may be less likely to develop leadership skill if students more fluent in English take charge in study group discussions and group presentations. The implication of this view is that greater attention among business school administrators and teachers should be given to enabling reasonably equitable opportunities for skill development among student groups and individuals who may be at a disadvantage relative to their more capable but potentially dominating peers. At the same time, each universitys business school must make the strategic decision of just how much total and relative emphasis they want to place on equitable development of each of the skills examined in this study as a means of balancing educational responsibility with their distinctive organisational competencies and interests for competitive positioning. While the above findings and discussion draw many conclusions for skill development in an MBA programme, it should also be recognised that the data collection and analysis methods employed, while appropriate for the studys objectives, are not without limitations given critical evaluation. For example, since the survey sample was 23% female (representative of the 20% female composition of the programme), the results reflect a predominantly male perspective. Although such a ratio is common in MBA programmes, subsequent research could aggregate female views across years to enable even higher numbers of female responses and hence stronger comparisons of means with male students, where differences in skill development priorities, starting skill levels, or levels attained may potentially be more observable between males and females. In addition, it was beyond the scope of this research to employ the use of multiple regression techniques to determine whether there are any significant interactions between variables, such as in being a non-British female potentially being related to an increased (or decreased) level of skill attainment. As such, future research may wish to focus on possible interaction effects for any number of variables. Nevertheless, the present study draws many

International Journal of Management Education

29

important conclusions regarding the nature and extent of key skill development among students given multiple stakeholder perspectives. Important implications for management educators are summarised below.

tices are also entirely consistent with certain new higher education policy initiatives, such as the Personal Development Planning (PDP) process initiative that higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK are now required to have in place. The PDP initiative is beneficial in that it is aimed at helping to improve the guidance HEIs give to students in responding to social agendas, including the improvement of employability skills (Jackson 2002). Third, the research of this study provides an explicit means for further dialogue with current and future employers of an MBA programmes graduates. More research is needed to identify current and future employers full set of relative priorities for key business skill development among an MBA programmes students. More research is also needed to identify the extent to which firms find MBA programme graduates to be sufficiently prepared in important areas of business skill development. By conducting surveys of prospective employers on such measures and in making comparisons with skill levels being achieved among students, management educators can lead the way in preparing educational experiences that are indeed virtuous in providing programmes that are highly relevant, tailored and competitive in meeting the increasingly demanding needs for strong business skills within todays marketdriven firms world-wide. Methodologically, more research is also needed on skill development in terms of developing even more robust means to measure fully the extent of actual skill development among MBA programme participants. Selfassessment of skills - the approach used in this study is one means of evaluating skill development, which may be contrasted and compared in future studies with test-based indications of individual skill level, although additional research is needed in the area of skills testing in order for such comparisons to be made. The timeframes for skill development evaluations should also be a subject of future research. For example, it can be questioned whether or not participants of a one-year MBA programme are able to aptly evaluate their own skill development over such a time frame. Perhaps more accurate evaluations would result when much later assessments are made, such as after the participants have had a longer term opportunity to apply their key skills in the workplace. Nevertheless, when graduating students reflect on the value of the MBA programme, it is clear they will feel compelled to draw sound conclusions about the extent of their skill development upon their completion and reflect on the extent of progress resulting from their considerable investment of time and money. As management educators are also making a considerable investment in time and effort, it is imperative that the areas of skill development improvement such as those suggested in this research be addressed to ensure the long-term viability of management and marketing education.

A major motivation for this research has been to help ensure that business schools contributions to skill development are consistent with the needs of their major stakeholders: students, firms employing the programmes graduates, and staff providing and administering the MBA programmes initiatives and offerings aimed at developing skills either explicitly or implicitly. Yucelt (1998) argues, for example, that a central problem impeding relevance lies in the fact that business schools are choosing to offer initiatives based on what they want to offer instead of offering what will ultimately benefit firms through the students development. By critically examining the extent to which an MBA programme is benefiting stakeholders in terms of developing the skills of its students, its own success, and that of its stakeholders, may be gauged and improved over time. Clearly, the results of this study suggest an urgent and important need for management educators to review their programmes and to begin evaluating how much the programmes learning opportunities are able to deliver the desired increases not just in knowledge, but in the critical area of skill development. Toward this end, the research of this study is useful in three ways. First, it can be used as a benchmarking study, where management academics can conduct surveys involving these or similar measures and then compare their results to those presented in this study, as well as with results that can be obtained at their own institutions in successive years. Second, the research of this study may be a motivation for identifying more effective and resource-efficient ways to provide opportunities for skill development among all students. The occasional use of traditional paper casebased teaching is just one approach where analytical skill development is an intended outcome, for example, but such an approach is not without problems and issues, particularly under conditions of considerable student diversity (Booth, Bowie, Jordan & Rippin 2000). Perhaps more emphasis is needed to understand better how new educational technologies such the internet (Evans 2001) can be used to enhance management education, and skill development in particular, given student diversity trends as well as other learning trends including distance education (Dacko 2001). To the extent that students are made aware of how practical uses of new educational technologies can facilitate personalised, customised development of specific business skills (e.g., moderating an online discussion group to develop leadership and interpersonal skills), such students can then focus on those initiatives that provide the greatest personal skill development benefits. Such prac30

International Journal of Management Education

AMA Taskforce on the Development of Marketing Thought 1998, Developing, disseminating, and utilising marketing knowledge, Journal of Marketing, 54, 4, pp.1-25. Association of Graduate Recruiters 1995, Skills for Graduates in the 21st Century, AGR, Cambridge. Blackmore, P. 2000, Evaluating computer supported collaboration: learning for the purpose of developing career management and employability skills, European Conference on Educational Research, University of Edinburgh, pp.1-19. Booth, C., Bowie, S., Jordan, J. & Rippin A. 2000, The use of the case method in large and diverse undergraduate business programmes: problems and issues, International Journal of Management Education, 1, 1, Autumn. Burgoyne, J. 1988, Competency approaches in management development, Paper presented at the IPM Conference in Harrogate, October. Burgoyne, J., Hirsh, W. & Williams, S. 2003, The value of business and management education, Working paper 2003/099, Lancaster University Management School. Butcher, D. & Harvey, P. 1998, Meta-ability development: a new concept for career management, Career Development International 3, 2, pp.75-78. Chartered Institute of Marketing 2005, Professional marketing standards framework, Chartered Institute of Marketing, www.cim.co.uk/standards. Accessed 18 May 2006. Cytraus, A. 1995, A CPA in human resources? Why not?, Ohio CPA Journal, 54, 5, October, pp.45-47. Dacko, S.G. 2001, Narrowing skill development gaps in marketing and MBA programs: the role of innovative technologies for distance learning, Journal of Marketing Education, 23, 3, December, 228-239. Dacko, S.G. 2002, Developing key marketing skills for a changing world: is experience still the best teacher?, Proceedings of the European Marketing Academy, 31st EMAC Conference, Braga, Portugal, pp.1-6. Davis, R., Misra, S. & Van Auken, S. 2002, A gap analysis approach to marketing curriculum assessment: a study of skills and knowledge, Journal of Marketing Education, 24, 3, December, pp.218-224. Day, G.E. & Montgomery D.B. 1999, Charting new directions for marketing, Journal of Marketing, 63, special issue, pp.3-13. Deshpande, R. (ed.) 2001, Using Marketing Knowledge, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA. Duke, C.R. 2002, Learning outcomes: comparing student perceptions of skill level and importance, Journal of Marketing Education, 24, 3, December, pp.203-217. Evans, J.R. 2001, The emerging role of the Internet in marketing education: from traditional teaching to technology-based education, Marketing Education Review, 11, Fall, pp.1-19.
International Journal of Management Education

Fallows, S. & Steven, C. (eds.) 2000, Integrating Key Skills in Higher Education: Employability, Transferable Skills and Learning for Life, Stylus Publishing, Sterling, Virginia. Feldman Barr, T. & McNeilly, K.M. 2002, The value of students classroom experiences from the eyes of the recruiter: information, implications, and recommendations for marketing educators, Journal of Marketing Education, 24, 2, August, pp.168-173. Good, B. 2006, What tomorrows candidates need to know today, Business Credit, 108, 6, June, pp.63-64. QAA 2005, Guidelines for HE progress files, Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/progressFiles/ guidelines/progfile2001.asp. Accessed 7 July 2006. Heilman, M.E. & Kram, K.E. 1978, Self-derogating behavior in womenfixed or flexible: the effects of co-workers sex, Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 22, 3, pp.497-507. Hilliger, K. & Roberts, S. 2001, Which key skills? Graduates and information literacy, International Journal of Management Education, 2, 1, Autumn. Humphreys, P., Greenan, K. & McIlveen, H. 1997, Developing work-based transferable skills in a university environment, Journal of European Industrial Training, 21, 2, pp.63-70. Jackson, N. 2002, Personal development planning, LTSN Generic Centre Circular, June, pp.1-2. Mallough, S. & Kleiner, B. 2001, How to determine employability and wage earning capacity, Management Research News, 24, 3/4, pp.118-122. Marketing and Sales Standards Setting Body 2004, Marketing: an occupational map, Paper prepared for the MSSSB by Benson Payne Limited, Management Consultants, February. McClean, C., Reid, C. & Scharf, F. 1998/9, The development of transferable skills in business studies degrees, IBAR, 19/20, 1, pp.47-64. Melancon, B. 1998, Letter from the AICPA president, Journal of Accountancy, 186, 2, August, pp.4-5. Porter, L.W. & McKibbin, L.E. 1988, Management Education and Development: Drift or Thrust into the 21st Century?, McGraw-Hill, New York. Saterfield, T. & McLarty, J. 1995, Assessing Employability Skills, ERIC Digest, ED391109, USA. Stewart, J. & Knowles, V. 2001, Graduate recruitment: implications for business and management courses in HE, Journal of European Industrial Training, 25, 2/3/4, pp.98-109. Stewart, J. & Knowles, V. 2003, Mentoring in undergraduate business management programmes, Journal of European Industrial Training, 27, 2/3/4, pp.147-159. Yucelt, U. 1998, Comparative study of students perception on quality of MBA programs, Journal of International Marketing and Marketing Research, 23, 1, pp.27-33.

31