Can a “Personal MBA” Match the Real McCoy?

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Do you really need to spend upwards of $80,000 in tuition and take two years off to become senior management material? The supporters of an alternative method, the Personal MBA (PMBA), say no, and it’s an idea that’s developing some traction.

According to the advocates of the Personal MBA, all you have to do to measure up to the pricey MBAs turned out by B-schools is to keep gaining work experience, read a series of books at your leisure, and talk about them with an online community. The organized B-school community, of course, maintains it’s not so simple.

GRASSROOTS APPROACH. The PMBA, essentially an online list of reading material and accompanying message boards, is part book club and part online community, where participants tackle the reading list one book at a time, then exchange thoughts and insights on the Web site There is no diploma, dean, faculty — or cost, other than whatever you pay for the books or a library card. Though still in its infancy, the grassroots PMBA is gaining a following — and might be yet another ding in the armor of traditional MBA programs (see BW, 3/20/06, “Is the MBA Overrated?”).

It all started last March when 119 Harvard MBA admits — and a number of applicants at other B-schools — were denied admission for hacking into the online application service to discover their admissions decision before schools were ready to share them (see BW Online, 3/9/05, “An Ethics Lesson for MBA Wannabes”). When Seth Godin, a critic of the traditional MBA and author of the book All Marketers are Liars (Penguin Books, 2005) heard the news, he wrote in his blog that the denied students were lucky to be saving $150,000 in opportunity cost. He added that reading 30 or 40 books, along with some solid experience, could probably give you the same education as a top B-school.

Godin didn’t offer any book titles, but one of his readers did. After seeing Godin’s posting, Josh Kaufman, a 24-year-old assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble (PG ), made a preliminary list of his favorite business books and published it on his Web site, Godin, inviting other readers to contribute, then posted Kaufman’s list on his own site. Kaufman’s list more than tripled, to 160, and he spent the next two-and-a-half months whittling it down to 42 books and periodicals, with input from his supervisors and businesspeople who found his site in the blogosphere, as well as current MBA students and alumni.

VIRTUAL CLASSROOM. Less than a year after its launch, the Personal MBA site has at least 1,200 registered members in 25 countries, says Kaufman. That’s over 300 more students than all of the MBA candidates enrolled at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business and almost double the size of the full-time MBA class at Stanford Graduate School of Business. The site’s popularity continues to grow. From August, 2005, to last month, the number of registered users has tripled, while the number of visitors to the site per month has hovered around 35,000.

Those readers discuss the finer points of books like Getting Things Done by David Allen (Penguin Books, 2001) and The Art of Project Management by Scott Berkun (O’Reilly Media, 2005), which are two that Kaufman and others recommend. Reading business classics like these can have an immediate impact on a person’s management savvy, says Kaufman.

The idea that reading great books can affect personal development is far from novel. There have long been education programs centering around a canon of great books. St. John’s College, an undergraduate liberal arts institution with campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M., was founded in 1784 on the premise that reading and discussing great books stimulates a personal transformation in its students. But David Levine, the dean of St. John’s in Santa Fe, says the effectiveness of his program hinges on the face-to-face interaction and discussion among students. Until Personal MBA has a live discussion component, he says, it will never measure up to a more formal curriculum.

LEARNING BY DOING. At least one academic says the scrutiny of traditional B-school programs is warranted. Henry Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University, says that much of what students learn at a top B-school could just as easily be gained through reading. “The MBA is flawed in the sense that it’s business education pretending to be management education,” says Mintzberg, author of Managers, Not MBAs (Berrett Koehler, 2004). “You’re gonna get a heck of a lot more management [education] from reading this stuff than in an MBA program.” The best way to learn management, he argues, is to manage and then examine and learn from the experience.

But don’t expect the B-schools to be running short of students anytime soon. Despite the cost, B-school professors and administrators say there is no substitute for the intangibles — most notably the alumni and peer network — that come from a traditional MBA experience. Not to mention the access to corporate recruiters and career advisement offices. “[Kaufman] found what the schools’ competitive advantage should be,” says Jim Patell, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “It’s a completeness…and that completeness has a price tag.”

PMBA supporters find it helps those who never had a management perspective and need it, either for a promotion they’ve received or to start their own business. Although he had a great technical background in computer systems administration, Simon Janes, a tech entrepreneur who has read between 15 and 20 of the PMBA books, didn’t have the business know-how to direct company strategy. Janes says reading the books helped him see his business through a management lens, instead of the technical one that he was used to.

MUST-READING. Some companies are using the PMBA reading list to develop management skills in more technically-oriented employees. XO Communications (XOHO ), a Reston (Va.) provider of communications services, launched an internal component of Personal MBA as part of its employee training program. Employees who read any of the PMBA books and submit an “action plan for applying what they learned to the business” are reimbursed for their book purchase, according to an e-mail from Sean Stewart, director of the training arm of XO.

Many B-school administrators acknowledge the benefits of a program like the PMBA but say it could never provide the complete experience of a full-time program. “The best of the best MBA programs accelerate personal development. Someone comes at 27 and leaves at 29. But they’ve added five years of maturity,” says Mark Rice, dean of the Franklin W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College.

DRIVEN BY PASSION. The PMBA lacks a stable community, and Kaufman cautions that the program is not for those who are looking for a network or a place to be courted by corporate recruiters. Greg Miller, a student in the Marquette University College of Business Administration’s part-time program, is using the PMBA to supplement his education. He says he expects the PMBA to continue to improve as more people learn about it and contribute to the message boards. “The concept is great, but the organizer needs to think about getting people together and what he can do to put a curriculum around it,” says Miller.

Though a formal curriculum would exceed Kaufman’s current budget, it somehow doesn’t seem too far-fetched. “He’s very self-motivated, with a ton of personal passion,” says his supervisor at P&G, Noel Geoffroy. Kaufman’s darkhorse recommendation for the driven young professional looking for some down and dirty management skills? It’s The Bootstrapper’s Bible, Volume 1 (Do You Zoom Inc., 2001) by Godin. And without the high tuition and opportunity costs of top B-schools, the PMBA may become the ultimate bootstrapper’s graduate degree.

Author: Jeffrey Gangemi
Source: Business Week

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