Bruce Nussbaum | Opinions

Let's Give an "F" to the FT List of Best Business Schools

Illustration via Marxist.com.

The Financial Times recently came out with its annual Global MBA Ranking 2011, and it represents everything that is wrong with business education. 

The FT breaks out the criteria contributing to the overall ranking by salary, value for money, career progress, placement success, employment, alumni recommendation, faculty abilities, internationalization and research. But nowhere do you see a measure of innovation or creativity. The schools that graduated the MBAs who went into banking and Wall Street to write the script for the devastating Great Recession of 2007–2009 are still at the top. The schools that graduated managers who proved totally unable to innovate are still at the top. The schools that gave Master of Nonprofit Administration degrees to people who went on to become CEOs and failed to deliver value for the past decade measured by stock price are still at the top.

The FT list of the best MBA programs is a testament to the inefficiency of markets and the inability of business schools to change their curricula, professors and teaching methods despite the rise of enormous complexity and uncertainty in the global economy.

The list reveals that most business schools are teaching the same old stuff — operations, marketing, finance, management, accounting. Yes, there is more “entrepreneurship,” but how meaningful is it? What exactly does a Masters in Business Administration in Entrepreneurship mean to the people who founded Facebook, Google, Groupon or Twitter? Nothing. There is more “international,” but that is a no-brainer. So is “social responsibility.”

Where are the courses that make for smarter, more innovative business brains that can devise new models of organization, new concepts of service, new means of adding value? There are a few here and there. But not many. And where are the business schools that actually teach creativity? Stanford makes the top 10 of the FT list with its D-School program that brings together business, engineering and design students.

There’s a tiny glimmer out of the Yale School of Management, No. 15, which offers a course, led by Design Observer's Michael Bierut and William Drenttel, on Design Thinking (I taught a class recently and the students were first-rate). Northwestern has a very big program that mirrors the D-School, but Kellogg, its B-School, ranked No. 21. The Hass school at Berkeley is making a big effort to redo itself as a school of innovation. But the FT ranks it at 25. Carnegie Mellon has been bringing engineering, business and design students together for over a decade to make for creative thinking. But that doesn’t count much — it’s down at 41. The UK’s Imperial College is at 47, and it has one of the top design and innovation programs for its business students.

While a few business schools connect to programs that offer creative thinking to their students, the one established business school that has innovation and creativity at the core of its curriculum on the FT list is the Rotman School of Management at the University in Toronto. The FT ranks it at No. 46. I know the dean, Roger Martin, who is one of the top thinkers on innovation around the globe, and I know the school. If you’re measuring for tomorrow’s leaders, not yesterday’s, Rotman should be in the FT Top 10.

The new design-based business program (DMBA) at California College of Art isn’t even on the FT list. In its second year, DMBA is in such demand from corporations who are hiring its graduates, that it is boosting its enrollment and expanding into exec ed.

When I was at Business Week, I developed a new list of schools, where business people can go to learn how to be creative and innovative. One version of it is here.

Since then, I’ve taught at Parsons School of Design in New York and have seen the incredible graduates of its Design and Management program. They know how to operate in a what-if world. I would add Parsons to any list of schools that focuses on delivering a learned competence in business and management creativity.

And in the Top Two of any list of schools of creativity would be IIT’s Institute of Design in Chicago. If you are in business and want people who know how to strategize in a complex and uncertain world, you want graduates of ID. If you want people who know innovation policy and strategy, you want ID grads.

A few months back, IBM published a global survey of over 1500 CEOs. The one competence they agreed CEOs needed most was creativity. Alas, creativity is the one competence sorely lacking in the curricula of most of the FT list of MBA 2011 schools. We need another list of business schools that teach managers how to be creative and another generation of CEOs who know how to innovate.

Comments [21]

Great read, Bruce. This article begs the question, what are the top 10 most innovative b-school programs?

I am an innovation consultant and entrepreneur myself, and am looking ahead to 2013 when I plan to begin a full-time MBA program. What are some of the best programs, both in the US and abroad, that incorporate innovation, design thinking, and entrepreneurship into a whole-brained, internationally-minded curriculum?

(shameless plug: read about interesting business ideas on my blog ifyoustartmeup.wordpress.com)

Great article, and finally, this fact is said and written - well, again by you :)

Innovation, creativity, R+D, value engineering...these are only "pep talks" to business schools, and most of their teachers. I consider I speak with knowledge, since have an MBA from one of the top ranked...and now are "entreprenuering" to develop an Engineerig and Design Lab + Incubator...

Thank you Bruce.
Mauricio de la Mora

Great article, Bruce. I've been trying to see through the fog of innovation buzzwords that show up on B-School websites. Your take on things is a great help!

From my own research, it looks like Imperial's Design London program seems to be as solid as the Carnegie Mellon Tepper approach --- I had the pleasure of working with those Tepper MBAs while I was in Carnegie's School of Design. Also, University of Virginia's Darden school, like Yale, also has a Design Thinking class and an institute devoted to entrepreneurship. FT ranked them a lowly 30.

Thanks again for your reviews of the programs!

As a recent alum of Yale SOM -- and of Michael and Bill's design thinking class -- I wholeheartedly agree with and appreciate this evaluation. And as someone who not long ago was choosing between b-schools and sorting through these types of rankings, I think we should be heartened that rankings are not the end-all be-all.

I'd be naive to think that rankings don't count, but my process was much more informed and influenced by visits to schools, discussions with students and faculty, and real evidence of what alums have achieved and the kinds of leaders they have become. I would hope that employment recruiters adopt similarly considered evaluation methods. In this context -- looking beyond simplistic rankings and outmoded models -- constructive and critical examinations of business education such as this article are extremely useful. Thank you for taking on this issue.

Oh – and I'm hoping John Thackara chimes in here. Caught up with him last month in Delhi and was intrigued to hear about his global collection of under-the-radar, emergent education models around business, innovation, design and beyond. Better still – he may have a whole post coming?
Meena Kadri

I recently went through the entire process of researching, visiting and applying to B-Schools with my husband (for him) While I agree with most points that you have raised in this article, I think that innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity are not always obviously spelled out in those words. I know for a fact that in our research, flexibility to build your own curriculum, opportunity to pick and choose classes from other schools (Stern, Wagner, Tisch or MIT Media Lab, Sloan, etc) factored heavily. My husband has a very clear idea of the education he wants and he also knows that he has to design it himself in order to attain that.

As far as the rankings are concerned, I think those are based entirely on the ROI, which is not very unfair to the schools. I do think the journalists and magazines need to figure out a better way to quantify and measure innovation and social impact of the students of these school and add that to the tabulate the final score.

I'm interested in seeing more dialogue around this.

Jinal Shah

All, in your list of skills needed to lead innovation in the 21st Century, please don't forget sustainability and systems thinking. And, one of the reasons why traditional business schools are not preparing their students to be innovators is that they're already so invested in the models of management and economic theory--most of which need to be rethought from scratch--that it's too daunting to consider teaching wholly new material, let alone in a new way.

I very much like the discussion on your article so far.
My addition to this would be that first and foremost, I believe that every participant before entering into a new school on acquiring 21st century skills (+mentality!) should first be exposed to a period (and perhaps this should continue even during the program) of so-called 'unlearning', getting rid of everything tried and true, getting out of your comfort zone(s), thus in order to be able to acquire a totally new mindset, challenge the status quo and start building towards a New Renaissance by innovating using our collective intelligence.

Vincent Rump

To all, I've been thinking a lot about creativity recently and about the artifice that separates design from art, science, business, social innovation, warfare, and just about all the real-world activities that absorb people.

I've come to believe that the most important commonality among all these disciplines is that they try to live in a "What If" world. It's about discovery, exploration and creation. Picasso's guitar was generated with just about the same "design" process as Yves Behar's Leaf lamp. What happens in a scientific lab is pretty much what happens in a design consultancy. Scenario planning, war gaming, all gaming is pretty much what design thinking is all about.

But B-Schools do not, by and large, teach how to thrive in a What If world. Design schools, by and large, do just that.

A great, provocative piece. I'm a Wharton professor, and while I love my job and see wonderful things happening at my school, your general critique is spot on. Business schools need to change, and rankings can be a toxic drug.

Two thoughts. Institutions don't change; people do. Where is the network for business school faculty who want to stimulate creativity, without regard to their institutional or disciplinary home? I for one would love to join such a group.

And secondly, if "gaming is pretty much what design thinking is all about," why not take on the rankings as a design challenge? Rankings are just leaderboards, which are game mechanics. You'll beat the current ratings not with better content (like your BusinessWeek list), but by tapping into the psychology of reward-seeking and play.

Kevin Werbach

I like Kevin Werbach's notion that "rankings can be a powerful drug." And while there is a certain amount of hallucination needed for creative thinking, even the most intoxicating elixir becomes poison if you drink it habitually and build your world around it.

As a recent graduate of the IIT Institute of Design, I struggle with the fact that there are no rankings that capture what the school is about (except on Bruce's "would be" list!). But I'm starting to think that this is one of its core strengths -- perhaps ID's relentless and unflinching devotion to experimentation (even at the cost of its own identity every couple of decades) have caused it to outrun the measurements and slip through the rankings everyone uses to quickly understand schools.

Perhaps we need to look at innovating more than *which values* define whether a school's graduates and professors should earn multiples of other hardworking folks. Maybe rankings should be something other than an industry-corrupting, price-inflating drug that gives favored students overblown expectations and makes everyone else losers. They could, for example, just help kids find and follow their passions.
Daniel Erwin

The money is in the status quo.

why should students eschew jobs in finance with the money and political protection that they are afforded?

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, always highly ranked on the FT's list, is a notable exception. The design & innovation course has been going on for the better part of a decade -- originated by Prof. Karl Ulrich, now Vice Dean of Innovation.

I was a little surprised that Bruce N. didn't know about this program -- but I'm positively stunned that previous commenter Kevin Werbach (from Wharton's Legal Studies department) doesn't know about it either. They're in the same building!

Perhaps this is really an awareness issue rather than an existence issue? (Or, perhaps, the "innovative design" part of business school curricula doesn't appeal to a large enough swath of MBA applicants -- the FT survey's core customer group -- even though it's pivotal to design and innovation specialists?)
David Croson

David, I know about Karl Ulrich's design courses, and the fantastic experiments he's now seeding as Vice Dean for Innovation. I'm working with him on a few projects.

As I said, there are some wonderful things happening at Wharton. We need to keep pushing to do more. And there should be networks that transcend institutional boundaries. In the networked world, no one school -- even a large and highly-regard one like Wharton -- has all the necessary pieces. We can all learn from each other. If you read my earlier comment, that was my point.
Kevin Werbach

Great piece thanks Bruce. What is really coming through here is that (as ever) this is about people and networks not places and brands and rankings. I am not sure that design schools are inherently more creative (indeed in the way they manage themselves often spectacularly un-so), but they have been blessedly free of one thing - lots of money. They have not become (so) hidebound by the counter-productive mantra of publish or perish or the life-sapping pursuit of big pots of research or industry or funding. And that has left them a little freer to create communities that are more diverse and (quickly) responsive to the world than typically found in universities.

I agree that a core philosophy in design schools is 'what if?'. But there is still a problem with 'why?' (especially at undergrad level). Design schools still all too often treat asking why as a short step before what if - to be hurdled as quickly as possible. In some ways it is understandable - design is all about looking forward not back; about generating lots of ideas and then murdering them quickly to focus in on one. But whereas when I talk to undergrads here in the UK about asking why it's usually a struggle to get them engaged, when I taught a workshop recently in India it was a struggle to get away.

Really I think the exciting prospect ahead for all of us is that as the wider world changes the opportunity to connect D-schools, B-schools and other parts of universities (and beyond) in new ways grows. Perhaps the issues is not so much that D-schools are better at some things than B-schools, but that the structures that keep the people in those places apart need to be broken down.

PS I am intrigued by Meena's tidbit re. John Thackera ... I'll add my wish for a blog post!
Cat Macaulay

Great post! I am currently in the last year of my undergrad for business marketing and feel like the courses are all designed around a structured criteria that doesn't bend to creativity. We are not learning how to think outside of the book and apply knowledge to real world events, which is causing a back log between knowing and doing. Creativity establishes the foundation for the 'doing' mentality.
Thank you for the resources.
Alyssa Vasquez

Allow me to play devil's advocate.

Would you really want parts of your business in charge by someone who has a "Business" degree from an art school?

It's one thing to appreciate the different perspective. But it seems that a pure Designer with deep expertise in the field at hand (Architecture, Sociology, Communications, Advertising, etc.) should be teamed with someone of deep Business expertise.

Would a team of a Wharton MBA and a Parsons MFA make a better team-- from brainstorming through approval on design iterations? Can it really be one person?

Should we practice what we preach? That a business (or a person) should focus on developing their core competencies and work toward stretch goals in these competencies?

The other point is perhaps from the Student's perspective. There is simply more equity in a Harvard/Wharton/Stanford/Insead MBA. Isn't a stream of job offers, or at least an end to the credibility conversation, what you want after plunging yourself into debt and pouring yourself into 2 years of work? I imagine you have a lot of selling to do if you try to point your art school MBA at anything outside of Design.

The Business Schools are perhaps unfairly criticized on the basis of Financial acumen due to the credit crisis. But MBA-seekers are not all interested in Wall Street. Many are in fact interested in Technology. Operations. Entrepreneurship. Innovation. Clean Energy. Consulting. And there are other parts of those universities that offer quality electives in those areas.

Deep experience in these areas are perhaps informed by real life experiences or better yet, an engineering degree. At the end of the day, it's not enough to be interested in those topics, you need some expertise or war story experiences to draw from, that is augmented with the new skills of an MBA.

-Another perspective.


Bruce, thanks for putting this here. Those of us in the trenches certainly recognize the need for more design thinking and innovation in business, as well as more business thinking in design practice, which is something clients are asking for more and more as paradigm shifts in creative services take place almost weekly these days.

Hank, a top innovation consultant i recently heard speak opened with the following: 'Devil's advocate' is perhaps the worst innovation-killing pseudo-constructive role there is, as it gives its user an open license completely disregard any potential in considering new ways of being --the essence of innovation, and serves only to reinforce the status-quo. I don't think anyone's calling for the end of specialization here, just the need to clear the haze that surrounds the imaginary boundaries between good business, good innovation, and good design.

Etymologically, design has its roots in the concept of intention. Doesn't that mean that businesspeople are designers working with different tools? With so many systems in the world that need rethinking, systems that will be built and rebuilt by business, government, and NGOs, don't we all need to have an understanding of each other's worlds?
Barry Deck

Great article, except you neglected to mention one key, crucial, and sorely overlooked topic in MBA programs past and present - Sustainability. I'm about to graduate with an MBA in Sustainable Enterprise, aka the Green MBA (www.greenmba.com) in May. Based at Dominican University of California, it's the first and oldest "Green" MBA in the country, now in its 11th year. There are a few other programs popping up around the country in the last few years or so, though they may focus more on management as opposed to "Enterprise". Some key elements that set The Green MBA from Dominican U apart from the other "green mba" programs out there - one of our focal points is on Systemic Thinking and Tools for problem solving, the other is on Transformation - of the Self, of Business and of the World.
Alejandro Moreno

David Croson,

Hi. Sorry to respond belatedly. Yes, I am aware of the great course on innovation given at Wharton. But it is still one course in a whole curriculum. It doesn't define Wharton. It's a terrific first step on a journey that is taking way too long.


Bruce and others, please allow me to indulge: a lovely case in point, demonstrating the value of truly combining design and business over more traditional MBA programs can be found in Helen Walters' write-up on the recent Rotman Business Design Challenge: http://observersroom.designobserver.com/oblog/entry.html?entry=26018. I was fortunate enough to work alongside some of my bright classmates from OCAD University's MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation program to win this competition for Mayo Clinic's Center for Innovation. Interestingly, three of the four finalists were from design schools, including CCA's Design MBA.
Jen Chow

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