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Can On-the-Job Training Make Up for the Failures of Business Education?

— by Jessica Stillman

Business goalsTraining

Sensibly enough, companies hire students with business degrees because they expect them to have learned the fundamental skills needed to succeed in corporate life in college — but do they? Not if a recent anti-business school feeding frenzy in the media can be believed.  The New York Times ran a lengthy piece, for instance, outlining all the evidence that business majors learn very little while at school:

Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than students in every other major.

And the Times isn’t the only nationally respected publication knocking business education. The Atlantic got into the same game back in 2006 with an article proclaiming the majority of business studies, well, fluff. The author, Matthew Stewart, tells how he ended up working as a management consultant following, of all things, a PhD in philosophy. His verdict:

The impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration.

If you’re the type to argue that the actual content of the college course is fairly irrelevant as long as the long-term pay off is good, there is also bad news for you. PayScale has looked into the future earnings of various college degrees and business didn’t even make the top ten. If you want to earn big bucks, it’s a better bet polishing up your math in the likes of aerospace engineering or economics.

So if these reports are true and business majors – who make up 20 percent of undergraduates – really are skating by and learning very little, what happens to them when they arrive in the workforce? Drown in data, argues Bill Jensen, CEO of The Jensen Group, whose research has found that while the average worker gets 325 pages worth of information every day, they only need about five pages to do their job. Without critical thinking skills that’s a problem, according to Jensen:

How do they know how to scan all that fast? How do they know how to synthesize it into manageable groupings? How do they know how to compare, contrast and prioritize all that?

The scientific rigor of the exact ratio of signal to noise could be debated, but Jensen makes a solid point. In an information rich, idea-poor environment like the modern office, the critical thinking capacity to vet information and place it in context is key.

Businesses suffer if employees aren’t equipped with reasoning skills, but can they make up for the failures of business education with on-the-job training? HR pros participating in a Pearson 2009 webcast on increasing critical thinking in the workplace had doubts – 85 percent said they were not comfortable training critical thinking.

What do you think, are business programs failing to teach reasoning and critical thinking? And are company training departments going to have to pick up the slack?

(Image courtesy of Flickr user MC Quinn, CC 2.0)

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