Thursday, 29 April 2010

Question: Is There Actual Value to an MBA?

The title of today’s walk on the random side is of course a rhetorical device.  Obviously, an MBA degree itself does have value.  It is at the same time a credential and the keys to the door behind which the higher steps on the career ladder are hidden.  This door, in my personal experience, is jealously guarded by those who already have the key (i.e., other MBA types) who do not want the barbarians - people with other types of education and skills - past the gates.  It's equally apparent that inside our top biz schools, valuable instructions on hair styling, shoe polishing, and how to insert flashing transitions into impenetrable and opaque PowerPoint slide decks are being provided.
No; the question I ask is, beyond the ipso facto value of putting those three letters on to your curriculum vitae, is the information taught in an MBA school of any actual, demonstrable value?

The question came to mind today as I read through the brilliance on display at the blog for the Harvard Graduate School of Business.

The article, titled “Pharma’s Future Depends on These Three Trends,” was prepared by Sunil Gupta, a chaired professor of “business administration.”  Professor Gupta holds forth over a number of paragraphs over what the pharmaceutical industry needs to do to succeed.  The tone taken implies that the industry itself is in peril, which in at least my opinion, greatly overstates the case.
What earth-shaking trends does the professor identify?  The incursion of generic products, the importance of emerging markets, and the dawn of evidence-based medicine.
Taken as a group, all of these ideas are more or less correct.  The value of such information is, shall we say, dubious.
Whilst all of these "insights" are relevant, and may in fact be helpful to people unfamiliar with the current state of pharma (e.g., MBA students at Harvard), they are all well-known and part of the DD process in the pharma companies I know of.  "Evidence-based medicine" and individualised treatments are not a wave of the future, but in fact are here, now. And have been for some time. The approach is successful, but any company that is not currently operating with this in its workstream is one that is almost sure to fail. Soon.
The branded generics approach is one that has been considered by all of the big, branded pharma companies; some have adopted it (e.g., sanofi-aventis) and some have not. The jury is out as to how well this will play.
Professor Gupta’s points about emerging markets, especially India, are somewhat novel and intriguing.  India as a market presents challenges unique to India. China has its own basket of opportunities and challenges, but I think is a far better bet in the long term.  And there are other emerging markets that may in the short to medium term present even better opportunities.
In short, the challenges facing pharma are not marketing; not in the traditional sense.  Increasing strains on large, frequently government-payors, demands for increasing evidence of value for medicine, and massive demographic shifts are putting pressure on the drug development process that no amount of marketing wizardry is going to solve.  The solutions, such as they are, are going to revolve around development strategies, reliance on genetic and other bio-markers for identification of targeted patient populations and sub-populations, increased use on economic models to support the clinical process, and creative ways to work with and help payors circumscribe their budgets.  They do not involve clever, short-sentenced, poorly-referenced PowerPoint slide decks.
The bottom line here is that what I see coming out of the mouths (and pens and keyboards) of high-priced MBA graduates is largely bromides, case studies, obvious “solutions,” and generally cliches of marginal utility.  Very, very little creative, innovative, or provocative ideas ever emanate from their well-coiffed heads.  The reason may be that business school ‘classes’ largely consist of case studies, many of which represent mistakes made in the past by businesses.  

These suggestions would be of very high value to, for example Wile E. Coyote, who seems forever doomed to fall into the same traps, Saturday after Saturday.  Perhaps if he got an MBA, he would not use ACME for his instant-hole, explosive, and propulsive needs.  Better yet, he might figure out that the coyote-bird-meal paradigm needs to be re-examined.

But for a business looking for actual, workable change solutions, I am less sure.