MBAs Learn On The Job

MBAT - Learning on the Job

Everyone knows that a top-flight MBA equips you with the tools to join the business elite, setting up and running your own company, or taking your place around the boardroom or partnership table. But how useful is it in training you how to handle the more mundane—if essential—projects that actually make an organization run and generate the cash that keeps it going?

Doubts about its capacity to do this are quite neatly summed up in the old Fedex ad that pokes fun at the overconfident business school graduate on his first day on a new job. When his supervisor asks him to help get a shipment out to a customer, the alumnus smugly tells her that he has an MBA, hinting that such a task is well below his status. The supervisor nods sagely, then observes that, if that’s the case, she’d better show him how to do it. Cue uproarious laughter on business school campuses around the globe.

If FedEx’s advertising agency is right, MBAs may not just be responsible for jeopardizing the whole of the world economy; they also can’t be trusted with the simplest of operational challenges. At the HEC Paris school in France, however, a determined group of students is trying to prove them wrong.

Despite the demands of a program that often finds participants working well into the night and wondering what happened to the idea of weekends, nearly two-thirds of the cohort find time to organize the MBA Tournament (MBAT) each year in May.

Known as the business school equivalent of the Olympics, the MBAT is the largest annual gathering of MBA students and alumni in Europe, an event that includes three days of competition in more than 20 fields, ranging from tennis and tug-of-war to soccer and salsa dancing. This year the logistical challenge was to welcome more than 1,200 representatives from 14 top schools and gather them together on the HEC Paris campus for a packed schedule of sports and festivity.

But unless the event organizers are hoping to land a job at the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, why put them through this demanding project? For Bernard Garrette, associate dean of the HEC Paris MBA, the event is all about learning on the job. “The MBAT aims to develop the skills that are essential to succeed in business: teamwork and leadership. Planning for the event started nine months ago, and the students have had to tackle all aspects of project management, including corporate sponsorship and customer service.”

For the co-presidents of the organizing comittee, Arjun Kiswani and Alex Boulenger, the experience has brought home the importance of effective people management. The challenge, they say, is to keep students focused and motivated when other commitments are pressing. Boulenger says that despite the ups and downs, they really learned to think on their feet. “There is a great sense of collective achievement,” he says.

Of course a business school event wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t the traditional dose of networking, and the MBAT is no different. The organizers have used social media to share news, videos, and content, the idea being to involve a wider audience of fellow students back home who can follow their classmate’s sporting results in real time. The organizers have also partnered with Bizzabo, an Israeli startup, to produce a mobile networking app for the iPhone and Android so that participants can search for interesting contacts from other schools while cheering from the sidelines or socializing at the Bollywood party.

Although a number of business schools already boast alumni with Olympic medals in skating, gymnastics, and fencing, perhaps the next generation will prove to the world that they know how to help run the Games. Filling out a FedEx shipping form is another matter.

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