Will purpose replace strategy in the future MBA?

Everyone is talking about purpose – but why is it so important? And why are schools now crafting MBA programs and courses dedicated to the topic? MBAGRADSCHOOLS spoke to Dr. Elco van Burg, Professor of Organizational Theory at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, about the school’s new “Organizing with purpose” course and why purpose should play a bigger role in MBA programs at large.

In short

Vrije Universiteit MBA – Organize with purpose

The importance of purpose

Everyone is talking about purpose – but why does it actually matter, especially at work?

“We know from research that organizing around shared purpose is important for employee satisfaction and commitment,” Elco explains. “We also see that individuals early in their careers are driven by a broad purpose, like serving society at large. But once you start working for an organization, it’s harder to focus on such a purpose.” (0:10)

Several studies have demonstrated the major role purpose plays for employees. Research from McKinsey found that 80% of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work

For young professionals, as Elco pointed out, purpose is paramount. Dubbed “The Purpose Generation” by organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry, 63% of millennials said the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” instead of “generating profit.”

Elco confirms, “The desire to work for an organization with a broader purpose or even to reshape an organization around such a purpose is still often very much alive. Yet, the question really is, how do you do that?’” (0:33)

Rethinking purpose

While strategy is at the core of most MBA programs, Elco tells us Vrije Universiteit also incorporates the novel subject of purpose into its curriculum.

Navigating purpose in any organization is hard. Elco uses multi-national organizations Shell and Danone as examples, both of which are on a journey to find a purpose beyond profit. But, Elco emphasizes the importance of rethinking purpose on an organizational level as well as on a manager level, in order to make purpose transformative for your organization.

In their MBA course, “Organizing with purpose,” students learn different methods and frameworks to gain a better understanding of the role of purpose in organizations and to drive positive change in their work.

About VU’s MBA course: “Organizing with purpose”

“[From] a theoretical angle, as well as practically, you will learn methods [on] how to reshape organizations around a shared purpose,” Elco tells us. “We will study cases of large organizations like Shell and Danone, which struggled with reconciling different purposes and transitioning towards a business model centered on purpose. You will learn about different organizational models that fuel such transitions.” (0:54)

On a practical level, students will “learn to analyze different organizational values and how to apply that analysis to your own setting,” asking questions like, “Does a healthy bottom line have to conflict with having a positive impact?” (01:21)

At the end of the program, students will reflect on their findings and apply them to their organization. “This makes the findings of your MBA immediately applicable,” Elco says. (01:38)

Putting purpose at the center of VU’s MBA curriculum allows its students, who are mainly mid- to senior-level managers, to have a more holistic learning experience and develop the skills and tools they need to lead with purpose post-MBA.

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