The best business schools in the world are now asking MBA students to help solve the globe’s most complex issues or work within tech communities.
Sam Stevens went on a tour of the highest-ranked business schools in the United States before enrolling in the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “I wanted an academic experience, rather than vocational training,” says Melbourne-raised Stevens, now an investment banker in London, of his choice to bunker down for two years of intensive study with a faculty that’s produced nine Nobel Laureates.
This style of two-year, on-campus MBA has always been the gold standard for a career in business, hailed by captains of industry. But times are changing. To stay relevant, purveyors of business education are constantly renewing and refreshing – developing entrepreneurial spirit steeped in technological know-how as well as championing diversity, big-picture thinking and a social conscience. Learning is moving outside the classroom, connecting theory with practice inside companies around the globe.
At the same time, faculties such as The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business are redefining their offerings in terms of a lifetime relationship – or subscription model – that gives alumni ongoing access to executive education programs.
Behind these innovations is a new understandings about the way we learn and the realities confronting today’s business leaders in this age of automation and digital disruption. A two-year classroom-based degree may not maintain its significance in a world clouded
in ambiguity and uncertainty.
“In a technology-driven globalised world there has never been more need for people who can sit on top of that complexity and understand the big-picture strategy,” says Patrick Butler, director of MBA programs at Monash Business School in Melbourne. “The MBA is now about understanding changes in the economy and developing relevant business models.”
Andrew Crisp, founder of London-based education marketing consultancy CarringtonCrisp, says there are worrying signs for business schools that don’t confront the new reality. According to the company’s research, MBA applications are down internationally and two-year programs are in decline as students and businesses count the opportunity-cost of time out of the action.
Each year CarringtonCrisp publishes a report on trends emerging in the MBA market. Crisp says there is a shift towards personalisation of offerings – smart schools will work closely with individual students to design programs that drive the pupil’s career ambitions in a certain direction, “an experience that may look nothing like a traditional MBA”.
A central pillar of most – but not all – of the leading MBAs is the inclusion of real-life experience as part of the learning process.
“Nearly all business schools will talk about the experiential component of their offering these days,” says Crisp. “Whether it’s a work placement, an internship or virtual reality, it will include practical experience.”
One school pioneering fresh models of experiential learning is Cornell Tech, a new campus in Manhattan attached to Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. Cornell Tech offers a one-year program in which students work with computer scientists, lawyers, engineers and thought leaders from New York City’s technology and startup communities. One student team worked on how to use virtual reality to improve quality of life for people with cancer. “It’s done away with the basic case-study method that was pioneered by Harvard more than a century ago,” says Seb Murray, a business journalist who writes for the Financial Times and Forbes. “It focuses on experiential learning where multi-disciplinary teams actually build products, replicating what people want to do when they graduate.”
Murray also points to the MIT Sloan School of Management, which has implemented “action learning” – or learning by doing. Sloan students have worked with traffic management company SpliceGroup on using its database of traffic usage in 10 Brazilian cities to improve urban mobility while monetising related products for the private sector. Another team worked with BMW to answer two questions: what makes an outstanding luxury-car-buying experience? And how can employee training help achieve this?
The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business is also fusing management education with hands-on learning. Ross is among a number of business schools that take a global approach by embedding student teams inside companies and organisations to solve pressing corporate challenges through its signature Multidisciplinary Action Projects program.
In the past academic year, its MBA students have worked on 148 projects for 129 organisations in 28 countries, including developing and implementing Oracle’s first customer experience chatbot and developing a business model for the not-for-profit Ihangane Project in Rwanda to grow ready-to-use food to help treat severe malnutrition. “We believe that by creating action-based learning opportunities we will best engage and prepare students for the ever-changing world they’re going into,” says the school’s dean, Scott DeRue.
Claire Macken, a director with the education team at KPMG in Melbourne, is an expert in the future of learning, having previously worked for Apple in its higher education unit and as a university manager and professor. Macken, who holds bachelor degrees in law and arts, a graduate certificate and a PhD, says she was motivated to undertake an MBA because she needed to learn the rules of engagement of a corporate environment after spending years in academia.
She chose to do her MBA with small Australian outfit Ducere. Its online degree includes significant practical experience with industry partners, allowing Macken to work on real-life challenges for NAB and KPMG. “I’m a believer in using real-world problems for learning,” she says. “The only way to really learn effectively is by doing.”
A new generation of MBA graduates is eager to use its newly acquired business nous for the greater good.
“A consistent theme we see in our students is that they are looking for more than a salary bump or promotion,” says Brandon Kirby, director of MBA marketing and admissions at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands. “They really want to make a difference.”
The school’s mission statement states that it will be a “force for positive change in the world” and Kirby says the approach not only infiltrates the curriculum, with electives such as sustainable finance, but its admissions philosophy as well. He says each MBA class is made up of about 97 per cent international students, “making it one of the most diverse MBA classrooms in the world”.
Interestingly, more than 75 per cent of graduates remain in Europe for their first post-MBA job and many go into areas of sustainability or corporate
Social responsibility is also the driving ambition behind the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Each year, it nominates a complex world problem – this year it’s the future of energy – then tutors from across the university develop and curate course materials for business students in the Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford course. Previous topics include ageing and demography, big data and water management.
“We believe that teaching business and only business to students leaves them short-changed in terms of both content and values,” says the school’s dean, Peter Tufano.
Over the past five to eight years there’s been a spike in the number of MBA students looking to start their own venture or champion ideas in workplaces, says Dr Nicole Hartley, MBA director at the University of Queensland Business School (UQ). “Entrepreneurship is everywhere – as reflected in the growing gig economy where people are recognising the value of their individual skills and capabilities.”
Traditionally, MBA students have been described as “respect seekers”, motivated by wealth and professional achievements, but Hartley argues that about two-thirds of UQ’s current MBA students are what she describes as “impactful innovators”. “These people are looking for new ways of having a greater social influence.”
Another school making waves is the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle. Education consultant Andrew Crisp says that in just a few years it has gone from second-tier to first-rate. Business school information website Poets & Quants says the “lucky ingredient at Foster is Seattle itself” – the home of corporate goliaths Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft and Boeing.
“From day one, Foster MBA students tackle complex and ambiguous challenges that prepare them for long-term success in a disruptive global business environment,” says Naomi Sanchez, Foster’s assistant dean of MBA career management, who points out that some 60 per cent of the school’s MBA graduates get a placement in tech. The opportunity might include helping Amazon embed its sustainability credentials on its Business platform. Others might choose the Board Fellows Program, which places students as non-voting board members in local not-for-profits.
Monash’s Patrick Butler says that the MBA of old was about teaching analytical skills but the MBA of tomorrow will be about teaching the skills of synthesis and “making sense of all the disparate parts”. There has, he says, “never been a greater need for people who can connect the dots”.