Pathways to Transformation: Reimagining Business Education for the Modern World
Business schools are facing a rapidly changing environment that requires new ways of thinking and new approaches to delivering programming. While business education was once defined by fixed degree offerings—with the MBA at the pinnacle—many leaders are now forced to develop new program types to meet the shifting demands of modern learners. In this interview, Michael Wiemer reflects on how the business education landscape is evolving and shares his thoughts on how business schools can adapt to keep pace and get ahead.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for business schools to be nimble and responsive in the modern era?
Michael Wiemer (MW): These are momentous and exciting times for business education! The current operating landscape faced by many business schools globally is one defined by an increasingly dynamic range of opportunity, uncertainty and risk. One of the challenges for higher education in the current era is the strategic need to adapt to an external environment that is changing much more rapidly and unpredictably than that of the higher education sector itself. For years, industry and hiring firms have adapted to a variety of forces related to globalization, technological advances, disruptive competition and politically linked trade disturbances. It is no secret that, historically, higher education tends to change at a comparatively gradual pace, and in ways that are not always correlated to current or near-term market signals. At the same time, there are trends impacting higher education (including those noted above) that are prompting significant, permanent change. Business schools around the world are facing a continued decrease in funding, shifting demographic market changes, competitive threats from nontraditional education providers, and a range of technology-enabled disruptions and disruptors.
Given the dynamically changing world around us, it is imperative for business schools to evaluate traditional models and processes that intentionally or inadvertently support operating in academic isolation. AACSB International (AACSB) has created a vision for a future where business schools are drivers of change; where they lead the narrative about the role of business education and business in society; and where they address global demand to be more inventive and impactful for our increasingly diverse world. This means business schools must actively explore and embrace collaborative connections with industry and practice, other disciplines, society and the broader external operating environment.
Ultimately, strategic engagement with industry, the academy, and a wider set of public and private-sector interests will inform the currency of curriculum and the effectiveness of evolving pedagogical models; will help to decrease the operating pace differential between practice and academe; and will provide our graduates with the skills, knowledge and competencies needed to be effective leaders in the modern context.
Evo: What are the most common roadblocks for business school leaders when it comes to establishing a nimble environment?
MW: One of the more enduring aspects of higher education involves our cherished traditions and affinity to our institutions of higher learning. These meaningful qualities—including organizational history, tradition and structure, stakeholder priorities—can present challenges for the modern business education leader who envisions establishing a more nimble and agile educational enterprise.
Often we see business school leaders not fully recognizing or understanding their institution’s raison d’etre. Specifically, not creating an accurate, cohesive and truly unique institutional mission for the school. This process requires an understanding of the business school as an effective and competitive business enterprise, one that is necessarily imbued with those enduring and at times complicated historical aspects that make up our institutions of higher learning. The modern business education leader needs to thoughtfully balance and incorporate aspects of the school’s history and traditions, faculty, curriculum, students, external constituents and aspirations when envisioning or evolving to a truly unique mission that will ultimately support clear strategy and a more nimble and agile enterprise.
Another common challenge to developing a nimble organization is the temptation to be everything to everyone. AACSB embraces a mission-driven approach to accreditation because we understand that an unclear, unfocused or misaligned mission can unintentionally dilute the strategic effectiveness and positive impact of a school’s activities and market position. For example, a small regional institution with limited resources will often attempt to compete head-to-head with a larger, well-endowed global institution by developing and offering comparable degree offerings. The effective alternative, especially in highly competitive markets, is to focus strategically on programs and initiatives that align with the school’s individual mission, constituents, resources and market position.
An inherent challenge for many leaders is summoning sufficient internal and external support to make potentially difficult yet strategically imperative decisions (e.g., what to stop doing) in order to invest valuable human and financial capital in the most strategically relevant, high-impact, high-demand opportunities. When closely aligned with an accurate mission, the outcomes of such processes and decisions can provide the school with greater strategic latitude and market agility, and will help to ensure the long-term health and success of the enterprise.
How can business schools navigate and address such an array of resistance to change? For many, the first step is to look beyond the institution and connect with peers that face similar challenges. The collective wisdom of networks, ecosystems and communities can reveal solutions to help facilitate change and align the school’s mission and processes to the specific needs of learners, employers and the communities they serve. AACSB’s Business Education Alliance (BEA) is a network that engages more than 1,700 member intuitions representing 40,000 thought leaders, educators and innovators in 102 countries and territories. These business educators, business, nonprofit and public-sector organizations are dedicated to sharing knowledge and best practices that accelerate innovation in business education.
Evo: How can new credential offerings, like stackable certificates and microcredentials, help business schools succeed in the modern market?
MW: The emergence of educational offerings such as badges, stackable certificates and other microcredentials is a direct reflection of current demand, and where the business education market is heading over the long-term. One indication of this trend might be seen in the decreasing demand for the two-year, full-time MBA degree format. This specific trend is not to suggest that the popularity for business education is waning. Far from it! According to AACSB’s Business Education Intelligence (BEI) unit, enrollment in general business master’s degree programs, such as the MBA, represent less than 14% of total student enrollment globally. Further, enrollment growth for master’s and undergraduate level business degree programs during the five years from 2013-14 to 2018-19 is 14.7% and 12.9% respectively.
Within this demand growth, we see shifting market preferences for a broader range of learning formats, with decreasing preference for degree formats that require longer and less flexible cycle times. These market shifts are prompting business schools around the world to diversify traditional program portfolios with shorter, condensed and highly relevant offerings in an increasing variety of flexible, convenient online and blended formats. For example, AACSB’s BEI unit reports that enrollment growth in specialized master’s degrees has increased 26% during the same time frame.
One of the clearest long-term opportunities for most business schools is to develop strategies and approaches that support lifelong learning. AACSB’s Collective Vision for Business Education recommends that business schools position themselves in ways that support professionals throughout their entire career life cycle. Shifts in market demand for how business education is delivered is driving business education to innovate and to “unpack” traditional full-time degree programs. This suggests that, in addition to traditional degree offerings, business schools increasingly provide shorter, flexible, modularized, and just-in-time educational experiences that support professionals throughout all stages of their careers.
Evo: What else can business school leaders do to help overcome the obstacles you’ve outlined?
MW: AACSB’s vision is to transform business education for global prosperity, which underscores our belief that business is a force for good. Business education has a key role to play in addressing society’s most pressing and complex challenges. Increasingly business schools around the world are connecting institutional missions and strategies to broader social needs, opportunities and interests. These linkages and mission-aligned activities not only amplify the positive impact of the business school itself, but also help to mollify resistance to change by creating a more nimble and agile enterprise. They also contribute to global measures of well being, demonstrating that the benefits of business can extend to all members of the global population.
Several inspiring examples include:
- The Embedding Project at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Canada is a collaboration between leading global researchers in the area of sustainability and a set of leading global firms doing pioneering work on embedded sustainability.
- Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM) in France recently announced a strategic shift to become “a school for business and society.” Recent initiatives by the school include a program focused on supporting local immigrants and refugees, and a policy aimed at turning GEM into a zero-waste organization.
- The PUC Chile School of Business launched targeted training classes that offer a platform for alumni and faculty to provide strategic guidance, mentoring and business insight to help upscale Chilean small and medium-sized enterprises, which account for approximately 60 percent of total employment in Chile.
The multidisciplinary nature of our complex, grand challenges—for example, poverty, hunger, climate change and the environment and gender equality—suggest that business schools continue to provide students with an increasingly diverse set of cross-disciplinary learning and leadership development experiences. Engagement with STEM oriented disciplines such as engineering and computer science, as well as fields such as medicine, law and those aligned with the arts will give graduates the knowledge, skills and abilities required to lead meaningful change in a complex and interconnected world. One recent example includes Rowan University’s Rohrer College of Business “Studio 231” which is a learning laboratory that connects students and faculty from disciplines across campus to work on early-stage research and commercialization projects.
Evo: What advice would you share with business school leaders trying to evolve in a higher education industry that’s often resistant to change?
MW: Business school leaders should engage deeply with industry and practice, and collaborate across campus, with other colleges, with nontraditional business disciplines, and with an increasingly diverse set of mission-aligned partners and collaborators in the co-creation of knowledge. Creating a culture of engagement can inform process and strategy, and act as an antidote to complacency, resistance and the unintended outcomes of siloed thinking.
One way to support and achieve these changes is to participate in AACSB’s global Business Education Alliance (BEA) network. Members of the BEA receive exposure to best practices from leading business schools, current and emerging industry trends; access to a broad range of market intelligence and strategic decision-making data; platforms for collaboration and partnering with schools around the world; learning and development opportunities for business education professionals; and the ability for schools to project their brand by highlighting key innovations, developments and successes, among other opportunities.
As a complement, many schools create multi-layered strategies that incorporate local, regional and specialized networks such as the Southern Business Administration Association in the U.S., the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans, the Latin American Council of Management Schools-CLADEA, the Association of Asia-Pacific Business Schools, the Association of African Business Schools, the Central and East European Management Development Association and the Global Network for Advanced Management. There is also the exciting work of the Responsible Research in Business & Management network and its Vision 2030, which encourages business scholarship to be central to solving society’s major challenges, such as those outlined in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. Depending on their location, market orientation, mission and strategic objectives, business schools have much to gain through strategic network engagement given today’s rapidly changing global environment.
Established in 1916, AACSB International (AACSB) is the world’s largest business education alliance, connecting educators, learners, and business to create the next generation of great leaders. With a presence in more than 100 countries and territories, AACSB fosters engagement, accelerates innovation, and amplifies impact in business education. Learn how AACSB is transforming business education for a better society at aacsb.edu.
Author Perspective: Association