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Willing to Fail: Evolving Graduate Business Education to Keep Pace with Market Needs

The EvoLLLution | Willing to Fail: Evolving Graduate Business Education to Keep Pace with Market Needs
Business as usual is no longer acceptable for business schools; innovation in program design, program structure and credentialing is necessary to stay relevant to learners and employers.

Those of us who lead business schools have known for a while that graduate business education is changing dramatically. Most MBAs, including ours, have lost enrollment over several years. The response to this disruption has been basically the same. Schools have added an online MBA, shuttered the full-time MBA, reduced expectations for enrollment numbers, went deeper into the applicant pool, waived the GMAT and added specialized masters programs, to name just a few. Some schools have even moved into other geographies. The San Francisco Bay area, for example, has at least 29 distinct face-to-face MBA programs from 15 different business schools, and at least four of these programs are offered by out-of-state business schools.

These types of responses, however, are primarily internally driven. While this may have served us well in the past, it is becoming clear that since external forces are driving the dramatic changes, all responses need to be externally focused. It was once acceptable for business schools to have virtually the same curriculum for years before changing offerings. Market research involved benchmarking what other business schools were doing, but that only reinforces the status quo.

At the Leavey School of Business we now know that being internally focused will not keep us competitive, nor is there any one area that needs to be fixed. Instead we have to do many things differently. We are doubling down on our location, Silicon Valley, and the fact that we are a Jesuit University with strong principles underpinning our curriculum. We have added industry-specific boards for almost all of our masters programs, including our MBA, and leveraged their expertise to keep our curriculum and courses current. If we do not currently have a full-time faculty member to teach a specific offering, we hire a Silicon Valley executive to teach until a faculty member is available. Like other institutions, we have started new specialized masters degrees but we have also shut down degrees that were no longer viable in our location. For example, we did not see adequate demand for our MS in Entrepreneurship nor our MS in Supply Chain, even though our faculty and our internal processes believed demand existed. As a result the MS in Entrepreneurship was given a five-year run and then closed, and the MS in Supply Chain was given three years and is on hiatus.

When we evaluate our current programs and contemplate adding new ones, we employ the Silicon Valley mantra of fail fast.

Before starting new programs, we consult with C-Suite executives from the tech industry. For example, we canvassed Silicon Valley executives—friends of the Leavey School—and asked them, “What skills and values do MBAs need for career success?” We distilled their answers into the skills and values that anchor the program. For every course in our new online MBA, faculty identified the skills and values students learn and practice most in that class. This information resulted in the creation of the Silicon Valley Professional Dashboard (SVP Dashboard). The SVP Dashboard enables students to see their progress on those skills and values and to customize their program. It also lets them see what skills and values each elective emphasizes and choose electives that would benefit them the most.

Our Executive MBA redesign used a similar process. We needed to make it more market driven and market validated, so our students are prepared for innovative and impactful leadership in Silicon Valley. We were able to do this by conducting comprehensive market research including analyzing secondary data, interviewing C-suite members, executive recruiters and coaches, and hiring managers and business leaders. We used the data to design a competency-based model—including strategic leadership, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, cross functional execution and analytical decision making—to shape the curriculum. This curriculum was further tested by focus groups of stellar EMBA alumni as well as the Leavey School advisory board. We almost doubled our incoming class this year with our new roll out.

A third example is the creation of our new online marketing degree, MarTech (Marketing Technology). This is our first program that does not have a face-to-face equivalent. The program explores all aspects of MarTech, from analytics and customer behavior tracking to social media integration and digital content strategy. In relying on our Jesuit identity, and with the help from Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, we developed thought-provoking discussions of data collection, customer privacy and other hot-button marketing issues with global impact today.

We are also exploring microcredentials, partnering with popular author Pat Lencioni and The Table Group to offer our first digital badge in organizational health. If this is successful, we will roll out other similar badges that meet our criteria.

Everything we do now focuses on the overall learner experience, including innovative professional advancement, coaching, personal reflection and better use of our alumni network.

Graduate business education will continue to face a competitive, disruptive world. Our goal is to stay ahead of the changes by continuously scanning the business environment, being agile, and being willing to fail and willing to change.

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