Rising prospects

Jeanette Purcell, Chief Executive at Association of MBAs discusses the relevance of business schools in today's climate


In the context of the global recession, with financial markets in meltdown, the question is being asked: “What does this mean for business schools?”,and in particular; “How does the world’s leading business qualification; the MBA need to change in the light of this economic crisis?”

Indeed the best business schools are examining the implications of recent events for business education and are closely reviewing the structure and content of their MBA courses. At the same time, reputable business schools offering accredited MBA programmes rightly point out that there have already been significant changes in the design and delivery of the MBA over recent years. The qualification has retained its relevance, value and continuing appeal precisely because it has adapted and responded to changing business needs and practices.

However, there are some who argue that, in the current climate, a more fundamental review of the MBA is called for if it is to deliver business leaders with the skills, knowledge and capabilities required for the future. Ten years ago the MBA might have been described as a qualification primarily for young high-flying executives working in finance or consulting. Originating in the US, MBA full-time programmes were typically delivered over two years and teaching methods relied heavily on chalk and talk and the case study approach. The focus was on the core functions of business such as finance, economics, accounting, strategy, marketing, operations and quantitative analysis. But this scenario has changed.

Through its research, the Association of MBAs, which accredits 167 leading business schools around the world to offer MBA programmes, has demonstrated the changing nature of the MBA and the increasing diversity of students enrolling for the qualification. The average age of an MBA student is now 33 and these students come to business school with a significant amount of work experience and practical skills. Roughly 70 percent of MBA students are enrolled on part time courses or other ‘flexible learning’ options. Part-time and distance learning courses attract a higher number of women students, a group which business schools have historically found it hard to attract to the MBA. And typically these days the full-time MBA is delivered in one year rather than two.

The curriculum has also changed, with most of today’s courses including topics such as change management, business ethics, sustainability and leadership skills. Learning tends to be in groups with students working on real business projects and, at the same time, discovering the challenges of working in multi-cultural teams. And today’s MBA students are far more diverse, coming from a range of employment sectors and with wider career horizons. Now over 70 percent of MBA graduates are working outside the traditional fields of finance and consulting, and a significant proportion are choosing to work in small businesses.

When we ask students and graduates about their motivation for doing an MBA and what they got out of their investment, most talk first about their self development, new learning and the experience of working with other intelligent, experienced professionals. The impact of the MBA on their career and salary is still a key benefit, but this is no longer the sole motivation or the most valued outcome.

So what next for the MBA? In 2009 the Association of MBAs conducted a global survey of MBA alumni, employers and accredited business schools in a major project to assess the impact of the economic downturn on the MBA. We wanted to identify the skills, competences and knowledge that MBAs need in the context of world economic events in order to be successful future business leaders. The report’s findings confirmed that the MBA already delivers more than just career advancement.

Alumni particularly value the ability they have acquired, through their learning, to understand the complexity of business, to apply strategic thinking and to manage change in organisations. Not surprisingly, given recent events, there was a view amongst those surveyed that the MBA needs to place more emphasis on areas such as sustainability, ethics and risk management. In fact the dominant view expressed by respondents was that the MBA should focus more on stakeholder rather than shareholder value and that the course content should be much broader. There should be more coverage of areas such as entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation as well as the CSR-related subjects.

Demand for the MBA to extend its curriculum and embrace new subjects including more practical as well as theoretical areas, has highlighted the need for a review of the qualifications structure, design and teaching methods. Many business schools would argue that an already crowded, intensive programme cannot grow any more. The answer may be to consider a more integrated and holistic approach to developing business leaders which could represent a more significant shift away from traditional teaching methods. This will be a key discussion item for the Association of MBAs when it reviews its accreditation criteria for MBA programmes this year.

The accreditation criteria set out the standards that are expected from international business schools delivering MBA courses they clearly influence the design and delivery of programmes at the world’s leading business schools. These are challenging but exciting times for the MBA. Our research shows that the qualification has evolved and adapted over time. It is still highly valued by both employers and individuals, preparing them for the rapid pace of change and complexity in business.  Perhaps the next phase of the MBA’s development will involve the most radical changes to its format. So long as the qualification retains its relevance and continues to produce business leaders who are diligent, responsible and successful, that has got to be a good thing.