Attributes of Excellence

Business schools must demonstrate continuous improvement and an array of quality attributes if they want to support their missions and pursue accreditation.
Attributes of Excellence

Business schools around the world seek international recognition and status as they operate in an increasingly global market. In this competitive environment, it’s essential that they demonstrate high quality. Accreditation from a recognized international organization is one hallmark of quality, but accreditation should not be the ultimate goal of any educational institution. Instead, schools should aspire to be well-managed, continuously innovating organizations that are capable of achieving and maintaining accreditation. When they reach that point, accreditation will become an external recognition of everything they have achieved internally.

Schools need to cultivate certain attributes and achieve certain outcomes as they pursue the excellence that merits international accreditation. This article offers an overview of these characteristics and expectations to give administrators a framework that will help them determine if they’re on the right path.

Three Key Expectations

To be among the best in the world, business schools need to meet expectations on three measures: stability, collegiality, and a strategic mindset.

Stability. At a stable school, financial, human, and physical resources are in good shape and likely to remain so. A stable environment provides a foundation for creativity, innovation, and new programming. By contrast, a school with an unstable environment might be underfunded, understaffed, and operating in facilities that are too small or too old to meet its needs. In such an environment, the school is unlikely to achieve its mission, pursue new endeavors, work at continuous improvement, or maintain high quality.

Collegiality. A collegial institution fosters significant engagement among students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community. It is stable and well-staffed, and it enjoys a well-developed infrastructure. A collegial organization doesn’t just deploy enough resources to support its mission; it creates an environment that is positive and collaborative. Its administrators and faculty share responsibility and accountability as they establish strategic directions and action plans, and they take corrective action if the school isn’t demonstrating progress toward achieving its mission.

Strategic Mindset. When a school has a clear-cut strategy, external stakeholders—particularly prospective students, faculty, and employers—can determine if its goals and missions align with their own.

A school with a strategic mindset is able to articulate its mission publicly, implement systems to monitor its progress toward that mission, periodically review and update the mission, and pursue continuous improvement. When the school initially develops its mission, it should gather input from key stakeholders, including administrative leaders, faculty, students, employers, recruiters, and alumni. Any time it updates the mission, it should seek input from all these groups as well—an action that serves to underscore the school’s collegial nature.

A school with a strategic mindset realizes that its students must develop such a mindset as well. Graduates should be able to look beyond their functional expertise to think critically about business systems and how they impact society. While these graduates will use their technical skills to launch their careers, they will rely on their strategic abilities to map out long-term career plans and see beyond their own jobs as they consider the role of business in society. A business school with a strategic mindset will position its graduates for life, not just for work.

Key Attributes

Business schools will find it difficult to achieve accreditation without passionate leaders, strong institutional support, excellent organization, and precise processes to ensure accountability.

Leadership. The importance of committed leaders can hardly be overstated. An effective leadership team not only will assist in formulating the business school’s mission and strategy, it also will rally all stakeholders to participate in carrying out the strategic management plan. To external constituencies, the dean is usually the face of the school; to internal ones, the dean is often the driver who moves plans forward. A dean must earn the confidence of all stakeholders, marshal collaborative support, direct improvements, accept accountability for successful outcomes, and work smoothly with other leaders in the school.

Institutional support. When business schools are academic units within larger universities, it’s essential that they develop excellent relationships with the leaders of the parent institution. Schools require unflagging support from their universities if they’re going to achieve their missions, deliver superb academic programs, enable scholarly research, and align themselves with best practices in management education.

The university’s support is even more important when a school is seeking accreditation, because the accreditation process sometimes requires schools to realign their priorities in terms of faculty deployment, development, and sufficiency.

Organization. High-quality schools must be well-run. No one organizational structure is definitively better than another, but at a highly effective business school, the leaders will know how to organize and deploy resources, assign responsibilities, assess outcomes, create clear lines of accountability and take corrective action when necessary.

“Schools must be able to show stakeholders how they’re turning out graduates who will be responsible leaders.”

Processes for accountability. Accountability has never been more important in the higher education community. Stakeholders at all levels—from students to donors to governing bodies—are demanding that schools be open and transparent about how they’re using tuition, gifts, and public funds. Fundamentally, accountability is the driver of continuous improvement. Therefore, it’s crucial that schools be able to show stakeholders how their programs have been successful in turning out graduates who will be responsible citizens and business leaders.

Accountability begins with the school’s mission statement and strategic management plan. Schools must be able to demonstrate how student outcomes support the mission, how faculty teaching and research are consistent with their mission and programs, and how they assess and develop faculty. But the ultimate measure of accountability is a school’s assurance of learning initiative, which must demonstrate that students are achieving the learning goals set out for each degree program.

Essential Outcomes

Schools that aspire to accreditation must achieve a number of multidimensional, qualitative outcomes. More precisely, they must promote engagement among stakeholders, deliver high-quality programs, encourage scholarly research, and design a relevant curriculum.

A high level of engagement. Because a business school needs a strong professional orientation, it must be meaningfully engaged with internal and external stakeholders. Internal stakeholders, such as faculty and students, help the school establish a strategic direction and assess the school’s progress toward its goals. External stakeholders, such as business leaders, employers, and alumni, help schools identify current business challenges and practices that need to be reflected in academic programs.

Schools also need to be engaged within the wider community of management education. They should collaborate with other institutions, encourage faculty and administrators to be active in professional and academic organizations, and otherwise demonstrate a commitment to the field in general.

Excellent teaching and strong student learning. It’s a given that top business schools must provide quality instruction, which isn’t possible without a high level of engagement between faculty and students. Schools seeking accreditation should set expectations for faculty performance, demonstrate classroom innovation, evaluate teaching quality, and use the results of these evaluations to improve the learning experience. They also should create processes that measure student learning outcomes.

High-quality research. Because scholarly inquiry is one of the components that differentiates institutions of higher education from organizations that merely provide training, schools seeking accreditation must have strong records of research. In addition, a business school’s intellectual contributions should advance knowledge in the management field, promote intellectual vibrancy among faculty members, and ensure that the business school is part of the broad community of scholars.

The importance of intellectual contributions should be outlined in the school’s mission. Because business schools show great diversity in the types of research they emphasize, administrators should offer faculty clear guidelines about what they expect. As always, a school should encourage research that suits its mission, program portfolio, and strategic management plan.

A relevant curriculum. In their classes, business schools must find the right balance between practical knowledge gained through experience and theoretical knowledge gained through abstract conceptualization. Within the balanced curriculum, these elements are essential:

A global perspective. Schools can introduce such a perspective by bringing in diverse faculty and students, offering opportunities for students to work and study abroad, and including international examples in the material they teach. They also should ask, “How are we a global organization in our own operations, not just in our curricula?”

Current trends and technology. Schools need to dissect business trends in their classrooms so graduates already understand them when they enter the workforce. Schools also need to familiarize students with current business technology, but they shouldn’t jump on the latest hype unless they can make sound connections between new technology and contemporary business practice.

“A business education should empower students to engage the world’s possibilities; it shouldn’t just prepare them to get jobs.”

Emotional grounding. Business schools need to help students and faculty develop themselves both intellectually and emotionally. A school shouldn’t simply generate new knowledge; it should establish and share its core identity and its ethical compass. Graduates should not only understand the principles that form their educational experiences, but also appreciate how the school’s principles will guide their own professional work and growth.

Emotional grounding unifies a school around a common undertaking. Without a common cause, faculty would simply be an amalgamation of individuals pursuing self-interested goals without considering how they fit the business school overall.

A sense of purpose. Business schools should work closely with students to move their passions into professions. Today’s learners need more than an understanding of the functional disciplines; they need to be deeply connected to the purpose of their work.

A business education should empower students to engage the world’s possibilities; it shouldn’t just prepare them to get jobs. By offering a mix of technical knowledge and emotional motivation, great business schools will teach stu-dents how to dream the impossible in ways that are grounded in the possible.

The Association’s Role

Schools that seek international business accreditation voluntarily commit to meeting the high standards of the accrediting body, and this is a powerful statement to their stakeholders. Accreditation provides an external validation mechanism of high quality and continuous improvement across the attributes outlined above.

AACSB is not the only organization to offer accreditation, and its standards are not the only indicators of quality for business schools. But schools that achieve accreditation have proved that they are committed to the enhancement of management education worldwide. They are making a powerful statement that they believe both businesses and business schools should contribute to the betterment of society.

Jerry Trapnell is executive vice president and Chief Accreditation Officer at AACSB International in Tampa, Florida. W. Randy Boxx is dean and George Edward Durell Chair in management at Shenandoah University’s Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business in Winchester, Virginia.