One Size Does Not Fit All

As AACSB focuses on its priorities for the future, the association’s new board chair considers the challenges and changes that face management education.
One Size Does Not Fit All

At first blush, the school I call home has a lot in common with the school where I recently was dean. The UCLA Anderson School of Management and Penn State’s Smeal College of Business Administration are both research-focused, and they operate within large and complex public universities. They are both chasing after top business research faculty and are increasingly reliant on private sources of funding.

Yet, they are also different on many dimensions. UCLA Anderson focuses exclusively on graduate programs, while Smeal has one of the largest undergraduate enrollments in the world. Their student bodies, alumni, and boards of overseers represent different regional and industry mixes, and their graduates head for different parts of the country to work. While the two schools share many similar attributes, their strategic goals and programmatic niches create distinctions that are unmistakable.

As the scope of management education expands across the globe, we see increasing diversity and fragmentation in the mission, size, geographic reach, programmatic mix, pedagogy, and resource base of business schools. It’s become very hard to talk about management education in general without recognizing the many forms it takes and the many roads schools follow to deliver a high-quality educational product.

Consider these facts. Institutions accredited by AACSB International are now located in 31 countries. They have full-time faculties ranging from nine to 250 and operating budgets that are as low as $1 million and as high as $150 million. Some serve only undergraduates, others offer only graduate programs. Many schools have created narrow niches, while others offer a lengthy menu of program choices. Some have multiple campuses all over the world, others choose to globalize through alliances, and still others bring the world to them. Some offer only on-site degrees, while others are partially or even entirely delivered online.

Acknowledging Diversity

With AACSB’s growth in the U.S. and internationally, we’ve become a much more heterogeneous organization. It’s time we acknowledged the diversity of AACSB members and leveraged these differences as advantages within the business school community. Diversity means that students, faculty, and the companies that hire our graduates have options that enable them to address their goals and special needs. It means that even the smallest schools can compete if they deliver their programs with excellence. It means that educators have the latitude to be inventive and bold in designing learning models, programs, and unique content without having to fit into a single mold.

At AACSB, a number of important initiatives are under way to address head-on how management education providers will differentiate their programs in the future.

Since 1991, AACSB has linked accreditation standards to schools’ distinct missions. AACSB’s thought leadership and advocacy initiatives are designed to address major questions that affect the membership at large, while acknowledging the varying needs of the different types of schools that comprise AACSB.

One of AACSB’s most effective strategies for recognizing differences among members is the Affinity Group program, which enables school administrators with similar interests to band together to share ideas and best practices. The 14 current Affinity Groups address a range of interests, such as the Small Schools Network, Women Administrators in Management Education, the European Affinity Group, the Technology Leaders Affinity Group, and the Metropolitan Business Schools group.

Our challenge is to determine how best to harness the power of the differences among AACSB members, while retaining a common voice that speaks to the value of quality management education worldwide. That challenge will be our preoccupation over the next year.

The Year Ahead

At AACSB, a number of important initiatives are under way to address head-on how management education providers will differentiate their programs in the future:

We’re examining how accreditation, our core product, has evolved during a period in which AACSB has grown dramatically in the number and type of institutions that are members. We’ve formed the Strategic Directions Committee, headed by David Saunders of Queen’s University, to determine how AACSB accreditation processes will adapt to the plurality of school missions around the world. The committee will identify the idiosyncratic challenges schools face when they seek accreditation, and whether AACSB should expand its accreditation labels to address this diversity in missions and outcome measures.

The Impact of Research Task Force, chaired by Joe Alutto of The Ohio State University, just issued its report whose significant recommendations may redefine the way we think about research. Based on a comprehensive analysis of the research output of business schools, the report recommends changes to the way research is defined and measured across different types of schools. While the common goal for member schools is quality research, the form it takes differs across schools with dissimilar missions. The report also suggests improvements in the channels for disseminating research and new ways to enhance collaboration between academic researchers and practicing managers. There’s no doubt that, if the recommendations take hold, there will be modifications in several key accreditation standards that more carefully and directly connect the mission of a business school to the type of quality research that advances its mission.

Another task force has been charged with studying the overall impact of business schools. Management education has positive effects on individuals’ salaries and career mobility—we know that. However, what about the broader effects of management education? As the voice for management education worldwide, AACSB is concerned that the collective impact of business schools has been undervalued.

We see a need to document the impact of business education in its many forms. It might be reflected in the aggregate demand to hire business graduates, or the quality of leadership among business graduates across profit and not-for-profit sectors. It might be visible in the way market practices have changed as a function of business research, or in the correlation between management education and the economic development of nations. But as long as the return on the investment in management education is unclear or unappreciated, business schools will suffer in stature and receive reduced support—from universities, government funding agencies, individual donors, and even the business community.

The task force will draw on available information and gather primary research data to determine the impact of business schools over the last few decades in various parts of the world. These data will provide a starting point for discussion with thought leaders in government and in the business community regarding the societal value of schools of management.

As we plan for our schools’ futures, the question of faculty shortages looms large. AACSB is continuing the Professional Qualifications (PQ) Bridge Program to prepare seasoned executives for faculty roles in business schools. Programs have been offered at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Irvine, and two more are planned for Georgia State University and Babson College. Another new program—the Academic Qualifications (AQ) Bridge Program—will attract Ph.D.s from adjacent fields into a compressed post-doctoral “boot camp” that will transition them from their fields into business. These development programs will add to the supply and diversity of business faculty. These strategies won’t suit every school, but for some they will offer an important solution to their faculty needs.

The Global Outlook

The diversity of management education is also reflected in the fact that most of AACSB’s growth is now coming from schools outside the U.S. We just hosted an AACSB conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the first university on the Chinese mainland to earn business school accreditation by AACSB. I’m sure many will follow.

Globalization is broadening the agenda of the association. It’s clear that AACSB members are engaged in global research, curricula, immersions, student communities, and exchanges among faculty and students. Two initiatives that address globalization will be important for AACSB in the months ahead.

The first initiative, to be launched later this year, will study the meaning of global education in practice. To find out what really works, the new Global Task Force will explore best practices in research and teaching. How can we best train graduates for a role in increasingly integrated economies and prepare them for careers that will span multiple countries and cultures? How can we prompt them to think as global citizens? How can we create faculty research collaborations that span the globe and deal with inherently global topics? Answers to these questions will help us design and implement effective programs for global business education, research, and collaboration.

AACSB also will continue to work with the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) on the Global Foundation for Management Education (GFME). GFME is creating an inventory of management education challenges and capabilities in various regions of the world. The group has reported on major economic and demographic trends that affect demand for management education worldwide, as well as the role for associations such as AACSB and EFMD in addressing these needs.

The Balancing Act

Acknowledging diversity among business schools while retaining the power of a single voice for management education is not without its challenges. Powerful forces—governments, media rankings, and inertia—create intense pressures for schools to converge around similar missions and metrics.

For instance, some governments are imposing common outcome measures on their universities, regardless of the particular mission of the institution. On the surface, this kind of accountability seems reasonable. Yet, institutions serve different purposes and constituencies, and their measures of success should vary accordingly. At AACSB, we expect missions—and, therefore, outcome measures—to differ considerably across schools.

It is incumbent upon AACSB to differentiate between schools that advance quality management education in its many diverse forms and those that do not deliver on their promises.

Similarly, media rankings that purport to hold programs accountable, and reduce quality to a single number, challenge the courage of deans to be different. In contrast, AACSB continues to emphasize to its accreditation teams that standards are not absolute requirements and that numerical guidelines are not mandatory thresholds.

But there is a balancing act between diversity that satisfies a range of student and business needs, and diversity that confuses and undermines perceptions of quality in the marketplace. Diversity does not mean “anything goes.” It is incumbent upon AACSB to differentiate between schools that advance quality management education in its many diverse forms and those that do not deliver on their promises. AACSB has embarked on a global effort to promote the value of AACSB accreditation. In addition, the Strategic Directions Committee has been charged to find ways to more clearly differentiate schools that have achieved accreditation from those that have not.

This is an important period for AACSB. Our task forces are addressing vital issues—some that will shape AACSB as a global, pluralistic organization, and others that will address the role of business schools in economies and societies. The findings of these task forces, while they might have no impact on a dean’s day-to-day activities, will certainly affect the way schools hire faculty, value research, play roles in their communities, and approach globalization. These task forces will prompt each school to discuss its essential mission—a mission that represents a school’s distinct brand of quality management education for its particular markets and its special circumstances. One size does not fit all.

Judy D. Olian is dean and John E. Anderson Chair in Management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management at the University of California in Los Angeles.