Big Questions

Business educators will face difficult questions in the coming years about how to strengthen their industry in uncertain times. But there are many promising answers—some presented here—if schools are willing to change.
Big Questions

Today, there are more than 13,700 business schools in the world, about three times the number that existed 25 years ago. But just think of the global developments that have increased the demand for management education so dramatically—the breakup of the Soviet Union, the surge of industry in China, the economic growth in Brazil and India, the increased importance of emerging markets. Our industry has evolved tremendously to produce graduates whose expertise and entrepreneurial spirit are essential to fueling global economic growth.

Still, growth alone won’t enable business schools to meet the needs of business in such an increasingly complex political, technological, and culturally rich global landscape. It’s not enough for business schools to produce the volume of students the world needs. They also must provide the right kind of high-quality graduates their markets demand, regardless of their missions, size, budgets, or geographical locations. Whether earned from an internationally ranked school, a small regional program, or brand-new school in an emerging economy, a business degree must remain a hallmark of a strong and skillful leader.

That objective, however, has become even more difficult to achieve in 2011 than it was in 2001. Business schools today are being asked to expand and reinvent their programs when so many have seen their funding decrease. They must teach an ever-expanding range of skills when students are demanding shorter and more convenient formats for program delivery. And they must find academically qualified faculty when those faculty are scarce.

That leaves the industry asking the obvious question: How? Business educators face not only big questions, but also big opportunities. They can adopt innovative approaches to teaching and faculty development and join forces in ways that many schools never have before. It is my belief that by sparking dialogue, trading ideas, and embracing educational innovations, business schools can advance management education as far in the next decade as they have in the last.

Question:  How Do We Find Excellent Faculty?

Business schools have been dealing with the doctoral shortage for many years—and the shortage is likely to worsen. Conventionally structured doctoral programs, our primary source of academically qualified (AQ) faculty, represent a long-held tradition and have offered incredible experiences for academics for many years. Unfortunately, these programs can be lengthy—students take seven years, on average, to complete their doctoral degrees. That rate of production is insufficient to produce enough graduates to meet demand.

When we take into account the growth in business school formation in developing nations, the shortage is of even greater concern. The size of existing doctoral programs is so small, and the time it takes to complete a PhD so great, the industry cannot produce enough doctorally qualified faculty to serve the needs of schools in the developed world, let alone those in emerging markets.

Moreover, the scarcity of AQ faculty allows them to command salaries that can strain the budgets of even the richest institutions. It’s not unusual for an accounting professor teaching two courses in a nine-month academic year to earn the equivalent of US$175,000. Not surprisingly, that puts AQ faculty effectively out of reach for less prosperous schools.

The call for schools to create more doctoral programs with larger cohorts has gone largely unheeded. Many schools are understandably hesitant to begin new doctoral programs or expand existing ones because they are so expensive to maintain. AACSB has tried to increase the numbers of AQ faculty by supporting Bridge Programs, which transition academics from other disciplines into business scholarship. These programs are offered through schools such as Virginia Tech, the University of Toledo, the University of Florida, and Tulane University in the U.S., and Grenoble Ecole de Management in France. Such efforts add to the ranks, but still make only a small dent in the problem.

Possible Answer: Undergraduate Tracks To the Doctorate

The traditional model for the doctorate degree does not have to be the only way to achieve academic excellence. Academic tracks for undergraduate students could provide a nontraditional but effective alternative. Such tracks could shorten the time it takes to complete a doctorate, reduce costs, preserve academic rigor—and, most important, significantly increase the rate of PhD production.

Through such tracks, undergraduates could be prepared for an academic orientation earlier in their careers. As a result, upon receiving their bachelor’s degrees, they could be only two or three years away from completing their PhDs, including their dissertations.

Some believe that undergraduates aren’t yet ready to pursue serious research. That may be true. But they are ready to develop their research skills and prepare for the rigors of an academic career. Once they enter graduate school, they could hit the ground running.

This model would offer business schools three significant advantages First, such a model would generate more AQ faculty over the long term and help business schools at all levels more easily maintain academic quality in their programs. Second, undergraduate academic tracks would expose students to the possibilities of an academic career much earlier in the career selection process—currently, most faculty do not broach the topic of doctoral study until well into the MBA program, when many business students’ plans are already set. Finally, under-graduate academic tracks eventually could become an efficient faculty development solution for schools in emerging markets.

Question:  How Do We Ensure the Quality of Graduates?

In the coming years, management education may face a bigger challenge than simply finding qualified faculty. The industry also will face an influx of graduates from new business schools, many of which are operating outside of internationally accepted standards of pedagogical practice. To help ensure the quality of graduates produced by these schools, the industry requires new quality assurance products that meet the needs of the growing community of business schools in the developing world.

Consider this: All AACSB-accredited schools represent 41 countries, but schools in need of quality assurance products and continuous improvement opportunities are located in 200. Even when taken together, major accrediting bodies such as AACSB International, EFMD, and AMBA accredit fewer than five percent of the worlds business schools. The remaining 95 percent are not accredited by, nor do most maintain a membership with, any international accreditation organization. Many of these schools are self-developing their curricula on the boundaries of the industry.

What might critics say about a discipline in which the vast majority of graduates are produced by educational providers that do not follow generally accepted standards? Many people may begin to question the quality of those graduates. This situation threatens to dilute the value of business degrees granted by all institutions.

Our current systems of quality assurance perpetuate the problem. Many accreditation standards rely heavily on the intellectual contributions of AQ faculty, which are generally found in countries that produce research-oriented PhDs. And those countries, in large part, are found in the developed world. That creates a system where the majority of schools in Africa, India, and other economically emerging regions are essentially locked out of the quality assurance process.

There is no doubt that the intellectual contributions of AQ faculty are critical to management education and a cornerstone to many business programs worldwide. But should every quality assurance mechanism available to business schools emphasize doctoral faculty and scholarly production? I don’t believe so. Excellent teaching and educational outcomes can be accomplished by non-AQ faculty as well.

Possible Answer: New Quality Assurance Products

Today’s accrediting bodies have the potential to serve all management education institutions, but only by designing quality assurance standards that meet the needs of our growing industry. For instance, AACSB International is currently working to design such a product to apply primarily to schools in the developing world. Our objective is not to dilute the power of accreditation by any means. On the contrary, we want to strengthen our credential by doing more to ensure the quality of graduates from schools in those 200 countries, including those in emerging markets. A new quality assurance mechanism—one that better suits the teaching missions of these schools—would help them design curricula that meet industry standards and provide motivation for them to engage in continuous improvement. More important, it could do so without competing with our full AACSB accreditation standard.

There’s a lot more going on in management education than what’s happening at the top schools in the world. In fact, many schools with low ratios of academically qualified to professionally qualified faculty have an incredibly high impact on education—and on the economic growth of their regions.

That impact will only become more important in the coming years. Approximately 250 million people in a sample of 59 economies were engaged in “early-stage entrepreneurship” in 2010, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2010 Global Report sponsored by Babson College in the U.S. and Universidad del Desarrollo in Chile. Among this group, 63 million expect to hire five or more employees in the next five years—and 27 million expect to hire 20 employees or more. That is a powerful engine for economic growth. It’s at this level—in small entrepreneurial enterprises with relatively few employees—that business education can have its highest impact. Business schools are in the best position to produce a new generation of entrepreneurs who will help advance global prosperity.

With new quality assurance mechanisms, we can create a community that does not lock out schools that lack the resources to hire AQ faculty. Instead, we can invite them into our conferences, seminars, and forums, and offer them recognition when they align their programs with generally accepted educational standards. And we can do so while still allowing all schools to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

New quality assurance mechanisms also would offer another distinct advantage to all schools, whether they’re located in Latin America or Africa, Eastern Europe or India. Such systems would make it much easier for schools to fin meaningful partnerships. Currently, with so many business schools worldwide, there is no easy way to determine the quality and missions of schools that now operate outside of our accreditation system. For instance, a small school in the U.S.—even if accredited—may find it difficult to get the attention of a potential partner in China. A more robust quality assurance system could make it that much easier for schools to find others across the world with similar missions and attributes.

Even though different schools have different missions, I believe that most schools have similar objectives—to produce graduates with the expertise that employers want and that their regions often desperately need. By creating quality assurance products that serve a wider range of needs in the market, accreditation organizations can help business schools better achieve their individual missions while continuing to advance the industry.

Question:  How Can We Do It All?

Talk to leaders at business schools at all levels, and they’ll express similar concerns: How can their schools pack a traditional two-year MBA program with everything employers want graduates to know? How can they teach the core disciplines, along with soft skills such as social responsibility and ethics? How can they fit in meaningful global experiences and internships? How do they improve students’ communication and interpersonal proficiency, and inspire them to be more creative, innovative, and reflective? And how do business schools teach all of these things even as their students are demanding shorter programs and their resources are becoming increasingly constrained?

Possible Answers:

  • Interuniversity Alliances
  • Technological Adoption
  • Lifelong Learning

Business schools, no matter their size, location, or budget, have the ability to expand their teaching and collaboration activities significantly. They need only look beyond their campuses—and their students’ graduation dates—to teach students everything they need to know.

Develop interuniversity alliances. Partnerships are becoming increasingly commonplace in the industry. But it may be time for business schools to develop fewer, more multifaceted alliances.

Two years ago, Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, formed just such a collaborative relationship with Wellesley College, a nearby liberal arts institution, and F.W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. The alliance formalized an existing arrangement that allows students enrolled at one institution to take courses at the other two. Students at all three schools also work together on projects and share campus services.

At a press conference announcing the agreement among the schools, Richard Miller, president of Olin College, said that the alliance was the “celebration of an intent … to do something really special that none of the colleges can do alone.” That statement reflects a struggle that most business schools are facing today—how to do it all, even if their strengths lie elsewhere. The Babson-Wellesley-Olin partnership is an example of how schools with different but complementary programs can share the resource burden and expand educational opportunities for students in significant ways.

What such alliances can help business schools achieve on a local level can also work on a global level. Today, it’s common for business schools to have a large number of international partners. But is that necessarily the best model for global education? It’s true that when schools establish a wide array of partnerships, they can offer students and faculty more varied global experiences. But unless schools have the resources and personnel to manage and develop that many partnerships effectively, those experiences may not be as rich as they could be.

Tri-continental alliances—similar to the Babson-Wellesley-Olin arrangement, but on a global scale—would allow schools to create economies of scale and take better advantage of each other’s strengths. For example, a tri-continental collaboration between schools in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. could allow students to travel from campus to campus more frequently. They could take courses at all three in person or through the use of digital technologies, or even earn joint degrees.

Such alliances also would allow schools to expose students to cohorts in different parts of the world in long-term interactions, rather than in only a single course or exchange. Stu-dents would have more opportunities to use the electronic communication tools that simulate global business environments. And, by graduation, students would be more intellectually and psychologically ready to do business in a range of geographic regions.

Some business schools already have taken steps in this direction. Although it is not on three continents, the TRIUM Global Executive MBA program is a curricular collaboration between New York University’s Stern School of Business in the United States, London School of Economics and Political Science in the United Kingdom, and HEC Paris in France. OneMBA, an executive education program that spans four continents, is an alliance between five schools: the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Asia; the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in Europe; Escola de Admin-istração de Empresas de São Paulo da Fundação Getulio Vargas in South America; and Tecnológico de Monterrey Graduate School of Business Administration and Leadership and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both in North America.

These programs fulfill many of the objectives of a tri-continental alliance, the most important of which is to create in-depth, ongoing, and dedicated international connections that deepen over time. Different business schools could use the model not only for executive education, but also for undergraduate and masters-level programs. They could collaborate to create entire degree programs or standalone courses. Fewer, stronger alliances can create programs that have staying power and that help individual schools better meet their students’ educational needs.

Take advantage of technology. Small schools may not be able to afford to send students all over the world, but they still can take advantage of an interuniversity model. By using video conferencing, podcasts, video streaming, and online collaboration tools, schools on different continents can collaborate to design global courses, capstone experiences, and consultancy projects that allow students to mingle and work with their counterparts in other nations in the same virtual space. In the process, students would not only become sensitive to global issues, but also learn the nuances of global teamwork.

Students also could take online courses at partner schools and be taught by an international team of faculty. Schools could invite international faculty to teach their students and collaborate on research projects with their professors. Travel is one way to help students develop global mindsets, but it is not the only way. Technology offers all schools opportunities to develop global programs at lower cost.

Emphasize lifelong learning. Many schools are finding that it’s incredibly difficult to fit a pantheon of knowledge into a single program. But why should graduation be the end to students’ learning? Business schools can cover all the skills employers want and more if they do so over a graduate’s entire career. During their degree programs, schools can make sure that students understand that learning is never done. Once students graduate with a strong foundational MBA, they can continue to earn certificates in entrepreneurship or global leader-ship as their careers demand that specialized knowledge.

Final Question: How Do We Change?

In 1959, Robert A. Gordon and James E. Howell wrote the now-famous Ford Foundation report that leveled harsh criticism at the quality of business schools—they wrote, essentially, that there was no quality at all. That report spurred widespread reform, as business schools transformed themselves from trade schools into strong, academically driven institutions that have become an integral factor to the world’s economic growth. Today, an MBA from a highly ranked school is widely recognized as an intellectual achievement, an indication that the graduate will make quality contributions to the business world and society.

Business schools have built a deeply successful model over the last 50 years. But as with any technology or system, what served us 50, 30, or even ten years ago may not serve us in the future—at least not without adaptation. Today, business schools have an opportunity to transform their industry again, but this time not because their output is low quality. Quite the contrary, this time it’s because they want to assure that their current high quality out-put continues to be exceptional.

Business schools can achieve that goal by finding innovative ways to achieve traditional goals. For instance, through such ideas as undergraduate academic tracks, they can supply more of the AQ faculty they need. Through partnerships, they can help each other cover more educational ground. Through quality assurance, they can expand the universe of continuously improving business schools.

One school can’t do everything, but thousands can do anything. I see years of innovation ahead for management education, as schools overcome the industry’s biggest challenges. In so doing, our industry will continue to do what it does best—produce graduates who are thoroughly prepared to serve society by serving business.

John Fernandes is president and  CEO of AACSB International in Tampa, Florida.