Rising to Excellence

A school in Croatia seeks to become a source of management knowledge for its entire country—and uses AACSB accreditation as its roadmap for continuous improvement.
Rising to Excellence
THE ZAGREB SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS and Management (ZSEM) opened its doors after a time of great political, social, and economic upheaval in Croatia. From the beginning, ZSEM’s mission was to help build the infrastructure that would allow Croatia to compete effectively in a globalized free market system. The school’s founders believed they could achieve that goal only if ZSEM was recognized as a top business school in southeastern Europe—and they believed they would win that recognition only if they achieved AACSB accreditation.

For those outside Croatia to understand how remarkable it was for the school to set this goal, it helps to have a little context. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Croatia was a country in transition. It was seeking sovereignty after spending nearly half a century as part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and this action led to the War for Independence. At the same time, Croatia was evolving from socialism to capitalism. Not surprisingly, Croatian universities focused mainly on Marxist and socialist approaches to economics. Mainstream business education did not exist, and attempts to change the educational system were slow.

If Croatian business students were to receive the education they needed to succeed in a globalized and constantly changing business world, they would need a different kind of business school.


In 2002, ZSEM was established by a group of founders that included economist and academician Đuro Njavro. These colleagues wanted to jump-start the reformation of Croatia’s higher education system by providing business students with the same level of knowledge and competence attained by business students anywhere else in the world. They were convinced that, if Croatia was to become more integrated into the European and global economies, leaders would have to understand state-of-the-art management strategies and practices.

Njavro and his colleagues decided to model their own school after the best practices they had learned at leading business schools in the U.S. and Europe, as well as the requirements they would have to meet to achieve AACSB accreditation. They felt accreditation was essential for two reasons: They wanted to differentiate themselves in their educational market, where business education was usually inexpensive or free; and they wanted to position themselves as a high-quality, private, tuition-based business school, a claim that would be validated by accreditation.

Says Njavro, “We used the accreditation standards to build a business school from the ground up in an environment where there were shortages in every direction—of well-educated faculty, contemporary teaching methods, learning resources, and solid infrastructure.”

The school opened in 2002 with an entering class of 115 students. By the time the second generation of students graduated in 2007, the school was ready to begin its journey toward accreditation, and it assembled a team to manage the project. It was led by the school’s managing director, Zoran Barac, and completed with members who reflected a cross section of the school and who had history with the institution, access to information, complementary skills, and passion to see the vision of accreditation turn to reality. These included Maja Martinović, vice dean for MBA programs; Karmela Aleksić Maslać, director of research; Edda Apfenthaler, deputy secretary for administration; and lecturers Ivija Jelavić, Borna Jalšenjak, and Petra Sušac.

According to Barac, “Our accreditation plan was basically a gap analysis. What were we actually doing? Did it comply with the standards? If it didn’t, we defined detailed steps to change that.” Says Martinović, “We worked standard by standard for years.”

The school made sure to involve stakeholders, communicate constantly, and transparently disseminate information throughout the accreditation process. The team encouraged open debates to prevent bigger challenges going forward, believing that knowledge sharing was important to educate stakeholders about the standards and what they meant to the school. And the team focused on three concrete goals that would move the school toward accreditation: assembling the right faculty, changing the mindset about scholarly research, and creating assurance of learning protocols.


At the heart of ZSEM’s path to accreditation was faculty development. In a post-communist country with a very small market for academics, it was not easy to find well-prepared faculty with doctorate degrees. Consequently, the school embarked on a long-term strategy to develop its own core faculty—a process Njavro expected to take a commitment of at least ten years. Even now that accreditation is achieved, the school continues its faculty development strategy.

Potential young faculty members are recruited very early, from alumni and from students on ZSEM’s dean’s list. Top graduates are invited to become academic assistants with administrative roles such as preparing study materials for faculty. They move to support roles by assisting during office hours and by facilitating classroom activities and student seminars. Many academic assistants also are exposed to teaching and learning when they act as assurance of learning coordinators in their departments. In addition, promising academic assistants are assigned teaching responsibilities and offered greater opportunities in the hope that some eventually will become full-time academically qualified faculty members.

When young faculty demonstrate distinctive academic abilities, the school supports them as they seek PhDs outside of Croatia. Since the school’s inception, 32 faculty members have earned their doctorates, and eight are currently pursuing PhDs. Most of the faculty who were supported by the school have remained with ZSEM since earning their doctorates.

The school also develops existing faculty members, in particular by giving them international experiences that will help them teach students how to operate in a global business environment. It encourages young faculty to participate in international exchanges and teach in the International Summer School, which attracts students from partner institutions around the world. It also sends one or more faculty members every year to the International Faculty Program offered by IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain.

Despite making the investment in developing its own professors, ZSEM continuously searches for new PhD faculty. Njavro notes that, when the school launched, it was difficult to find candidates from Europe or America who were interested in living and working in Croatia. He adds, “Today, the situation is much better than ten years ago.”


In addition to developing a pipeline of well-qualified faculty, ZSEM has changed the research culture of the school to one that focuses more heavily on publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Traditionally in Croatia, faculty members write their own books for the courses they teach. Additionally, across all universities in the centralized tenure system, faculty are required to publish books and monographs—which are considered the primary means of making intellectual contributions. (See "Textbook Case" sidebar below.)

At first, some of the more experienced ZSEM faculty found it difficult to transition to publishing in peer-reviewed journals (PRJs), but in time they embraced the strategy. ZSEM helped them understand its importance by creating a development plan that guides scholars toward the activities and certifications that the school values most. To come up with the plan, faculty and administrators worked together to establish targets for educational qualifications, training, and intellectual contributions over a five-year period.

To further support faculty development, the school produced “Guidelines for Publishing Activities,” which helps faculty understand the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals and conducting research allied with the school’s mission. The school also organizes workshops with titles such as “The Production of Intellectual Contributions,” “Qualitative Research Methods,” and “Insider’s Guide to Getting Published in International Research Journals.” These development workshops are run by both in-house and external experts.

Additionally, the school has developed an incentive system to reward faculty research activities. For instance, professors receive financial rewards for publishing in PRJs and financial support for presenting papers at international conferences. The school also offers small research grants that provide startup funding for faculty to pursue so-called mini projects, says Maslać.

“In February 2014, we organized our first ‘Festival of Science’ to highlight our faculty’s research and motivate other professors to apply for startup funds,” she continues. “With the funding comes an obligation to publish a peer-reviewed article.” She believes the incentive program works because it not only rewards what is important to the school, but it also shows the faculty that the school appreciates their hard work.


As ZSEM continued on its path toward accreditation, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome was faculty resistance to assurance of learning. Jalšenjak notes that measuring outcomes and doing self-assessment are not common practices in Europe. “At first, I didn’t like that approach,” he says. “It seemed to me like additional paperwork.”

But once the results came in, faculty were surprised and pleased to discover that the system worked. “We were able to ask the dean for additional resources, because we had data to back up our requests,” Jalšenjak says. As faculty realized that AoL could significantly impact student learning, they began using it as a teaching tool.

While about 95 percent of the faculty participate in the AoL process, the responsibility for developing and sustaining AoL protocols falls primarily to Martinović and Jelavić. To administer AoL processes in the school’s nine undergraduate departments and 11 specialized MBA programs, the school developed an internal organization. This group includes approximately 30 AoL supervisors, who are experienced faculty, and coordinators, who are junior faculty and academic assistants.

Martinović admits that at first the task seemed overwhelming until they applied management techniques to each stage of the process—analysis, planning, and implementation. Still, she and Jelavić believe the program only succeeds because the team works together smoothly and spreads responsibility broadly.

“ZSEM invested a great deal of time at the beginning educating the faculty about AoL and its role in continuously improving the curriculum to strengthen student learning,” says Jelavić. “Now, even if faculty do not have to measure a particular learning goal, they still use the rubrics in their courses.”


Because of its commitment to faculty, research, and assurance of learning, ZSEM achieved accreditation in 2013—coincidentally, that was the same year that Croatia entered the European Union. ZSEM’s student body also has grown—the school now boasts 1,076 undergraduate students, 237 MBA students, and 1,909 alumni. Administrators admit that their journey hasn’t always been smooth, but it’s been exciting and deeply rewarding. Not only have they built a high-quality private business school, they say, but they’ve also experienced tangible benefits brought about by accreditation.

“Because the business community recognizes that AACSB accreditation has high value, we’ve strengthened our position in Europe as well as Croatia,” says Njavro. “Our educational partners also have confidence in us because we’re accredited.”

For example, he says, the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland made it very clear it would only partner with ZSEM if the school was accredited. And six months after ZSEM achieved that goal, the two entered an alliance. “I think in the future we can expect to enroll more students from different parts of Europe,” Njavro says. “And because businesses throughout Europe also recognize AACSB Accreditation, our graduates will have opportunities in Croatia and other parts of the world.”

Njavro and his colleagues believe that AACSB’s new guiding principles of innovation, impact, and engagement will shape ZSEM’s next steps in continuous growth and development. (For more advice on how schools in emerging markets can achieve accreditation, see "The Way to Accreditation" sidebar below.) The school’s entrepreneurial culture has always supported continuous innovation in academic programs, he notes. He expects that faculty will continue to focus on scholarly activities aimed at achieving a stronger impact on management theory and practice; and he also believes faculty will become even more engaged with businesses and have more influence on economic conditions in Croatia and Southeastern Europe. For these reasons, he and his colleagues believe the young business school can look to the future with confidence and passion.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2015 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its contents, please contact us at [email protected].


Julie Dziekan Felker is visiting professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the Zagreb School of Economics and Management in Croatia, and faculty affiliate and senior organizational development consultant to the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.