We Asked Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the issues she believes should drive the 21st-century discussion about the purpose and mission of business education.
We Asked Rosabeth Moss Kanter

What current trends do you think will have the most impact on business schools in the future?

The MBA became very popular after World War II, because an MBA degree seemed to lead directly to jobs. But when I look ahead, I think business schools at the middle and bottom of the market are going to have trouble surviving. Many skills taught in MBA programs now can be taught at the undergraduate level or online, so employers may not jump to hire people who have MBAs from less distinguished schools.

However, employers will still want to hire people with fundamental skills in areas such as finance and statistics. They’ll still want people with leadership skills. So the question will be, where will students learn these skills? Established companies will be willing to outsource a certain amount of training, so I think customized programs represent a growing market for business schools.

That said, employers also are turning to training companies and consultant firms, which raises the question of whether online or for-profit degree providers will substitute for university-based business schools. That means that business schools will need to look for other ways to strengthen their programs.

We also can be sure that, as the future of work shifts online, more education will be delivered online. Strengthening the online component will be an important part of business schools’ survival. As online education grows, we might not need as many full-time faculty, but we will need more coaches, guides, and facilitators. The advantage is that, once a school has an online course in place, that course can reach millions of people.

What kinds of strategies will help business schools strengthen their positions in the market?

One way is to reach out to other disciplines on campus. Harvard, for example, is deepening its ties with engineering and the applied sciences, the life sciences, and the law and medical schools. We now offer joint degree programs, including an MD/MBA, a JD/MBA, and a public policy/MBA degree with our Kennedy School of Government. Driving these relationships is the idea that universities have many different sources of in-depth content knowledge; when we combine that knowledge with business education, we help ventures get started.

In addition, the best schools will do more to put students in teams and get them out into the field. At Harvard, we’re about to send 900 students to more than 20 countries to do two-week projects; when they come back, they’ll work in small groups to start small businesses and have those businesses evaluated. Such experiential learning—whether it’s starting a business, going to a foreign country, or going to a company and doing a project—will always be a component of the best education.

I’m also seeing schools push education to earlier in students’ lives. I know of at least one graduate business program considering adding an undergraduate business degree, which I think is a very smart move. I’m also very excited about the new “six-year high school” model, where students graduate after six years with a high school degree and an associate degree in a STEM field from a community college. We first saw this approach in 2011, when IBM introduced the program—called Pathways in Technology, or P-Tech—in several New York City public schools in Brooklyn. Some students have graduated with both degrees in four or five years, and they’re already working in STEM fields with high salaries. This model now has been adopted at about 40 high schools around the U.S. with different corporate partners. Pushing education earlier in the cycle is a reinvention of education.


Similarly, we’re seeing schools push business education to later in life—one example is Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, which I lead and co-created with two Harvard Business School colleagues, including our current dean. It’s a university-wide program for accomplished top leaders moving into their next years of service. It’s not an exed ed program; rather, just like the six-year high school, it’s a total reinvention.

A few years ago, we had Peter Thiel offering to pay young people with entrepreneurial talent not to go to college, but that’s not the right choice for everyone. Business schools need to find more ways to offer courses that their universities don’t already have. They need to find more ways to be relevant at moments when people are seeking out business education.

What do you think the next ten or 25 years will be like for business schools?

Right now, higher education is between models; we have to evolve by experimenting. I think the next ten years will be a period of intense questioning, and many unique and innovative models will emerge. Schools with energetic faculty who are willing to experiment with new types of online models, internships, experiential education, educational delivery, and field-based projects will be the ones that lead and stay relevant.

Even if business schools don’t have the resources to create new programs or send every student overseas, they can seek out opportunities for experiential education in their local environments. I once consulted with a small business school in an area with industries focused on social and environmental concerns—industries that young millennials are interested in. I asked the school’s leaders why they weren’t doing more to connect students and faculty more directly to those industries. It doesn’t cost a lot for schools to take advantage of the connections that are already available to them.

The next few years will be an exciting time for business schools that want to lead these changes. But it also will be a time of great insecurity, especially for schools that have cut their faculty and use more adjuncts. Schools of all sizes and reputations can take advantage of today’s trends to reinvent themselves. But it’s going to require imagination.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration and the chair and director of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School.