Training the Fire Brigade in the Midst of Fire

Kozminski University's evolution to becoming an international business school.
Prior to World War II, management education in Poland, as in other Central European countries, existed in two forms. The schools of engineering, also known as the polytechnics, focused on production management, while the schools of commerce focused on microeconomics and finance. Both were influenced by French and German schools of thought.

After the war, when the Soviets imposed the communist system, Western management education was eliminated from institutions of higher learning. But communism evolved and eventually lost its grip on Eastern Europe. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, elements of modern management education reappeared in Poland. Around that time, state universities created the first schools of management and founded departments of management and organizational studies.

The American influence played a key role in this process. During the ’70s, top U.S. universities offered a large number of post-doctoral scholarships to young Poles specializing in management and economics. After the fall of communism, these individuals helped guide Poland’s transition to a market economy and contributed to the building of management education. As a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Carnegie Mellon University in 1971 and 1972, I was among the academics who brought Western management ideas back to Poland.

Then, in 1993, I was among those who helped launch Kozminski University. We defined it as a “broad-profile full-fledged business school” that offered education at the bachelor’s, master’s, postgraduate, and doctoral levels. Among the many programs we offered were management, finance, economics, public administration, business law, business sociology, and psychology.

The precursor of Kozminski University had been the International Business School, a commercial provider of management training. IBS was an initiative of a group of academics from state universities who had been trained in Western schools, primarily in the U.S., and who were looking for new opportunities created by capitalism. Through IBS, they offered the first executive MBA in Poland as early as the fall of 1989, immediately after the collapse of communism. This program is still offered by Kozminski University today.

From our inception—first as IBS and then as KU—we were an international school. We were always bilingual, speaking both Polish and English, and we were always aimed at international markets. Today, we have more than 60 nationalities on campus, we cooperate with more than 200 international partners, and we offer several double diploma degrees with other universities. We also send our students abroad on a massive scale and host large numbers of international exchange students.

As of today, more than 3,000 students have graduated from the program and gone on to transform Polish companies as entrepreneurs, CEOs, and top management team members. Currently, the university is educating a second generation of entrepreneurs, more than half of whom come from entrepreneurial families. The total number of KU graduates since 1993 is close to 40,000.

I am well-positioned to look back on the school’s evolution, since I was the CEO of the International Business School, I have been rector of Kozminski University from the beginning, and I currently serve as the university’s president and chairman of the board of trustees. However, I myself am bewildered by the speed and dynamics of the changes we have experienced. From the very beginning, we had to face the challenge of explosively growing demand from Polish businesses; later, we also saw demand from other emerging economies, including the Ukraine, Belarus, India, and China. More recently, we have seen increasing interest from Western students as well.

To meet this demand, we have needed agility and speed. We have had to train the fire brigade in the midst of the fire. We started offering programs in management at the bachelor’s and post-graduate levels, and we rapidly added new programs. We acquired new degree-granting rights for master’s, doctoral, and habilitation degrees, which are higher degrees awarded to those who already have doctorates. At the same time, we worked to constantly improve our position in domestic and international rankings.

Over the years, we gained accreditation from AACSB, EQUIS, and AMBA, and I believe these accreditations contributed to the shape and speed of our evolution in many ways. First, they helped us meet international standards and strengthened our global orientation. Second, they reinforced the international aspects of our faculty research, directing it toward international publications, conferences, projects, and impact. Third, these accreditations helped us improve our program as we incorporated standards and processes such as assurance of learning. Finally, accreditation allowed us to actively participate in international communities of other accredited schools, where we continue to learn best practices, initiate new partnerships, exchange ideas, and look for inspiration.

The future of management education will be shaped by big challenges that are already clearly visible on the horizon. Foremost among them is the fact that widespread demand for training will grow exponentially in emerging economies such as Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East. State-of-the-art business schools are currently lacking in these regions, and it will be some time before they are present. Building capacity in these markets represents both an opportunity and a challenge for established business schools.

But there are other issues we must wrestle with. For instance, quality management education is too expensive for the bulk of new potential students; much of management research is not relevant for practice; and too many management education programs are still dominated by functional disciplines. In order for management education to thrive over the next century, we must address these issues. We must become agents of change for our industry—and for ourselves.
Andrzej K. Kozminski is President of Kozminski University in Warsaw, Poland.