The Innovative, Connected, Nimble Business School of Tomorrow

AACSB unveils a vision for the business school of the future—and the five distinct roles it must be ready to play.
POWERFUL DISRUPTIONS IN HOW PEOPLE LEARN and how business is conducted are leading to potentially massive transformations in the way universities and business schools operate. If business schools are going to thrive in a wholly new learning environment, they must change the narrative about the role business education plays in both business and society. They have to become drivers of change, not casualties of it.

To help prepare business schools for a radically reimagined future, AACSB International has been leading a Visioning Initiative, which draws insights from hundreds of articles and thousands of hours of debate about the shifting roles of business and business education. Conclusions of the initiative were unveiled earlier this year at AACSB’s Deans Conference in Miami in February and at its International Conference and Annual Meeting in Boston in April.

For business schools to thrive in the future, they should concentrate on five key roles: They must become catalysts for innovation, hubs of lifelong learning, co-creators of knowledge, leaders on leadership, and enablers of global prosperity. These five roles not only play to the existing strengths of today’s business schools, but they are broad enough to allow each school to interpret them individually, according to its own mission and context. Each role offers business schools tremendous opportunity for creating impact in their communities and the wider society.


Business schools can drive economic development around the world by doing all they can to support innovation and new business creation. That includes contributing to the body of knowledge about the processes, practices, and environments that spark innovation. They can educate the next generation of innovators, whether they’re entrepreneurs launching small businesses or C-suite executives leading their companies through transformation. They also can build platforms and networks that will connect individuals with training, with mentors, with each other—and with fresh ideas.

Business schools already are making themselves centers for innovation. They’re launching incubators that support and commercialize inventions; they’re creating multidisciplinary programs that give students the broad skill sets they need to turn ideas into reality. But to become hubs of innovation, they’ll have to accelerate their efforts, putting more emphasis on interdisciplinary collaborations and creating niche opportunities through partnerships with other professional schools on their campuses.

First, however, business schools must innovate themselves. Practically speaking, they must accommodate new ways of learning, from online delivery to short-form educational modules. But they also must innovate themselves from a philosophical standpoint by re-examining long-held notions about what constitutes a university education.


Business schools need to position themselves as institutions that will support students throughout their careers. Many factors are contributing to the need for lifelong education, including the accelerating pace of change in business, the increased tendency of workers to switch careers, and the fact that older employees are working longer. Business schools need to create courses that are suitable for every kind of business student, from the freshman just learning the basics to the mid-level manager seeking a specific credential to the top CEO wrestling with ethical dilemmas.

As individuals find themselves needing new skills in new jobs, they will rely on education that is modular, fragmented, targeted, and just-in-time. It’s likely that they will consume their education from a variety of providers— for instance, joining MOOCs to learn basic skills, and enrolling in specialized courses to gain the knowledge they need for a specific job or career. As individuals amass a wide portfolio of credentials, employers will care less that they have received their training at traditional four-year universities, and more that they have the desired skills.

That means business schools will have to collaborate with other schools on campus, with other business schools, and with organizations in the public and private sectors. In fact, they will need to look beyond employers as the ultimate consumers of business education and instead regard them as partners in the shared goal of training a skilled and knowledgeable workforce.


Business schools are not just centers of learning. They’re also centers of scholarship, and intellectual capital is the lifeblood of today’s knowledge economy. But to create research that explores critical social issues as well as management problems, universities must partner with academics in other disciplines and with practitioners in the field. Many of these collaborative partnerships will be made possible by web-based portals, social media, and open publishing forums that bring ideas to the widest possible audience.

In the future, business school research must be as focused on practice as it is on theory. And schools themselves must reach out to industry to become conveners and partners in knowledge creation, rather than simply being suppliers. As business schools work with industry partners, they might create better platforms for incubating ideas or better methods for mining big data. They will almost certainly develop tools and approaches that lead to better learning.

It will be just as essential for business schools to create connections with other business schools and other disciplines. As diverse, global, multidisciplinary teams work together, they will provide leadership insights that can be applied in a wide range of cultural, economic, and regulatory contexts and communicated to a global audience, thus enhancing their value and impact.


While a great deal of literature about leadership already exists, too much of it is anecdotal and inspirational. For the future, business schools will need to promote an understanding of leadership that is grounded in evidence and rigorous analysis and that can be applied in a wide range of contexts. And they will need to impart that understanding to aspiring leaders who want to make a positive impact on their organizations and communities.

Business schools have multiple roles when it comes to leadership: They can conduct research on how to lead, create environments that nurture effective leaders, and connect to other institutions that support leadership training and development. They also can help frame leadership as something that supports ethical business and serves the common good.

Business schools can position themselves as the go-to sources of leadership training for industry partners as well as other professional schools on campus. This means that business schools will need to offer diverse approaches to leadership development, from traditional classroom settings to on-the-job training sessions. Leaders are needed within every field and organization, and business schools should be ready to educate them all.


Business schools contribute to global measures of well-being that go far beyond wealth creation. Together with the disciplines of engineering, medicine, public administration, and social sciences, business schools produce graduates who can address global challenges such as poverty, hunger, health, climate change, and energy.

Lamentably, many people have negative impressions of business and its contributions to society. It’s important that business schools help alter this view by showing how the benefits of business can extend to all members of the global population, regardless of their gender, race, socioeconomic status, or citizenship. Business schools must generate research that outlines the benefits of cultivating a diverse workforce, running sustainable businesses, and operating in an ethical manner. They must share this research—and other relevant pieces of scholarship—with policymakers and government organizations that oversee public health and jobs creation. At the same time, business schools must graduate students who know how to generate wealth, consume resources, and create innovation in ways that are responsible, inclusive, and humanistic.

Finally, business schools must prepare students for careers that go beyond big business. Many business schools already offer programs designed for students who want to work in the nonprofit, public, and social entrepreneurship sectors. That has been an important step. But for business schools to truly promote global prosperity, they must do more to broaden their students’ understanding of the interconnections in the global economy—among local and global communities, among businesses and governments, between organizations and the social good. Only by helping students understand these interdependencies will business schools truly teach the next generation of business leaders to be aware of the consequences that their actions have on the world.


As they take advantage of the opportunities represented by these five areas, business schools will need to redefine themselves in nontraditional ways and lay claim to the areas where they have both expertise and competitive advantage. Administrative leaders also will need to think differently about the ways their institutions create value and the roles they play in society. In the future, business schools must take three key steps:

They must cultivate positions at the intersection of academia and practice. Business schools need to be more than suppliers of talent; they need to be partners with industry as they co-educate managers, co-create ideas, and co-found new businesses. Some schools will do this by seeking new opportunities to extend the visibility and impact of research, others by strengthening existing relationships with corporate partners.

They must be drivers of innovation in higher education. Business schools can lead the coming transformation by helping create the new systems, standards, and traditions that will evolve around learning.

They must connect with other disciplines. The world’s challenges will be solved only through partnerships among business, science, engineering, healthcare, and other fields. This means that business schools must expand incentives for interdisciplinary research and create structures that facilitate interdisciplinary learning. On a more basic level, it means that business educators must think differently about how they interact with experts, educators, and innovators from other fields.

As business schools succeed in pursuing these goals, there are likely to be three highly visible signs:

Business schools will be perceived differently by all stakeholders. They will be seen as trusted partners in the search for solutions to today’s global challenges in the areas of economics, healthcare, the environment, and social justice. And they will be considered as essential partners at every level of business, from the small entrepreneurial venture to the large multinational corporation.

Business schools will be more heterogeneous. Drawing on their own diverse strengths, schools will experiment with new models of staffing, credentialing, collaborating, and funding.

Business schools will measure their success by a different set of metrics. Media rankings that prioritize graduates’ salaries will be supplemented by metrics that consider the number of jobs schools help create or the number of new businesses they help launch. These new measures of success will give schools the freedom to pursue new strategies and educational models. At the same time, greater transparency in their operations will allow schools to show stakeholders that they are delivering on their promises with positive and demonstrable impacts.

Change is always difficult, and radical change is the most difficult of all. But if business schools are to thrive in the future, they must first envision what that future holds—then reimagine themselves so that they can take their rightful place within it. With the Visioning Initiative, AACSB hopes to provide a framework for schools planning their own transformations.