How 'Super Alumni' Can Transform the Future of Business Education

To prove their vitality and relevance, to deliver ready-to-go graduates, business schools need to rethink the way they operate and how processes and culture can be shifted away from higher education and toward its customers and markets.

How 'Super Alumni' Can Transform the Future of Business Education
It sounds unnecessary to argue that business schools should be run like businesses. But as we know, unfortunately it isn’t. To prove their vitality and relevance, to deliver ready-to-go graduates, business schools need to rethink the way they operate and how processes and culture can be shifted away from higher education and toward its customers (or co-creators of knowledge, as I prefer) and markets.

Competition from the range of training firms, consultants, and online providers is looking evermore viable and creating new competitive frontiers. They can be faster, leaner, more flexible, running free from any larger context of academic responsibilities and bureaucracy, and technically 24/7. In the U.K., the situation is being brought into sharper focus by the introduction of degree apprenticeships this April. Employers get access to government cash to fund employees through work-based degrees, where the organization gets to shape degree programs to fit with specific work roles, capabilities, and challenges, and to choose who they work with to deliver the program—akin to supplier selection in the corporate world. Higher education institutions are best placed when it comes to providing the academic quality and kudos of a university degree—but employer-driven initiatives like degree apprenticeships raise questions in the minds of organizations about what other kinds of partners could work best for them.

The next five years will be a key phase in development of business schools. Will we see the same old MBA and executive offerings rooted in academic research and publications, or can there be new and more engaging ways to deliver business education? Business schools need to prove they can keep taking a lead when it comes to the development of organizations of all sizes, that they matter to markets and economies, that they’re able to be flexible and forward-thinking enough to genuinely integrate with business, and that they can address business needs with impact.

Alumni and lifelong learning should be the crux of this new world. We need to be developing “super alumni.” The alumni, of course, have been high on the agenda for decades, but maybe not in the right way. We’re fortunate in higher education to automatically have stronger relationships with customers, or co-creators of knowledge, than other types of service providers. The independence, credibility, and quality of university brands means there’s a built-in pride of association, of being part of something bigger than a commercial service or just seen as a supplier.

All business schools want to actively network with their alumni for the sake of building a community and for the selling opportunities involved. As a result, there can be too much of a club feeling about it—a group brought together for some social occasions with only woolly benefits for being part of the network, connected by events and an occasional magazine that perhaps become less and less relevant.

It’s time to recognize the long-term value of alumni and form a network that plays an active role in the school. From the school side that means providing lifetime development, perhaps for free. Once you’re part of the super-alumni group you know you’ll be able to dip in and out of executive development programs as they evolve. You are business school-powered. The benefits for individuals and their organizations are obvious, especially with the changes in organizational structures, fewer opportunities for progression, and more emphasis on keeping a senior role. Business schools can help with the development needed to hold onto an existing position, as well as better deal with more general uncertainty and need for career adaptability. Perhaps in the future organizations might even rent quality leaders and managers direct from the bank of people resources kept sharpened by business schools.

Likewise, a renewed emphasis on lifelong learning fits with the evolving attitudes of employers who are less interested in a legacy of qualifications than the ability of managers to keep learning and wanting to learn, promoting a new generation of reflexive learners.

And in return? The alumni would be expected to provide a regular feed from the frontline of management and give something back to the next generations of students: contributing to lectures, seminars, and workshops; providing real-life case studies for students to work with; offering mentorship; providing opportunities for placements; supporting professional “problem-solving” clinics; and getting involved with practitioner research. These efforts would become part of a virtuous circle in terms of the experience of students, the culture of the school, the opportunities for networking, and building those all-important open links with businesses—all of it ultimately leading to further generations of super-alumni, stronger integration, and benefits for both sides.

Operating more like businesses won’t just come from introducing different structures and processes. The main motivating force will be from big ideas—the kinds of innovations that bring results and demonstrate how much the changes matter.

Zahir Irani is dean of management and law at the University of Bradford School of Management in the U.K.