Catching Up to Change

The MBA Roundtable’s Jeff Bieganek on what’s ahead for the MBA.

In May, Jeff Bieganek, executive director of the global business school association MBA Roundtable, gave a presentation at AACSB International’s Redesigning the MBA Curriculum Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. His topic? The curricular innovations schools are adopting to better position their MBA programs in an evolving market. In Bieganek’s view, what’s most interesting about today’s MBA market is that “all the changes that we’ve been talking about for so long are actually starting to happen.” That means that business schools are being forced to move from considering their options to taking action.

We asked Bieganek to share his thoughts on disruption, innovation, and change in the MBA market, especially from the perspective of MBA Roundtable member schools. Business schools, he says, are finding themselves in a difficult position, between sticking with programs that have served them well in the past and preparing for a time—not too far in the future—when those programs will have outlived their purpose.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CONCERNS OF MBA ROUNDTABLE MEMBERS? Many business educators are concerned about not just whether they can respond to the market and the needs of students quickly enough, but how much they can change without losing who or what they are. They are questioning whether they should continue long-standing programs, what content they should deliver online, and how much they should embrace experiential learning. They fear they could hurt their programs if they try to go too far too fast, but also that they could lose their market if they don’t go fast enough.

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CONCERN GREATEST? We’re finding that schools in the U.S. are quite different from those in Europe. For example, some European and Asian schools have been moving very quickly—they adopted the one-year MBA nine or ten years ago, long before business schools in the U.S. The one-year model is becoming more commonplace in the United States, but now U.S. business schools have to catch up with the pace of change in the rest of the world. U.S. schools once had the advantage as the leading MBA providers in the world, but there are programs of equal or better quality all across the world right now. It’s the natural rite of passage in global growth and change.

WHERE SHOULD B-SCHOOLS BE INVESTING TO BETTER POSITION THEIR PROGRAMS? Clearly, schools will need to compete technologically, because we know students now expect content to be delivered differently than it was delivered even five or ten years ago. It’s a big investment to design online and blended format programs correctly, and I’m not sure most schools are in the position to commit to a decision that requires such an investment. That’s why we’re seeing more third-party companies that can deliver content in virtual formats. We’ve got 2U, we’ve got Coursera and Udacity. Schools have multiple choices, so even just choosing a vendor is a hugely complicated process.

Students also expect a lot of hands-on opportunities to learn. They are coming to school to do things, not just sit in classrooms. And when students are “doing things,” it’s often in completely different countries. That’s a whole other set of investments now required of business schools, so they need to plan for multiple layers of cost and resources to make more experiential learning happen.

Finally, business schools don’t always have consistent processes in place to do regular curriculum review, and when they do conduct reviews, it’s often at the last minute. That’s why the MBA Roundtable has started a new workshop on curriculum review processes and practices—how to get data points from alumni, from recruiters, and from your current and prospective students.

The Graduate Management Admission Council has done great research on the different student segments and what each segment of students wants. But, ultimately, as educators, we’re being paid to know what we need to deliver to make those groups happy. We need to know how to look to the future to prepare students for multiple careers. Students might say, “We want to know this, why aren’t we learning this?” but there might be multiple reasons that it doesn’t fit in with the curriculum we’re trying to teach. We have to be very careful about how we use the information we gather.

YOU MENTION THAT STUDENTS WILL COME TO MBA PROGRAMS TO “DO”—WHAT CHALLENGES DOES EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING PRESENT? We’re seeing more schools adopt experiential learning—for instance, the Asia School of Business in Malaysia, started by MIT Sloan, commits one third of its MBA curriculum to experiential formats, sending students all over the world. It’s mind-boggling what they’re doing.

At the same time, we can’t send students out as entrepreneurs if they don’t have the financial skills to write good business plans. We can’t send them out to companies unless they can deliver MBA-level skills. Experiential learning presents a huge challenge because it requires a completely different way of teaching. Not to mention, we have to support experiential programs with enough real-world projects. Imagine the number of knocks companies have on their doors from schools looking for challenges for students. As more schools get onto this experiential bandwagon, there will be only so many projects to do.

WHAT ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF FUTURE-FORWARD PROGRAMS AT B-SCHOOLS TODAY? One finalist for our Innovator Award is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has created what it calls a stackable MOOC-based program. The school is using MOOCs to build brand awareness and create actual leads—after completing a MOOC, a student knows more about the school. That’s valuable in terms of recruitment and admissions. MOOCs have had poor completion rates, but that has changed over time. This program shows how MOOCs have become a great way to deliver pre-term courses to prepare students from different backgrounds to come take an MBA.

Another finalist is the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis, which has a regionally focused Medical Industry Leadership Institute. In particular, MBA students use its Medical Industry Valuation Lab to conduct market assessments of medical innovations for local companies in the Twin Cities, a leading hub in the med tech industry.

The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in Canada has opened its Creative Destruction Lab, where students and faculty are tackling challenges related to new technologies such as artificial intelligence. At the University of Michigan, students are going into businesses and running parts of those businesses.

At the University of Alabama, they’re bringing students to the MBA through programs the school has devised with STEM-focused colleges on campus, creating a pipeline of talent that delivers graduates that the Amazons and the Googles of the world really need. This one program has solved a pipeline challenge and a marketing challenge simultaneously. Business programs don’t always do that well—that is, they don’t always deliver what the market wants.

HOW SHOULD SCHOOLS RESPOND TO CHANGES IN STUDENT DEMOGRAPHICS? We’re still lagging behind on investing in diversity, in terms of the topics we cover and the people we talk about in our programs. If you look at the protagonists in our business school cases—international, women, nonnative English speakers, people of color—we are not representing the population we want in our programs. Our curricula need to move quickly on this to serve our student populations. We desperately need diversity in our MBA programs, so we need to be doing everything we can to make it happen.

ARE YOU HOPEFUL FOR THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS EDUCATION? We certainly face many challenges, but what’s important is that any school’s MBA program needs to be asking students, is what we’re doing relevant? Is it creating leaders that employers want? How can we make our MBA programs stand out and retain their place in the market and grow over time?

What I find exciting about my role is how much we’re seeing educational leaders—associate deans of specialized master’s programs or professional MBA programs—developing new delivery methods and new online programs. The level of work some of these educators are doing is amazing. There are many people in business schools who have been ready to make these moves. They’re excited by the possibilities.

I’ve been in this industry for 18 years now, and if we look at past trends in that time frame, entrepreneurship has come and gone twice already, and now it’s back in full force. But even as these trends come and go, our job is still to change how people think.

Read more about the evolution of the MBA market in "Imagining a New MBA" by Andrew Crisp.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, and letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.