Your Turn: B-Schools Strike Out on Unconventional Paths

We have much to learn about partnerships and innovation by seeking out unexpected perspectives beyond the borders of our campuses.

Your Turn

WHEN I THINK of what the future holds, I often think of the 19th-century classic novel Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, both by Lewis Carroll. In the first book, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, “Which way should I go?” The cat answers, “It all depends on where you want to get to.” When Alice replies, “I don’t much care where,” he concludes, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

The Cheshire Cat might say the same to business educators, whose success very much depends on where they want to go in a quickly changing market. More students are finding that online courses delivered by alternative providers offer less costly and equally effective ways for them to update their skills. And labor market data firm Burning Glass Technologies has found that the most desired certifications requested by employers are now conferred by industry associations, not traditional higher ed. Given these realities, which way business schools choose to go will make a huge difference in whether they flourish or eventually become irrelevant.

Business schools must study their markets carefully to determine how they can push themselves in wholly new directions. Once, like Alice, they realize where they want to go, they’ll need to develop strong relationships with a range of unlikely allies—not just Fortune 500 companies, but startups, nonprofits, foundations, governments, high schools, and other business schools heading down similar paths.


We can learn a great deal about how organizations forge unconventional paths from, strangely enough, the circus. In 1984, Guy Laliberté, a one-time accordion player, stilt walker, and fire-eater, co-founded a Canadian entertainment company called Cirque du Soleil. With business partner Gilles Ste-Croix, Laliberté dared to take on the industry giant, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, in what was widely viewed as a declining industry.

And he had spectacular success. In only 33 years, Cirque du Soleil’s revenues have exceeded what it took its main competitor more than a century to attain. Cirque du Soleil’s spectacular performances have been viewed by in excess of 100 million people in more than 100 cities around the world, and its annual earnings exceed a billion dollars. Not only that, while Cirque du Soleil’s franchise is now stronger than ever, Ringling Bros., once its primary competitor, closed its run for good May 2017.

How did Laliberté achieve this feat? Through two steps: finding the right partners and changing the parameters of his industry.

Laliberté understood well how the right partnerships could help him find new audiences for his products. He first struck a deal with the hotel group MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, which provided facilities and promotion to help the circus grow. He then partnered with Walt Disney to create a show to reach the diverse audiences that came to Walt Disney World. Next, Laliberté and his team rebranded their programs to attract new, nontraditional audiences.

At the same time, Laliberté and Ste-Croix created new models that completely changed the game in the entertainment industry. Where Ringling Bros. focused on animal acts and human acrobatic acts showcased within its classic “three-ring” format, Cirque du Soleil used no animals and instead infused its performances with artistry, glamour, sophistication, and storylines that captured the audience’s imagination. In short, unlike Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Cirque du Soleil worked to move the space in which it operated from success to significance.


Can long-established business schools follow Laliberté’s lead? Are they prepared to embrace innovative strategies that respond to the needs and aspirations of tomorrow’s students? The answer to these questions is, cautiously, yes.

For example, several Canadian universities are setting up incubator programs especially for tech startups. They include the University of Waterloo’s Velocity program. The largest free startup incubator in the world, Velocity collaborates with 21st-century companies such as Google and Amazon. Not only does it not charge startups any fees to participate in its programs, it also does not take any equity in their ideas.

Cortex, a similar collaborative effort, was launched in 2002 by Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and the University of Missouri–St. Louis, in partnership with the hospital system BJC Healthcare and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Since its inception, the regional innovation hub for technology and biotech has attracted more than US$550 million in investment capital and generated more than 4,200 tech jobs. Notable Cortex projects under development include a $53 million tech facility, anchored by Microsoft, which is scheduled to open in the summer of 2018; and a $13 million station for MetroLink, the city’s light rail transit system, which will open by early 2019.

A thriving business school must have a similar willingness to embrace bold new directions. And it must have courageous and collaborative leaders and followers who are willing to challenge the status quo and do away with programs that the market no longer validates.

Certainly, schools still can serve traditional undergraduate and graduate students, but part-time, evening, online, and lifelong learners will represent an ever-increasing share of the market. Business schools that do not respond to this shift place themselves at unnecessary disadvantage.


To accomplish all of this in smart, strategic ways, academic leaders must keep in mind the experience of Cirque Du Soleil: To achieve successful transformation, they’ll need partners—both large and small—who can help them challenge the status quo, stay nimble, and take smart risks.

Are you currently seeking out dynamic partnerships to help guide your business school’s future transformation? If so, here are five points to consider:

Seek out local, national, and international partnerships. Wide-ranging perspectives will provide a more complete view of the market.

Let partners take the lead by articulating their needs and their understanding of the market. Go into each conversation with an open mind and be willing to give everyone an equal voice at the table.

Co-create curricula and co-teach courses with partnering organizations. Such collaboration inspires ownership, sparks more creative programs, and ensures long-term relationships.

Go into partnerships without too many parameters to go beyond best practices and enable new paradigms.

Be prepared to live in a state of perpetual flux, where you are better positioned to embrace innovations happening beyond your school’s walls. The most unexpected perspectives are most often found out in the real world. That’s where significance resides.


As Carroll’s Alice notes, “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.” Business schools are in a similar continuous state of transition. Their future belongs not to those that replicate what already exists. Rather, it belongs to those that let transitions take them to new places and inspire them to develop a clear-eyed vision of who they are, where they are going, and how they will get there.

Luckily, we have a valuable roadmap for change. First, business schools must identify ways to increase their significance to society. Second, they must identify ways they can fulfill that significance in the evolving market. Finally, they must seek out like-minded partners who can help them on their journeys, just as Cirque du Soleil did as it transformed live performance.

With this three-step approach, schools can better understand generational and global diversity. They can seek out new populations of students and pinpoint what they’re good at, and can be great at, in terms of serving these populations. They can design nontraditional programs that reduce the cost of educational delivery and increase enrollments. And perhaps most difficult of all, they can summon the courage to eliminate programs that are no longer relevant, while developing metrics to demonstrate the impact of their graduates and faculty.

All of this might sound impossible. But as the Queen of Hearts tells young Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

My dear colleagues, breakfast is over. It’s time to get started.

Benjamin Ola Akande is senior advisor to the chancellor at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, and the former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].