Can We Survive Without the MBA?

Two years ago, King’s Business School in London was launched without an MBA program in its portfolio. What prompted that decision—and what will the school do next?

Your Turn Kings College

When King’s College London opened its business school in 2017, we decided not to include an MBA program. Since that time, I have been asked everything from “Is this commercial suicide for King’s Business School?” to “Is this the beginning of the end for the MBA?” While I certainly hope the answer to both of these questions is “no,” our decision not to lead with an MBA was a straightforward one.

We opened the school about a decade after the financial crash—and all the changes that the subsequent recession brought to the global economy. Recently, the Institute for Public Policy Research, a U.K. think tank, unveiled radical proposals for the future of the U.K. economy. Dame Helena Morrisey, a member of the report’s commission, said, “I don’t think you’ll find many in business … who think the economy is perfect. Like me, they think we need a more responsible and fairer form of capitalism.’’

This comment reminded me of my own experiences teaching MBA programs in the early 1990s, when finance was king and command-and-control was the most practiced form of leadership. Of course, the world has changed, but the people I taught then are leading the economy today.

When I speak to these same CEOs, directors, and entrepreneurs, they are united in reflecting that business schools have neglected their roles in and responsibilities to the wider society. Carrying out these responsibilities is more important than ever as geopolitics becomes more perplexing and unpredictable; businesses and business schools have an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the world.

I want King’s Business School to educate responsible leaders who create positive, sustainable change in business and wider society. And while I do not suggest that an MBA is intrinsically opposed to that goal, I think it is worth considering if an MBA is the right vehicle to achieve these ambitions. At our school, we want to explore different ways to deliver business education and see if they meet our goal of turning out responsible leaders.

A B-School Without an MBA

Four additional factors shaped our decision to open the business school without incorporating an MBA program:

1. The competitive market for management education. In London alone, we are neighbors with some world-class incumbents. London Business School, Imperial College Business School, the London School of Economics, and Cass Business School at City, University of London, are all in the same travelcard zone as King’s Business School. In addition, peers from other locations—including Warwick Business School, Hult International Business School, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, to name a few—increasingly see London as a key component in their multicampus offerings.

Jumping into this crowded and vibrant marketplace with a hastily developed MBA product simply does not make sense. Instead, we have concentrated on creating programs that will make us distinctive.

For a start, we already have a “signature dish”: our master’s in international management (MiIM) program. As a 2017 GMAC report noted, many business school deans are grappling with the question of how to accommodate both master’s in management programs and MBA programs in their portfolios. The same report also describes the exponential growth in the popularity and quality of master’s in management programs, especially in Europe.

These findings reinforce our own thinking. We have therefore made the decision to lead with our MiIM by investing in the program, listening to our students, and appointing a new academic director. The King’s Business School MiIM already has a vibrant, engaged community of over 1,000 alumni, and it continues to grow.

2. Changing student attitudes. Two years ago, we commissioned research that mapped social media conversations of current, former, and prospective business school students. The sample included students from around the world discussing their experiences at dozens of business schools. The results were revealing.

For example, we found that 46 percent of students wanted to learn entrepreneurial skills at business school. They’re particularly interested in developing soft skills, such as collaboration (30 percent) and creativity (27 percent). What is really striking is that students see a business school as the most useful place to learn these skills.

At the same time, this research showed us that just 11 percent of students prefer a lecture format for learning. If business schools don’t move away from traditional educational models, we risk being disrupted by alternative providers. Recent entrants to the business education market, whether Hyper Island or Seth Godin’s altMBA, provide ways of learning that fit with the lifestyles and the personalities of tomorrow’s leaders. We must learn from the dynamic, collaborative, and highly interactive techniques these providers use—and determine which of the old models we need to jettison.

3. Employer expectations. Students aren’t the only ones who think business schools should teach soft skills. When I speak to employers, they repeatedly use words like resilient, collaborative, creative, resourceful, and socially aware when they discuss the types of graduates they want to hire. They are seeking employees who are agile as soon as they enter the workplace and who have the emotional maturity to be adaptive on the job.

The pace of change, whether technological or political, is often outrunning even the most sophisticated of enterprises. The business leaders I speak to recognize this and want their recruits to move with this pace, and rise to its challenges, rather than be overwhelmed and start sinking. I strongly believe that business education must prepare our students to respond to this rapidly changing world.

4. Other opportunities for the business school. Another reason we decided not to invest resources in an MBA was that we wanted to put more energy into our undergraduate programs. Today’s employers are interested in identifying potential talent earlier than ever, which means younger students must be prepared to work. At King’s Business School, we spent much of 2018 reengineering our undergraduate program to focus on employability and a raft of co-curricular programs. My careers team spent time at Stanford University learning Design Your Life principles, which help individuals apply design thinking to their own life choices. We are also exploring with King’s Entrepreneurship Institute how the entrepreneur’s tool kit can permeate our curriculum.

This formative development is balanced with opportunities for students to master technical skills through experiences that range from coding and data analytics courses to hands-on consultancy projects. We recently completed a pilot program with Westminster City Council that enabled our students to act as consultants to local startups and small businesses; more students participated in the program’s second year. We are able to pour resources into these undergraduate programs in part because we are not devoting those resources to an MBA.

The Future Is Bright

I believe King’s Business School is well-placed to explore exciting new directions for the future. We have always been strong in areas such as human resources, organization, and international management, and now we are expanding into fields such as corporate finance and economics. In addition, we have launched two research institutes focused on big data.

At the same time, we are entering into interdisciplinary collaborations with our colleagues across King’s College London, which we hope will result in genuinely distinctive contributions to management education. For instance, last year we ran three “Executive Open Days” to try out new material for business audiences. Among the offerings were business-focussed sessions that we developed with the Department of Defence Studies and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.

In the future, I want us to explore additional collaborations openly and with an entrepreneurial spirit. We might discover that our school is well-placed to launch a wholly new kind of MBA, possibly one suited for a specific market or type of student. Or we might decide that an MBA will never be right for our school. In that case, would this interdisciplinary approach work better within standalone master’s programs? Or as bespoke executive education? Can we deliver the most value to our students, employers, and the wider economy by integrating interdisciplinary offerings into the undergraduate program? These are the questions that I find most stimulating on my way to work each morning.

Business schools that want to be leaders have a responsibility to innovate management education, instead of just trying to focus on sustaining the preeminence of any one type of program. King’s Business School wants to be one of those leaders. If we can deliver on that responsibility with a new MBA, we will. If we must create something new, we will. Either way, watch this space.

Stephen BachStephen Bach is dean of King’s College Business School at King’s College London in the U.K. .