Responding to the Times

AACSB’s new board chair explores how the association plans to adapt to trends in business, technology, and management education.
Responding to the Times

AACSB INTERNATIONAL LAUNCHED its Collective Vision in 2016 with the ambitious goal of enabling business schools to play a part in driving change around the world in the coming decades. As I take on my responsibilities as the association’s new board chair, I think often about one of the key roles we identified—that of being “enablers of global prosperity.”

Business education has traditionally focused on maximizing shareholder wealth. We teach students to evaluate the management of supply chains, to create manufacturing efficiencies, and to share innovation. Yet if business schools truly are going to enable global prosperity, we also must graduate students “who know how to generate wealth, consume resources, and create innovation in ways that are responsible, inclusive, and humanistic,” as the Collective Vision states.

This is an important task to undertake in an era when nationalism and the possibility of trade wars are creating rising tension. At the heart of the issue are two questions: Who are the people who matter? Are they only my fellow countrymen and women, or are they the citizens of the world?

At AACSB, we view global prosperity as a way to make the world a better place for all people, a rising tide that lifts all boats. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that certain trading patterns and tariffs can have negative effects on some communities in some parts of the world. We need to keep in mind that global prosperity might mean that most people are better off, not everybody, and we have to consider how to address that disparity. We must understand that current perceptions of global trade have changed what our students need to know, and we must respond in a timely way.

If there is one theme I expect to dominate my tenure as board chair, that would be it: responding in a timely way to an ever-changing business and social environment. Some of those changes will be brought about intentionally, as when the association revamps its own core product; and some of those changes will come about as the result of outside forces. But AACSB and its member schools will need to remain adaptable in order to stay relevant in the future.

STANDARDS IN PROGRESS

One of the biggest changes the association will face in the coming year is also one of the most exciting: a new set of accreditation standards. The most recent standards were launched in 2013, and historically we have not moved quite so quickly to make updates. But two factors have encouraged us to hasten our timetable.

One, we had great success revising and implementing the new accounting standards, which very actively engaged members of the accounting profession in determining how new standards could benefit both our students and the profession. And two, when we put our 2013 standards in place, there was a great deal of uncertainty about what the future of management education would look like and where the association might go. We knew that we needed to be nimble to keep up with changes in the industry—and the success of the new accounting standards convinced us that we could indeed move as quickly as necessary.

I’m an optimist about business education, which is in a process of continuous improvement.

We convened a Business Accreditation Task Force (BATF) in July 2018, and it has already done remarkable work identifying key issues and gathering feedback from members. We expect the first draft of the new standards to be unveiled at the Global Accreditation Conference this September and a second draft at the Deans Conference next February. A final version will be presented to the membership for a vote at the International Conference and Annual Meeting taking place in April 2020 in Denver, Colorado. If the new standards are accepted, there will be a two- or three-year transition as we implement them.

We believe the 2020 standards will offer efficiencies and simplifications that will reduce the burden on our member schools while still supporting continuous improvement, strategic planning, and tailored goal setting. Input from schools has already provided useful insights in several key areas, such as faculty qualifications. For instance, while members continue to value high-quality faculty, they have indicated a desire for more flexibility in determining how to deploy qualified faculty in ways that further each school’s individual mission.

Many other aspects of the standards are also being reviewed. Among other ideas, we are considering how to create efficiencies in the assurance of learning process, how to develop and deploy peer review teams and mentors, and how to leverage technology to streamline reporting and the accreditation visit. We’re also looking at how to foster innovation in the curriculum and how to emphasize the connection between business education and the practice of business. In short, our goal is to promote high-quality outcomes with a more principles-based framework of standards that works globally and will stand the test of time.

The task force members, located around the globe, have worked diligently to advance our standards and improve management education. But while it is the BATF’s responsibility to craft the standards, it is the board’s responsibility to facilitate and evaluate the group’s work, and to prepare a draft that members can vote on at ICAM. I believe that finalizing the 2020 standards will be the No. 1 task for all of us next year.

BUSINESS IN TRANSITION

The association also is paying close attention to the trends that are affecting business itself, and leading us in that endeavor is our Innovation Committee. In recent years, the committee has been particularly interested in the technological innovations that are transforming both boardrooms and classrooms.

The digital space has matured at such a frenetic pace that experts are saying “digital transformation” is one of the biggest issues companies will be dealing with for years to come. Today’s business leaders need to understand how artificial intelligence could affect their industries and how data analytics could power their companies. At the same time, executives must be prepared to manage virtual teams that span languages, cultures, and traditions.

We have to think about how the evolving workplace forces us to evolve at the university. We must teach our students about analytics, machine learning, the Internet of Things, and the digitization of information, because this knowledge is not optional. Students and faculty alike must cultivate a growth mindset that enables them to adapt quickly to emerging technologies. Today, many business schools are developing programs built around analytics, because some of the most highly prized new hires are graduates who understand how to use data to achieve company objectives. In the current market, even MBAs might need to focus as much on data science as on finance.

But digital transformation isn’t just changing what we teach—it’s changing how we teach. Schools are offering online, hybrid, and MOOC courses; they’re enabling students to work in virtual teams, both across colleges and across universities. They are providing students with learning environments that are patterned after evolving office environments so that graduates will be comfortable in the workplace of the future.

I’ve heard people say that a student from 75 years ago could be dropped into one of today’s classrooms and find it familiar, because there would still be a sage on the stage lecturing to a group of people. While that might be true some of the time, it’s not the only truth. Our classrooms have changed to match the changing workplace.

EDUCATION AS A JOURNEY

Another way universities are evolving right along with business is through the notion of lifelong learning. Organizations know that it’s not enough to hire and train their talent; they also must develop their executives as continuously growing learners. And, as more people live to be 100 years old, more of them will work well past the age of 65. At that point, workers can’t rely on the skills and knowledge they gained when they were 25. They will have to acquire additional knowledge as their career needs change.

As business schools, we must provide students with opportunities for lifelong learning no matter where they are in their educational journeys. All of our various student populations—undergraduates, grad students, full-time MBA students, part-time MBA students, online students, and executives—are looking for something specific from the learning experience. Executives might need quick certificate courses that help them hone particular skills. Part-time students might want courses with practical information that they can apply when they return to work the next day. Undergraduates might need professional development programs as much as they need training in business fundamentals. Students enrolled in MOOCs might want opportunities to test the waters to determine whether they would like to enroll in degree programs. We have to meet the needs of all these different groups as we prepare them for the workplace.

We must also recognize that many firms want to engage with our students earlier in the educational process, through internships or other interactions, so they can better identify potential new employees. As the hiring process shifts, schools must keep pace. In many cases, this means pouring more resources into our professional development and career services departments, because they play such important roles in maintaining our engagement with the companies that hire our students.

AN OPTIMIST’S FORECAST

As I review these priorities for the upcoming year, I see that AACSB and its members remain focused on the three pillars of impact, innovation, and engagement. We are considering the impact that our programs have both on learners and on business; we are embracing innovation in what we teach, how we teach, and how we revise our standards; and we are fostering engagement among our schools and all of our stakeholders.

While it’s only recently that these pillars have been formally articulated, I believe they have always been part of AACSB’s DNA. They’ve marked the path that we always have traveled as we led the way for business schools worldwide, and I believe innovation, impact, and engagement will continue to guide us into the future.

I’m an optimist about business education, which I see as being in a process of continuous improvement. All the changes and challenges we face in the coming months are just opportunities for us to make management education even better in the future.

John A. Elliott is interim provost at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where he also holds the Auran J. Fox Chair in Business and was appointed dean of the School of Business in 2012. Elliott will serve as AACSB International’s board chair for the 2019–2020 academic year.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

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