Reinventing Business Education

If business schools want to prepare students for a post-pandemic economy, they’ll need to rely less on the traditional case study method and more on data analysis and experiential learning.

Action Learning

AS WE ENTER another month of lockdown, I’ve turned to exercising outdoors to combat cabin fever. I often walk and talk at a distance with several neighbors, one of whom serves as the CEO of a major player in the tourism industry. On a recent walk, my neighbor revealed that his customer base had evaporated into thin air overnight. Even after receiving substantial government aid, his company is headed for major restructuring. He and his colleagues are working day and night to stay afloat as the worst crisis in his company’s 50-year history shows no signs of abating.

Unfortunately, my neighbor’s dilemma is far from unique. The COVID-19 pandemic has pummeled the economy like a tidal wave. It’s a wave that will radically reshape the landscape before it finally recedes. Across industries, COVID-19 has permanently altered the way the world does business. To equip students to thrive in this new ecosystem, business schools must reevaluate their approaches to business education. We can start by questioning our widespread reliance on the case study method.


There are two common approaches to business school education. The case study approach favored by universities like Harvard, INSEAD, and the London Business School immerses students in explorations of past problems encountered by real companies. Originally inspired by schools of law, which have historically emphasized the intense study of previous trial cases, this methodology challenges students to take on roles of featured protagonists while debating a problem, presenting diverse viewpoints, and building on each other’s ideas. By the time they graduate, students at institutions like Harvard Business School have untangled more than 500 cases in preparation for the broad range of business problems they will inevitably encounter.

In contrast, skills-based programs have been adopted by universities like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and MIT. While these programs might incorporate some case studies into their curricula, they focus on helping students develop specific competencies in areas such as data analysis, operations research, and statistics. In particular, the growing market demand for expertise in data analytics has caught the attention of top business schools around the world and birthed a wave of new master’s degrees and MBA concentrations.

Both approaches contribute to a well-rounded business education, but now more than ever, business schools should invest more heavily in the skills-based approach. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses can no longer rely on past experience to navigate the massive disruptions they face. At no point in recent history have supply and demand curves shifted so abruptly, with no clear timeline for recovery. While the case study approach prepares students for careers in business by illuminating the problems of the past, the skills-based approach arms students with the tools they need to solve the problems of the future.


Business leaders need to be able to analyze real-time data and make quick decisions accordingly, particularly in times of crisis. Big data is not merely a buzzword—it’s a crucial driver of business operations into the future. Today, data touches every aspect of business, from supply chain management to personalized marketing. Out of necessity, companies are seeking employees who are able to glean valuable insights from massive data sets.

Alarmingly, a study conducted by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found that just 24 percent of senior decision makers in the U.S. are data-literate. While the business leaders of tomorrow will not need to become full-fledged data scientists or spend their days coding to remain competitive, they must approach data analysis with far more comfort and skill than their predecessors.


When it comes to imparting data literacy, the skills-based approach outpaces the case study approach to business education by a mile. By delivering classes that help students develop cutting-edge analytics skills—including the ability to use data mining, data visualization, and business intelligence software—business schools can teach students to speak the language of data with fluency. The more opportunities students have to bolster their analytical skills, the more prepared they will be to make organizational decisions across a variety of managerial settings. If they can view a complex, unwieldly data set as a realistic challenge rather than as an insurmountable barrier, students can tackle the most daunting challenges that come their way.

We can expand their comfort with data even further by drawing on a wide range of resources outside the business classroom. The potential for our faculty to collaborate across disciplines is virtually limitless. At London’s Imperial College Business School, for example, faculty members and students work alongside their counterparts from other departments at the college’s Data Science Institute, where they explore insights that data sets reveal about healthcare inequality, climate change, and other pressing global issues.


While the advantages of a skills-based approach over the case study method are evident, a skills-based approach is only as effective as its practical application. It is vital for business schools to integrate experiential learning opportunities into every facet of our programs. While today’s employers covet job candidates with analytical skills, they also seek candidates with the foundational skills that are best developed through experiential learning: critical thinking, adaptability, social perceptiveness, active listening, and complex problem-solving. Long before our students walk across the commencement stage, they should have opportunities to hone their newly acquired skills and apply those skills to real problems within existing organizations.

Experiential learning takes many forms. Internships, startup incubators, student-run investment firms, international study trips, and exchanges all play roles in bridging the divide between theory and practice. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Action Learning labs pair classroom sessions with real-world projects. Companies from around the world invite students to serve as consultants in labs designed around specific themes or countries. The China Lab, for example, pairs MIT students with students from five top business schools in China to solve a problem for a Chinese company. Other labs focus on solving problems in specific fields like healthcare, operations, and entrepreneurship. Similarly, the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California has developed an Action Learning Program that focuses on solving current business problems for companies through a ten-week immersive course. Through such learning opportunities, students don’t just encounter a good imitation of a business environment via a case study—they experience the real thing.   

At McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, Canada, students in our Master of Management in Analytics (MMA) program choose from a list of submitted proposals and leverage state-of-the-art data analytics tools to help partners optimize their organizational decisions. Launched in 2018 to provide specialized training in the field of management analytics, the MMA program has run more than 25 no-fee analytics projects to serve corporate and community partners.

In response to the hardship that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted on small- and medium-sized businesses, the MMA program has expanded its reach to pair experiential learning with crisis relief. In a new initiative called MMA Gives, students are working under the guidance of professors and a team of industry professionals to offer 100 free hours of consultation to local businesses with 100 or fewer employees. A dozen community partners are currently preparing to begin projects with MMA Gives, and we’re working to attract new partners through traditional and social media. 


At McGill University’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management, we are in the process of opening a live Retail Innovation Lab that will provide employers with insights to help them make better decisions related to the customer experience, supply chains, and other areas of business growth. In response to the pandemic, the Bensadoun School also has devised an upcoming series of student competitions geared toward producing actionable ideas that help the retail sector recover more quickly.

During this crisis, we can see more clearly than ever that the benefit of experiential learning extends far beyond students. It also encompasses the needs of companies and the communities they serve. Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to determine the form that experiential learning takes. At Desautels, project meetings and case simulations will take place on virtual platforms for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, our students are still working toward the same learning objectives and applying the same set of skills to real business problems as they were before. At the same time, they are developing the vital skills required to manage projects remotely. Luckily, the increased availability of business leaders to interact with students has smoothed their transition to virtual work. Despite the challenges of hands-on learning in a hands-off environment, students are taking advantage of these unusual opportunities to shape the future of entire companies. 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the philosopher George Santayana is famous for writing. Santayana might speak the truth, but we can draw only so many lessons from the past to apply to an event without precedent. The problems that stem from the COVID-19 pandemic are unlike most challenges we’ve faced before.

Just like my neighbor must restructure his business to a new reality, business schools need to rethink their most longstanding approaches to teaching and learning. We can’t know what the future holds, but we can reinvent business education to solve tomorrow’s problems. The only way out is forward.

Isabelle BajeuxIsabelle Bajeux-Besnainou is dean and professor of finance at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, Canada.