Stronger Together

Schools find that by banding together, they can solve common problems, cut costs, improve student outcomes—and stay ahead of disruptions in the field. A look at five very different alliances.
Stronger Together

HIGHER EDUCATION IS in a state of accelerating disruption as new technology, alternative providers—and now, a global pandemic—reshape what is taught in the classroom and how. One way business schools can weather the turbulence is by forming networks that share content, resources, technological knowledge, and faculty expertise. Such alliances help schools save money, expand their offerings, and deliver the best learning options to their students.

Take the Future of Management Education (FOME) alliance, which formed in 2018 as a way for schools to accelerate their adoption of online course delivery. Members not only discuss ways to use their common hosting platform, but also rely on the technology to offer each other’s courses to their own students.

“The higher education industry is very fragmented, so it’s absolutely ideal for collaboration, because with collaboration you get scale,” says Nick Barniville, associate dean of degree programs and director of the EdTech Lab at ESMT Berlin in Germany. According to Barniville, who represents his school in the FOME alliance, “From the perspective of students, what an individual school can offer in the future is probably not going to be sufficient to their needs, and that’s especially true for small schools. I think the industry will see a lot more collaborations in the future.”

Being part of a large, committed group also can lend individual program directors more credibility when they propose ideas to their parent universities, says Kevin Schulman, professor of medicine and economics at Stanford University in California. Schulman is the president of the Business School Alliance for Health Management (BAHM), a network of business schools that offer healthcare programs. “You can go to your dean, your faculty, or your students and show how you compare with the best practices from peer programs or how you might leapfrog the field with innovative new programs,” he says. “What you say and do can carry more weight when you are part of an organization whose mission is to advance research, scholarship, and innovation in your field.”

While business schools have long formed partnerships to launch joint programs and promote student and faculty exchanges, some newer alliances tackle one specific challenge. These narrowly focused networks yield information that schools can use to improve their programs, cut their costs, or increase their impact on industry.

Here, representatives of five such groups discuss why these alliances formed, how they’re organized, and what kind of results they’ve had so far.

Assessing Edtech

Business schools unite over shared technology. .

THE FOME ALLIANCE was launched two years ago by a group of business schools that came together over their interest in using an online learning management system that had been developed by Imperial College in the U.K.

“At ESMT Berlin, we had been using Moodle to run our face-to-face programs, and we were considering Canvas for going hybrid,” says Nick Barniville, who represents ESMT in the FOME alliance. “We also thought about an online program manager like Coursera, but we think blended delivery is going to be core to our business model, and we didn’t want to give away too much revenue in the long term.”

Eventually eight schools joined the young alliance with the goal of sharing both technological expertise and online educational content. While all member schools had to agree to use the same learning platform, in order to facilitate sharing, the platform has subsequently been spun out to a company called insendi. The schools are also exploring other kinds of technology, such as bringing holograms into the classroom.

The sharing of knowledge and content has enabled member schools to make dramatic leaps forward in their online presence.

“Once a group of schools is using similar technology, the technology becomes cheaper, and collaboration using the same technology becomes easier,” says Barniville. “It’s so much better to be part of a group that’s discussing these technologies than to try to figure them out entirely on your own.”

The sharing of knowledge and content has enabled member schools to make dramatic leaps forward in their online presence. “For instance, at ESMT, we were late into the online game, so our first priority was to build content for ourselves,” says Barniville. “Within a year of starting the alliance, we were able to launch a blended MBA program with a custom client, and we are making plans to launch a blended MBA program for the open market.”

The shared platform has made it easy for members to exchange content, either by swapping courses with partner schools or paying for usage. Each school also determines how to compensate faculty when other alliance members use their courses. “At ESMT, we have an intellectual property rights agreement with our faculty that they will get a certain percentage of the revenue when we sell their courses,” says Barniville.

Having this sharing model in place has shaped the way FOME schools create their online programs. “For instance, at ESMT, we will develop our own courses if we have significant reuse potential for them,” says Barniville. “However, when it comes to some specialized courses, we don’t want to develop them ourselves because by the time we’ve used them enough to repay our costs, they’ll be out of date. But if, say, the Melbourne Business School offers an esoteric course that would never be profitable for us to produce, it’s as easy as copy-and-paste to put that course onto our platform and treat it as if it’s being offering by visiting faculty.”

FOME schools are beginning to discuss a second, higher level of cooperation in which two or three members work together on content that students can use toward completion of degree programs. “We would collaborate on production, co-brand an online program, and certify each other’s content,” says Barniville. “Students who took those courses would be exempt from some face-to-face elements of the programs. We’re looking at how we could develop these collaborative programs across multiple schools.”

For the future, FOME members are also considering how they can allow students to build on their experiences at one school and continue their studies at another school. “If students have done the core work with us, they may want to get another school experience, or they may want to start working, or they may want to earn a double degree,” he says. “We want to figure out how to bring students into our partners’ networks. We’re not there yet.”

FOME’s future might also include an expansion of its network, which currently includes BI Norwegian School of Business, ESMT Berlin, EDHEC Business School, IE Business School, Imperial College Business School, Ivey Business School at Western University Canada, Singapore Management University, and Melbourne Business School

“The goal is to find schools that can bring value to other partners in the network and that are interested in program-based collaboration,” says Barniville. “The new ideal partners could be schools that have significant experience in developing blended content in custom education, which would aid us in adding functionality to insendi.”

Even with an expanded alliance, the goals would remain the same: to continuously improve the learning outcomes for students and to learn from the experiences of other schools. Says Barniville, “At ESMT, we went from zero online presence to being able to deliver an 80 percent online MBA in one year, and we couldn’t have done that without what we learned from the alliance. We believe that blended is where the future potential is going to be for our school.”


A Healthy Perspective

Healthcare programs share best practices and offer insights to practitioners.

THE BUSINESS SCHOOL Alliance for Health Management (BAHM) was founded in 2010 to support management programs that focus on the healthcare sector. “Developing healthcare leaders has some unique challenges in a business school environment, both in the U.S. and globally,” says Stanford’s Kevin Schulman, founding president of the alliance.

Through BAHM, schools share best practices, showcase their research and programs, and respond in real-time to events affecting healthcare. They also benefit from members-only activities such as the following:

The Women Faculty Initiative, which encourages female faculty members to share ideas, engage in professional development, and collaborate on projects. For instance, the initiative sponsors webinars that feature junior and senior women faculty members discussing their research; webinars are then made available for other members to view.

Case competitions for students studying healthcare at BAHM schools. The annual competitions are hosted by member schools, who pick the judges and organize the prizes. Students address urgent issues in healthcare, such as the opioid crisis, and propose business solutions to healthcare questions. The 2019 competition was held at Harvard and connected to the university’s annual healthcare conference, which heightened the event’s visibility. The winning team is invited to submit a paper to BAHM’s Health Management Policy and Innovation journal.

Student clubs. These offer students networking opportunities and access to webinars that focus on everything from professional development to current trends in the healthcare field, such as value-based care and healthcare entrepreneurship. Many webinars feature industry executives and entrepreneurs as a way to “give students access to additional professors and expertise, expanding what they are exposed to in their own programs,” says Kirsten Gallagher, BAHM’s managing director.

Currently, BAHM has 20 members, including Baruch College, Baylor University, Boston University, Georgia State, Harvard University, IESE Business School, INCAE Business School, the Indian School of Business, the University of California Berkeley, the University of Colorado Denver, the University of Miami, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the University of Toronto, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, and Yale University. Its three newest members—the University of Michigan, Strathmore University Business School in Nairobi, and Johns Hopkins University—joined earlier this year. The alliance hopes to bring in additional schools, including international institutions, in the future.

“In the healthcare space, a lot of reverse innovation is happening in emerging economies, and having a diverse membership can accelerate the back-translation of innovative ideas,” says Gallagher.

To select new members for the alliance, a membership subcommittee evaluates applications, considering factors such as the kind of healthcare research the school is conducting and the number of healthcare business courses the school offers.

Once schools join, they are encouraged to make the most of the alliance by joining committees and getting involved in activities. Says Gallagher, “As with every other organization, what members invest helps determine the value they derive. We really see this as a member- driven organization.”


Identify and Retain

A consortium of universities focuses on high-risk students.

THE UNIVERSITY INNOVATION Alliance (UIA) was formed in 2013 by 11 U.S. universities that were all working on strategies for retaining low-income and first-generation students. After almost a year of private planning, the alliance rolled out publicly in September 2014. With the help of funding provided by foundations and the universities themselves, the alliance launched with US$5.7 million in philanthropic support; to date, the organization has raised nearly $30 million. Most of the money goes directly to the UIA members to help fund collaborative new projects that are aimed at retaining at-risk students.

Every year, UIA launches one of these big projects, which any of the 11 members can join. Each project is identified by university representatives as a potential solution to a current problem, and it is based on an intervention that has already been conducted at one of the member schools. Once projects are finished, the schools share their learning with each other as well as the larger industry. In 2020, the alliance will launch its sixth major collaborative project.

In UIA’s first year, the collaborative project revolved around using predictive analytics to identify and help at-risk students. At the time, three member schools had been experimenting with predictive analytics, but were using different vendors and applying the information in different ways. By the end of the year, ten of the campuses were also using predictive analytics, though they were all at different stages.

“This is the ideal scenario,” explains Bridget Burns, UIA’s executive director. She is one of six central staff members who support the entire initiative. “We know that one school can’t copy and paste another’s solutions. It can look intensely at what other schools have done, but it has to find its own interpretation. Each school has to adapt the idea into its culture.”

In 2020, alliance schools are investigating the use of chatbots, which can be used to nudge students through the enrollment process and answer repetitive questions that might overwhelm a frontline staff member. “Every campus is participating, but some are doing it as learners, and some are already implementing the technology, so they are generating learning for the others,” says Burns. “We’re all using chatbots in our normal lives, so higher education should join the 21st century.”

In addition to launching major projects, UIA staff members engage in “matchmaking” to pair up schools that have the same problem—or a school with a problem and a school with a potential solution. Because members have developed a high degree of trust with each other, says Burns, “they are willing to share things that have gone wrong in a way that they probably wouldn’t with a total stranger.”

That trust is strong in part because, to date, the UIA has not expanded beyond its founding group: the University of Central Florida, Oregon State, Arizona State, the University of Kansas, Georgia State, Purdue University, Ohio State, the University of California Riverside, Iowa State, the University of Texas at Austin, and Michigan State. The alliance initially stayed small because members weren’t certain that their ideas could scale—or that they would be able to hit the ambitious goals they issued in the first year. But that will soon change, says Burns.

“The members publicly committed to graduate 68,000 additional students above what they were on track to produce,” she explains. “They also committed to increasing low-income graduates, to innovating together, to sharing their data, and to holding down costs. Five years in, we’re on track to produce 130,000 additional graduates. We’ve increased our low-income graduates by 29 percent, and we’ve managed to hold down costs to a fairly significant degree. We didn’t know when we started if we would succeed, and it seemed imprudent to start this experiment and then halfway through invite more people in. But now that we’re exceeding our goals, we’re ready for a new chapter.”

While the alliance is still finalizing the criteria for membership and the number of new partners to admit, a few things are already certain. Says Burns, “We want to add partners who share our values around collaboration, transparency, and accountability—and who are committed to creating a future where opportunity gaps no longer exist.”