The Future of MBAs

Sotiris Karagiannis, Saša Žiković and Ivana Marinković discuss the demands and design of MBAs

For almost two decades MBA programmes have offered up-to-date education on burning business topics while giving students access to prestigious networks with job opportunities. But as COVID-19 emerged, leading inevitably to paradigm shifts in numerous dimensions, businesses were forced not only to promptly redesign their strategies and reposition their markets, but also to partially or fully ‘relocate’ to the online sphere.

The ‘turn’ to the online mode was phenomenally abrupt and even though it was widely expected that the situation would progressively align with the demands of Industry 4.0, substantial adjustment was needed. MBA programmes have consequently suffered the unprecedented state of reality and were forced to adapt to the new delivery. However, an even bigger challenge has arisen. Is there really a demand for what the traditional MBA offers to students and industries today? Are MBA programmes at a transition point where they should undergo a holistic revamping or should they keep up with the status quo and keep going as before?

Sotiris Karagiannis, Graduate Business Programs Director at the University of New York in Prague and Saša Žiković, Vice Dean for Science and International Strategic Partnerships at the Faculty of Economics and Business University of Rijeka in Croatia together with EFMD Global Network conducted a comprehensive online session on the forthcoming tomorrow of MBA programmes. “The future of MBAs: Facelift or a total reconstruction” gathered 80 participants from all over the globe and highlighted the most important dilemmas of the MBAs in the post-COVID time.

MBA programmes should be more original and designed together with the industry. The synergy between the business schools and the industry should be, to begin with, honest from both sides. Sometimes, we professors have this curse of thinking that we know best and at the same time, the industry is not always 100% right and that is why mutual communication and collaboration is needed from both parties.

The audience consisted of MBA directors, deans and vice deans, programme directors, senior programme managers, programme design and administration professionals, career services, alumni management and other business school executives. Participants formulated a set of questions focusing on the future of MBAs, and had a far-reaching discussion about the challenges and need to overhaul their MBA programmes.

What are the pros and cons of online delivery and will the COVID-19 pandemic shift MBA programmes further towards this mode of delivery?

When COVID-19 struck Europe in February 2020, the majority of HE institutions immediately shifted their work online. The hybrid model has remained active during and after the so called “virus peaks” and many believe that online learning will remain in place after the pandemic is over. However, throughout the pandemic, MBA students have expressed the desire to attend classes in person albeit with the necessary safety measures, stating that an MBA is “all about the networking and that the networking is not fully possible during the online mode”.

Yet even if the situation stabilises within one year, we can assume that the hybrid model will remain. The idea of recording lectures and not only broadcasting classes live may continue after the pandemic due to the fact that many students are working and they are unable to attend classes in real time. Nonetheless, MBA students may want to wait before enrolling for next year’s programme because the “social, physical, or so called, human” component of the classes is per se missing in the hybrid mode.

Do we prepare our MBA students to meet the needs of the Industry 4.0?

Even though all the information one needs today is accessible with just one click, everyone in the industry will need and want the “T-shaped set” of skills, a unique blend of specialised professional and interdisciplinary knowledge. The essential skills that are required for the 4.0 Industry era of digitalisation include cognitive, intrinsic, altruistic and holistic capacities that enable us to “see and feel” the reality from the perspective of others. These affinities will help us better understand and assist each other, our colleagues and our environment. The “t-shaped skill set” shouldn’t be mainly focused on industry, but also on academia and its requirements. Interdisciplinarity should be embedded in every curriculum and each scientific field.

The industry 4.0 requires a demanding set of skills; it wants stories to be told through data and numbers. And one therefore has to be a communicative, empathetic and persuasive expert. This is what the MBA is lacking today.

Introducing well-being courses in the MBA curriculum: a novelty or an absolute necessity?

Courses on well-being are definitely a necessity in today’s world. With the inevitable personal and social consequences of COVID-19, well-being courses can offer a healing zone to alleviate our stress, worries and insecurities. Such a course can be extremely beneficial for those who spent time in isolation and quarantine, who cannot go back home, or who were directly affected by COVID-19. The consensus is that all programmes should take care to include similar courses in their curricula to provide much-needed comfort, empathy and encouragement.

Why should MBA professors play the role of coaches/ mentors for their students?

Students are facing a Hamlet dilemma of how to develop themselves based on what they learn and what is accessible to them in the online arena. Professors on MBA programmes should hence help and empower their students on a personal level as well, and as their coaches, support them as they acquire a desirable set of soft and hard skills. On the other hand, professors should also be role models and advise students on how to successfully meet the demands of Industry 4.0. The relationship between students and their coaches/mentors can be a beneficial, reciprocal learning journey where both parties have the unique opportunity to further develop and broaden their knowledge and tackle problems. Simultaneously, special attention should be given in curriculum development to providing adequate training for professors to thrive within new their coaching/mentoring roles.

Was too much emphasis put on internationalisation instead of regionalisation and how can we build a compromise between the two?

MBA programmes have always sought to have an international image, but what will happen to programmes outside the top tiers? We see today what the top-ranked MBAs can pursue with their international agendas, but for smaller MBA programmes, strategy has aimed more at the regional markets. This diversification of course has ample pros and cons: regional vs. international markets may give the students an additional ‘personal touch’ because of cultural similarities, but on the other hand, institutions should be cautious not to lose their brand identity. For MBA programmes with a well-established international identity, regionalisation may have an impact on how future students perceive the overall programme including any imminent market restrictions. The strategy of regionalisation is thus most desirable for countries with common language, history, customs etc., as with Scandinavian and some Asian countries. Another important question is the extent to which curriculum design should focus mainly on international content.

MBA programmes should not forget that on graduating, the majority of students will be working in their local economies. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to isomorphism within the MBA programmes and we can clearly see that the ‘one size fits all’ format, teaching with the same case studies, materials and international approach, may not be suitable for every region. The future of MBAs thus should definitely be tackled together with the industry, and curricula should be designed in accordance with the Industry 4.0 demands. In parallel, business schools should not feel bound by the current strategic status quo; on the contrary, they can learn from the contextual frames and embed in their curriculum the current ‘new normal’ industry necessities and a more ‘personal’ approach including the coaching/ mentoring relationship and support.

What will happen with alumni communities and networking in the online arena?

As Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can.” We should thus focus on the strengths of the present reality. The online environment gives many more opportunities for meeting and staying connected, and business schools should embrace this momentum. The online arena is a brilliant forum for alumni from different regions to stay in touch and exchange ideas and best practices. Staying connected online should be boosted by the social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, WeChat and similar as essential means of communication at present. A deeper question arises in relation to the authenticity of these online relationships: are those relationships among students equally strong and long-lasting as the in-person ones? Can virtual reality replace the good old meeting over a “glass of wine”? One potential solution for alumni associations in the COVID-19 era is to organise virtual conferences uniquely designed for alumni groups on a platform where they can continue to brainstorm and communicate in the future.

What is the secret of a successful MBA programme?

The key to a successful MBA programme is originality: business schools should not try to copy the models of the top tiers, but to strive towards innovation and improvement in their own way. These continuous processes de facto need time and they do not miraculously happen overnight, but once the quality sui generis is present, it will be acknowledged both by the market and the industry. MBAs should ‘listen’ to the demands of Industry 4.0 and simultaneously adapt their curricula to the needs of the “new normal”. They should become ‘liquid’, with more opportunities for students to choose different subjects and hybrid learning models. As Daniel Pink states in his “3.0 motivational theory”, MBAs should also move in the direction of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The essence of the future MBA lies in these three pillars. To begin with, each MBA programme should firstly define its purpose in collaboration with its stakeholders, industry, professors and students. Autonomy is a metaphor for a new self-direction that will help students with their future professional and personal choices, as well as fostering continuous learning and engagement during and after their studies.

Latest posts by Ivana Marinkovic (see all)
Latest posts by Sotiris Karagiannis (see all)
    Latest posts by Saša Žiković (see all)

      Leave a Comment