The MBA and the value of practitioner engagement

Sarah Hardcastle discusses the vast advisory ecosystem that enables programme teams to better understand the fast-changing business environment and improve the business relevance of the MBA.

MBA Director: I have heard from MBA students in the US, UK and in Europe: they quite often complain that they don’t have enough connections with practice, despite all our efforts to make connections with practice!’

After 34 in-depth discussions with those leading and running MBA programmes across the globe, examining the structures and types of advice practitioners provide, we realised we had something a little larger on our hands than our planned short supplement on MBA advisory boards!

Senior Business School Leader: You have an entire group of accomplished advisors who want to work with you, so they can contribute to the success of the MBA. That’s all they want. And if you are not able to leverage that, then there’s something wrong – wrong with you, or the school or in the system.’

Our new complimentary Sharing the Experience report, “The MBA and The Value of Practitioner Engagement”, discusses the vast advisory ecosystem surrounding the MBA, providing the many touchpoints that enable programme teams to better understand the fast-changing business environment and improve the business relevance of the MBA. MBA teams gain extremely valuable advice and insight from these external connections, drawing from strategic, international, department and specific programme advisory boards as well as a wider pool of advisors: this is indeed the programme that everyone wants to talk about.

But is an MBA advisory board always necessary? Given the amount of advice available to programme teams some, with set structures to ensure relevance, struggle with the need for a formal board. Those with faculty truly embedded in and networked with business through executive education, research and consultancy, can find it a superfluous layer of bureaucracy they would rather do without. Others that have invested time and effort into building an MBA board with a clear purpose and remit, encouraging the bonding necessary for board members to work as a team, find it an invaluable resource and support to them professionally and to the programme as a whole.

As with any advice, choosing advisors wisely to generate views that are diverse in many ways drives interesting discussion and debate and is something that is really appreciated by programme teams, benefitting the students through greater relevance of curriculum and the achievement of optimal student outcomes. We found that within their advisory mix of businesses, schools try to ensure that they have both consultants and entrepreneurs, along with third sector organisations and, where possible, align some of their advisors to specialist programme content. Understanding the perspective of each advisor and any bias in terms of them wanting to be heard talking the talk, is also important here. No one size fits all and linking the choice of advisors to the programme’s and students’ ambitions helps support delivery of the strategic goals.

MBA Director: The required mix varies from school to school, programme to programme … some schools may need regional representatives, business contacts for bringing the business voice into the student experience, people who can actually deliver meaningful guest lectures and will also engage with students. And they need people who can provide a route into local businesses for placements, projects etc.

Now, I will have a very different requirement if I am at a larger business school and I’m looking to raise my international profile, as I’m also wanting to make sure that I’ve got an almost QA process in place that ensures the curriculum that I’m developing is business-relevant.’

Informed by our findings in our first Sharing the Experience report on business school advisory boards, we found that some MBA programme teams were missing a trick by focusing their advisors mostly on aspects of employability and missing the potential benefit of roles for them as profile-raising advocates and ambassadors. Perhaps this focus on employability is inevitable, given the scale of student investment, the importance of outcome in candidate decision-making and, relevant to some schools, the rankings criteria weightings.

MBA Director: No MBA programme is worth the money if you can’t get a job afterwards. I want to be able to look my alumni in the face and know that I prepared them for a world of work – and I’m not talking huge salaries or big corporate jobs. I’m talking about being able to go out there and effect the change that I know they passionately want to. And they’re not going to do that if they can’t get jobs or launch their own businesses.’

Advice is, however, only one part of the story as these practitioners surrounding the MBA do not just offer advice. Managed well, they bring practical support and additional resource to help the MBA team provide an extraordinary student experience, boosting student employability through activities including mentoring, offering projects and placements, speaking and running extracurricular or co-curricular workshops sharing their expertise to enable students to acquire additional skills. This support reinforces the joined-up thinking from the classroom to the real world, balancing knowledge and skills acquisition, enabling MBA teams to demonstrate that programme learning outcomes are being achieved.

Practitioners also support business schools and MBA cohorts by opening doors to their companies and wider networks, advising students as they think through their approach to a change in career and tackle arduous job application, interview and assessment processes.

The prestige of being involved with “The MBA”, especially those MBAs with impressive global reputations, does make obtaining external advice and support an easier task than for most other programmes but this can bring its own complications in terms of dealing with the volume of people that want to engage. Structuring and diplomatically managing the vast amounts of advice and support offered can be a challenge for busy programme teams. Detailed further in our new report, there is little doubt from the interviews that this is a case where fortune does favour the structured.

MBA Director: ‘The right structure of MBA advisors depends on the power of the person running the programme.’

So which areas of the MBA do these practitioners have an impact on? High-level strategic discussions and all elements of employability, yes, of course. One of the other areas we identified where advisors really do come into their own is when a programme or part thereof is being designed or re-designed. Advisors facilitate changes that lead to greater business relevance and may question proposed changes, even to the extent of challenging planned new modules and programmes. Subgroups and task and finish groups are often used to address the detail. Practitioner influence tends to be centred more on electives and extra or co-curricular content than the core programme modules, providing insight on anticipated future business challenges and required skills. A board full of knowledgeable advisors will help an MBA team to first define and then deliver many elements that feed into an MBA programme’s intended learning outcomes, particularly around real-world skills and understanding of the business world, international context, expected attitudes and behaviours.

MBA Director: It has the most impact on programme design: it’s very important to me that the programme reflects the needs of an ever-evolving and quickly changing business world and I value my ability to bounce ideas off them in terms of changes we’re thinking of making and ways that we can enhance either individual courses like analytics or new specialisations. We’re considering a new specialisation and I think that’s probably where I rely on them the most because they’re out there. I’m very conscious of the ivory tower syndrome and I don’t ever want us making curriculum design choices based on what we think is best without having a really clear sense of what’s happening in industry.’

Practitioners also play a valuable role in the difficult balance between academic and practical content, constructively challenging faculty and helping MBA teams and schools manage faculty that are themselves challenging, understandably protective of the academic content of their programmes. Specialist content is a particular area where programmes benefit from practitioner focus and advice, deepening understanding of how things are applied in specific functions, industries or sectors thereby helping MBA teams ensure delivery of specialist module intended learning outcomes, this time with the additional focus on knowledge gained.

MBA Director: ‘The internal politics are where advisory boards help a great deal – both with the subject specialists teaching on the programme and across into the senior leadership of the School, Faculty or College and University: advisory boards are actually very good vehicles to communicate key decisions or key discussions to colleagues because the academics are sometimes, to some extent, more willing to listen to external than internal viewpoints.’

As business schools increasingly embrace the whole responsible management, sustainability, societal value and equality, diversity and inclusion agendas aligning their brands to PRME (Principles for Responsible Management Education), we identified that for some schools there are opportunities for MBA programmes to help their business schools in their mission to support organisations to act responsibly. Many but not all schools have incorporated relevant themes into their MBA curriculum but fewer MBA teams appear to be actively engaging with their practitioner advisors on these themes. Greater interaction will again help with the delivery of learning outcomes with students better understanding the thought processes, implications and decision-making to ensure that the businesses themselves and their supply chains move towards being more socially responsible.

Although advising the MBA is not a role exclusive to programme alumni, contrary to our findings about what works on strategic and international advisory boards, the advisor success stories for the MBA often involve the support of fairly recent programme graduates who have a deep understanding of the current programme, the experience and the culture of the school, and who are invested in making their MBA even better, rather than focusing on returning to the “good old days”. They are delighted to have the opportunity to pay forward the career and life-changing experiences and opportunities they themselves have been able to take advantage of. But are alumni protective? Mostly, they simply want to give back and to build the reputation of their programme, but make it any easier to gain a place or to graduate and you do so at your peril!

Most of all, no matter what the chosen advisory structure, and somewhat ironically given employers’ constant cry for highly developed human skills and emotional intelligence, we found that it is relationships and active management that are key to really driving effective practitioner advice, engagement, support, impact and ultimately enhanced value for any MBA programme.

“The MBA and the Value of Practitioner Engagement” is available free of charge from www.hardcastleassociates.com/reports

The MBA and the value of practitioner engagement

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