Soapbox

January 5, 2014 10:32 pm

The fading lustre of the MBA

The degree is becoming more of a commodity and real innovation and marketing is now needed

Business school marketing does not seem to have moved on – in spite of the financial crisis and the damage done to the MBA as a result. Depressingly, it has stuck with appealing to self-interest or assuming that potential students just want to be associated with a “glamour brand”.

The main selling points for the top schools in the FT’s full-time global MBA rankings are virtually all the same: programme quality; international reach and student body; return on investment; career prospects; alumni network and a plug for their campus location. All the schools can find “evidence” to support their claims of being better than the others. All offer student and alumni endorsement. All are competing in the same, highly limited, space.

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What is striking about all of these schools, however, is how they fail to talk about their customers and instead focus on the features, advantages and benefits of buying their education.

This focus on “sales” is reflective of a market where the core product, in this case the MBA, is increasingly commoditised. There are, after all, probably tens if not hundreds of schools across the world where employers would see little if any differentiation in the qualification outcome. Yes there is a pecking order and yes some brands have a more immediate recognition, but can any of them really show that their students add significantly more value to the enterprises they lead than others?

Indeed it might even be possible to argue that in the case of some of the leading brands their students have done significantly more damage to the reputation of their organisations and to that of business as a whole than those of less well known institutions.

Beale cartoon MBA

Of course this may have something to do with the fact that the core product of an MBA has hardly moved on at all. By this I do not mean that some content has not changed and that there are now subjects such as “ethics” in the curriculum or even Hippocratic-style oaths associated with graduation. These changes are rather like putting Babycham into a new bottle or relaunching Betamax. Whatever the puff around the programme, at heart it is often the same people teaching the same core subjects in ways that would not seem too far away from how the programme was delivered 10 or even 20 years ago.

There are very few other “premium” markets in the world that have not moved on into new products, even though the core capabilities may have remained the same. Really premium brands can speak to their market through their product – the fact that even the most prestigious MBAs are having to “sell” themselves, rather like mid-priced family saloons as opposed to luxury limousines, suggests that despite the branding, the market as a whole is losing its lustre.

This in my opinion reflects the failure of the sector to create new products and services that can make a real difference to business in the 21st century. Innovation in the past 10 years has come from location, globe-trotting, greater choice in modules etc. But this is not real innovation: it is the educational equivalent of changing the packaging. Even a Mooc – massive open online course – is a channel rather than product innovation.

Digital channels now give product and service providers an outstanding opportunity to listen to customers in their market, to test and learn not just about how to present their current propositions but how to understand the innovations and developments that will help them grow. As teachers of the latest thinking in practice, business schools should be able to demonstrate that they apply this to their own practice, yet a quick survey of the leading school sites shows that digital execution and engagement is generally poor.

Modern markets present customers with the opportunity to engage, assess, appreciate, comment and develop their ideas. The MBA market lectures, asserts, claims and often fails to inform.

There is more to a high-quality professional education than the prospect of an accelerated growth in earnings or a short and inevitably slightly artificial experience of living in a foreign culture. Much more.

Some business schools do deliver this. It is a real shame that they do not appear to want to tell us and show through differentiation that there is more to an MBA than the letters after your name. Without real innovation in both product and marketing the real market will keep moving away from the MBA.

In 2011, the Graduate Management Admission Council reported that in two out of three schools that use the Graduate Management Admission Test as part of their admissions process, applications declined for their two-year MBA programmes. This follows drops in the previous two years.

The MBA market is one that is increasingly “me too”, and as a result the demand for expensive full-time programmes is only going to continue contracting and the product will become more and more of a commodity.

We have already seen the beginning of businesses moving away from business school executive education in search of something closer to their needs. Without a radical response, the same will inevitably happen to the MBA.

The author is professor of creativity and leadership at Manchester Business School and a former dean of Henley Business School. His company Good Growth uses digital technology to help large organisations reconnect with their customers

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