March 9, 2014 10:59 pm

Relationships take on fresh meaning in interactive academia

Business school is as much about building a network of contacts as it is about mastering discounted cash flow or Michael Porter’s Five Forces. So, can online MBA programmes deliver the same quality of networking experience as their campus-based rivals?

Technology is clearly sufficiently sophisticated, says Kshitij Gopal, an MBA student at the National University of Singapore.

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“Technology has got to a stage where it is almost as personal as it can get,” he says.

Mr Gopal recently wrote about his experiences at business school in an FT blog. “There are some students who approach networking with a fervent zeal that is usually reserved for troops going into battle – they have a game plan, study the invitees and their backgrounds and go in armed with more questions than a subcommittee.”

However, opinion is still divided as to whether an online programme can deliver the same wealth of contacts and support as a face-to-face programme.

Linda Groarke, an MBA student at the UK’s Open University Business School, is benefiting from the experience.

“My group at the moment is fantastic – lots of chatter, plus an enthusiastic and helpful tutor who’s always asking thought-provoking questions that conjure up conversation and dialogue,” she says.

But, she adds: “Others [say] their tutor groups are like ghost towns with tumbleweed blowing through them.”

Phil Powell, faculty chair of the Kelley Direct online MBA programme at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, believes the success of online networking depends on the strategy used by the business school.

If online programmes copy templates used on campus to guide students, they will fail, he says, in the same way that teaching online fails when you try to recreate the structure used in the physical classroom.

The strategy used at Kelley starts with an assessment of students’ networking skills. Students are invited to campus for a week at the beginning of the programme, when they are reminded of the importance of networking.

Then they are given exercises to complete online. These give the school a sense of where they are in their networks. Career coaches are then brought in to work with them online at the speed they wish.

Prof Powell says: “Our online programme is a hop-on, hop-off model [spanning two to five years], so we have stages of developing business acumen, but students take them at their own pace, which varies.

“This gives more power to the students, as they can say ‘don’t put us in a straitjacket, meet us where we are’.” Prof Powell believes that is a good thing. He thinks students of residential programmes should use the same approach.

Françoise Dany, dean of the faculty and vice-president of EMLyon Business School in France, thinks online networking could become extremely effective because of its sense of anonymity. “The very fact that people do not know each other may facilitate some exchanges: they feel freer to express themselves. In other words, online programmes may offer the advantage of temporary communities [that] rely on a common shared expertise to build trust,” she says.

But other professors disagree. Evgeny Kaganer, professor of information systems at Iese Business School in Spain, says: “At this stage, it’s difficult for an online programme to deliver the networks that are equivalent to that of face-to-face programmes.

“People form deep relationships through shared experiences, and face-to-face is still best for allowing the rich interactions and experiences between students that facilitate those strong connections.”

Neil Bearden, associate professor of decision science at Insead, which has campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, also prefers networking in person. “From what I’ve seen, long-lasting, meaningful connections are made at unpredictable times. These moments can happen when working together on a group assignment or they can happen when travelling together.

“Until students in online programmes start taking weekend trips to Cambodia together, I cannot see how they will form the same kinds of bonds people form when they’re face-to-face.

“Helping a limping friend who’s twisted her ankle down a mountain is more likely to create a meaningful bond than just about anything that can happen online,” he says.

One thing online networking programmes do guarantee, however, is scale. People create bigger networks more easily, as they are not constrained by distance.

Murray Dalziel, director of the University of Liverpool Management School in the UK, is proud of this fact. “Our students benefit from being part of a global network with more than 10,500 students from 160 countries,” he says.

Prof Dany, meanwhile, points to the benefits of Moocs. The EMLyon Mooc designed for entrepreneurs, for example, attracted a vast variety of participants.

“Their experience was so rich that we had the opportunity to discuss their own stories – about 200 – rather than working on case studies selected by the head of the programme,” he says.

“In a nutshell, we found that the Mooc offered a very good quality of exchanges among a wide network of people sharing the same interest and volunteering to spend some free time on this programme.”

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