Soapbox

June 8, 2014 9:26 pm

MBAs need to value local as well as global

Graduates should be able to make a difference wherever they work

Higher education is a truly global business. Today, many leading business and management schools profess to deliver an educational experience that creates global graduates – but is this an entirely good thing? This is premised on the perceived need for graduates to be more globally aware as they enter an international workplace. However, such rhetoric underplays the wider contribution of business school graduates. While the lure of London and other leading cities has, and always will be, an attraction, there is a need to make sure that graduates do not lose sight of more local opportunities.

With a heightened focus in higher education on employability, prevailing wisdom is that business schools are preparing students for global careers. For many MBA and postgraduate students the decision to attend a business school is based on the prospect of professional development leading to opportunities for an enhanced career with rapid promotion. As well as having discipline-specific knowledge this means ensuring that graduates have the skills and acumen to work in a rapidly changing world. But where is this international workplace and who frequents it?

Many global employers value competencies, such as cultural awareness and agility, above the degree subject and classification. However, such skills represent a potential asset to almost every business. So unless the sole purpose of business school is as a feeder for global corporates – and it wasn’t the last time I checked – then opportunities for business school graduates are not geographically limited to major cities. MBA and postgraduate students need to be more aware of career options and this needs to be developed through their studies as well as via careers guidance. Moreover, there is a need to ensure that the contact business schools have with the world of business is more diverse than a select number of global corporates.

With fierce competition among business schools, the prospect that leading institutions are global-facing, while lesser ranked schools are locally oriented, works around the problem as opposed to addressing it. The answer is not simply two types of education. The more challenging solution is to design business and management programmes that develop an understanding of the global environment through pedagogy, encourage the critical application of knowledge and foster an aptitude for local engagement. For business schools, this means striking the right balance between academic and applied learning if they are to develop “glocal graduates” who can most of their abilities in different settings.

Research-led curricula are often upheld as the pinnacle of higher education. However, business schools also need to foster experiential learning by developing practical business skills with real-world application. The pillars of business and management education are evolving – with entrepreneurship, leadership and consulting featuring more prominently to meet the demands of students who want to thrive in the contemporary workplace. This sees the value added by business schools as less about creating global graduates and more about empowering graduates to create an impact wherever they are.

Graduate retention has long been a challenge for many towns and cities, especially where the business base predominantly comprises small and medium enterprises (SMEs). For business school graduates the prospect of working in an SME represents a very different proposition to a global business. Equally SMEs do not fully appreciate how MBAs and postgraduates can enhance capacity, add value and stimulate growth. The learning environment at business schools provides a forum to overcome this hurdle, by nurturing a ‘living lab’ to promote knowledge exchange and co-produce new knowledge.

In his report titled “Growing Your Business” (May 2013) the UK prime minister’s chief ‘enterprise’ adviser, Lord Young of Graffham, emphasised the role of business schools as local ‘anchor institutions’ – ensuring that business schools see their mission as one of engagement and making a difference locally, as well as entertaining their global ambition. One important tenet of being a local anchor is working more closely with SMEs, which needs to include the involvement of students and graduates as well as faculty. Engaging MBA and postgraduate students with a range of partners through their studies will see them better informed about career possibilities both within and beyond the corporate world.

Looking to the future, business and management schools need to foster more aspirational ‘glocal’ graduates. Whether these graduates follow careers as entrepreneurs or employees, in an ever more interconnected world what really matters is the ability to have a global impact locally.

The author is a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Sheffield University Management School

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