December 1, 2013 10:01 pm

The future of European MBAs

A group of men and women standing behind a crystal ball©Getty

The year is 2063 and a student studying for an MBA from a European business school is putting the finishing touches to his avatar. The avatar has been assigned by the school based on his profile, but students are permitted to make small adjustments before entering the virtual classroom for the first time.

If this sounds far fetched, you can wind the clock back 50 years to today and find a number of professors who will agree with you. Despite being asked to imagine, in blue-sky terms, where the next 50 years of European MBAs will end up, most of those interviewed said they thought elite MBA programmes would continue to take place in physical classroom settings. As Martha Maznevski, MBA programme director at IMD in Switzerland, says: “Technology is getting better and better, but somebody still has to programme it.”

Avatars, some believe, might play a role in future education, but most seem to think it is likely to be a minor one. That said, “blending”, or adding online components to a traditional classroom-based education, appears to be the new buzzword. Professors anticipate that a large amount of future learning will happen online. “I think a full-time MBA will have a lot of virtual components,” says Prof Maznevski.

Peter Hiscocks, who teaches innovation management and entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge Business School, would agree. He thinks the proportion of e-learning will grow although it will not replace face-to-face educational experiences.

Indeed, of those the FT asked, only Prof Maznevski believes elite schools will provide online MBAs. “I don’t agree the top schools won’t offer an online MBA. I see fragmentation. I think MBAs will have hyphens,” she says, adding that the word after the hyphen will explain what kind of qualification it is.

Most professors think the disruption being caused by the availability of cheaper online education will actually raise standards at top-flight schools.

Simon Evenett, academic director of the MBA programme at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, seems to speak for the majority when he says he can see a future dominated by the three Rs – retrenchment, relevance and rigour. He sees the three Rs as a process which will see some MBAs close while the top programmes become even better at what they do.

“A shake-out is coming which will force MBA programmes to focus on what they should be doing,” Prof Evenett says, adding there will be more concentration on the transformation an MBA is supposed to bring, as well as a response to demand from employers for an ability to work across cultures. “It will put an even greater premium on quality,” he says. “I don’t think cheap MBAs will take off as a really credible substitute. I think employers will look down on these distance MBAs.”

Peter O’Connor, dean of academic programmes at Essec, agrees that online MBAs will remain second tier: “For me, the value of an MBA is the value an employer places on the MBA. They are going to do their homework. Certainly, the feedback we have at this present moment is they don’t value online learning so much.”

Working against online learning is the emergent requirement for greater social competence, that many professors mentioned.

“The blunt fact is that the world’s business schools do not prepare people to be fantastic colleagues, they prepare people to be fantastic analysts and that has to change,” says Stephan Chambers, MBA director at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, adding that schools need to train people that you would want to work with.

Prof Chambers says the MBA of the future will have to respond to its future global context. He thinks MBA programmes will be supporting the movement towards greater corporate responsibility while at the same time preparing students to deal with what he calls “unparalleled global risks” including pandemics and food and water shortages. These same students must also be able to find a home for “a wall of global capital seeking new asset classes”.

“What we need are individuals who are capable of stitching all that together,” he says.

The important skills of the future, he says, will include decision-making in different cultures and linking science to industry.

“I think the world is desperately short of people who can handle that amount of complexity. If the MBA ends up looking more like a philosophy degree, then fine. And, I think it will.”

However, a more intellectual approach will need to be designed carefully, according to some of Prof Chambers’ peers. Both Prof O’Connor and Prof Maznevski commented on the huge changes they had seen in students over the past decade. Modern-day students have grown up with social networks and access to a tsunami of information.

“They are quite happy not to know everything,” explains Prof Maznevski, adding that students these days perceive information as a river that they can step in and out of. This is quite different to the past when the emphasis was on knowing everything and believing that you knew everything.

“I would agree the mindset has changed,” says Prof O’Connor. “It’s the Google generation. They don’t want the answer, they can Google the answer.” Instead, he says, students want to be taught skills that will enable them to solve problems.

Adding to the mix is a surge in demand for entrepreneurial skills. Prof Hiscocks comments that 35 years ago no one thought about teaching MBA students about setting up their own company. “Now entrepreneurship is really on the agenda,” he says.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is the view that European schools will play an increasingly important role in global top-flight MBA education.

“Europeans are more used to managing diversity,” explains Prof Maznevski and, as Prof O’Connor says, the focus on emerging nations is going to be an increasingly important differentiator.

“The big consumers of the future are not consuming anything yet,” explains Prof Chambers.

As Prof Maznevski says, the pace of change is picking up.

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