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In a fast-moving commercial world, it makes sense that business school education is also constantly changing.

Yet in contrast to the MBA students who graduated before 2007, recent alumni are embarking on their careers at a time when confidence in the business world has been shaken badly.

At the same time, what companies expect of their recruits, and the goals of students themselves, are also evolving.

John Coleman, a 2010 Harvard Business School MBA graduate and co-author of the book Passion and Purpose, a collection of interviews with “young business leaders”, notes that the past few years have seen “the fall of some of the great western financial institutions, the collapse of the global financial system, deflation in the housing bubble and an economic crisis”.

This, he says, has led students to re-evaluate what is important to them. “There has been a marked change in the importance of sustainability,” he says. “This prioritisation is driven by different factors: consumer demand, concerns over resource scarcity, concerns over climate change and awareness of the cost advantages of certain sustainability policies.”

According to Erik Schlie, who runs MBA programmes at Spain’s IE business school, learning from the mistakes of the past is essential.

The IE programmes encourage participants to “look at certain scandals of the past” in order for them to develop a “broader sense of responsibilities”. Ethics and corporate social responsibility are on the agenda everywhere, with an emphasis on reflective practise.

“I ask participants at the very beginning of the programme: ‘what kind of manager, what kind of person, do you want to be?’,” says Prof Schlie.

For many, this has meant a shift away from the traditional MBA path of a career in the not-so-sustainable financial services industry.

For the current generation, “there is more to care about than getting your next investment banking job,” says Prof Schlie, noting that more and more of his students are seeking careers in not-for-profits and social enterprises.

John Moore, MBA leadership programme director at BT, the telecommunications company, says the fact that there are fewer finance opportunities around, and that fewer companies are hiring, means that the “pool” of MBA applicants is bigger – and crucially, of better quality. This means the companies that are hiring, such as BT, can pick from the best graduates.

“We started [the MBA recruitment programme] in 2005 with a view to get people who had gone to business school and gained commercial acumen, and bring them into our more technical areas in BT,” says Mr Moore.

Now, what he looks for has changed dramatically.

“It is not just the hard skills that we need any more – though those are one of the big benefits of going to business school. We want people with the softer, leadership skills, who can take a big piece of work and run with it, as opposed to being given work, analysing it, and figuring out the problem.

“People who are just very analytical and quantitative – that is not enough. They also need that emotional quotient to do well,” he says.

There are, Mr Moore adds, certain other advantages of studying for an MBA in the midst of an economic downturn. “If you’re in business school during a recession you don’t have to study historical cases about, say, the Mexican peso crisis. You can actually study what is happening now,” he says.

At IE, Prof Schlie runs “change modules”, where students work with real businesses to help them improve their performance.

One of this year’s exercises is to help a Brazilian business, a beauty salon company catering for “base of the pyramid” consumers who live on less than $2-$3 a day. This example is emblematic of another theme in the business education of the future – globalisation.

“The future is more blended, more global,” notes Prof Schlie. Indeed, as well as offering international experience, most good MBA courses include a placement abroad.

“Many top corporations have introduced global rotation programmes, and top business schools are now forcing greater international exposure through more internationally diverse cases and field experience,” says Mr Coleman. “Now, more than ever, an aspiring business person must be aware of the remarkable reach of the global marketplace.”

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