Future-Proofing the Business School

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Tuesday, January 26, 2021
By Martin Boehm, Ulrich Hommel, Benjamin Stévenin
Photo: iStock/marchmeena29
How can b-schools successfully navigate a fluid, ever-evolving future? By building networks, sharing resources, and overhauling faculty development.

The management education sector has long been on a trajectory toward greater uncertainty. Forceful undercurrents are reshaping our industry, from changing student expectations of what constitutes a desirable learning experience to the rising popularity of microcredentials and stackable degree qualifications.

As a result, the business of business schools is changing. Schools are expanding their revenue-generating activities and evolving into more comprehensive organizations. They are delivering more programs online, moving into new geographical regions, and expanding into more specialty areas.

But many schools are finding they can’t do all of these activities alone. As a result, more institutions are “unbundling” their operations and sharing control of their programs with other institutions. Such unbundling can involve any number of models. Some schools are co-producing programs with other organizations, while others are outsourcing instruction and other functions. Some are pooling resources, while others are combining forces to support greater innovation and interorganizational learning.

As they come together to deliver programming and services, more business schools are embedding themselves in multi-institution learning ecosystems. These ecosystems, which allow schools to buffer themselves against risk, are often fluid and loosely coupled by design. They can involve an intersection of student services or the delivery of a single course.

We argue that, to operate successfully in such a collaborative framework, business schools will need to rethink their operating models in many ways—from how they engage with students to how they cultivate their partnerships. Even more important, they will require a different kind of academic leadership. This new reality could compel many schools to undertake a complete makeover of the pipeline that feeds their executive positions: their faculty.

Embracing Ecosystem-Based Education

Changing student expectations are largely driving the formation of such educational networks. The typical business student of the future is likely to be a lifetime “accumulator” of educational experiences. That is, instead of pursuing a degree from a single institution, the typical future learner instead will collect microbadges and credentials from a network of education providers, based on the skill sets needed to achieve a particular objectives. Over time, this learner might earn enough credentials to earn a full degree, but in the future the value added by that degree might be put into question as well.

We predict that the academic ecosystem will incorporate a portfolio of destinations for students. Students will use different schools as entry and exit points on their learning journeys. Like travel agents, business schools will help students plan their journeys and adjust their itineraries as needed from admission to graduation.

Business schools will build stronger programs by strategically distributing resources in ways that help achieve their networks’ broader objectives.

It will be up to each host institution to compete for students’ attention. Schools will have to live up to their promises to students and make significant efforts to encourage students to return to home base often. With so many opportunities available, students will simply take their business to another institution if they don’t like what’s on offer at their current school.

By joining forces with other institutions, business schools can more effectively crowdsource new content and continually align their offerings to students’ changing needs. They will shift from a model where “faculty know best” to one where “students know better.”

Adopting a Different Business Model

As management education becomes increasingly network-based, the business model of business schools will change in several foundational ways. We predict schools will become:

Less insular, more open. They will receive tangible returns from creating learning environments that cross institutional boundaries much more radically than before. They also will have porous boundaries when it comes to bringing industry perspectives into their programs. 

Less independent, more collaborative. Schools will reap greater rewards by combining strengths in multiple areas—in other words, by establishing what we call “clusters of competence.” These clusters will attract spikes of student interest from within the learning ecosystem.

Less territorial, more willing to distribute resources. Business schools will build stronger programs by strategically distributing resources in ways that help achieve their networks’ broader objectives. How resources are allocated will determine whether a school is more “hub” than “spoke,” or more “platform” than “plug-in asset” for a particular program or initiative.

Recruiting More Industry-Based Faculty

But the biggest change schools will have to make will be in the way they recruit and deploy faculty. Business schools traditionally have rewarded faculty all-arounders who deliver good research and achieve desired teaching outcomes. But there is now a push to hire more instructors with ties to industry. As a result, schools are:

  • Hiring a rising share of professors of practice with more niche-based competencies.
  • Relying more on adjunct faculty with corporate backgrounds who often serve as part-time instructors with sessional contracts.
  • Showing greater willingness to collaborate with businesses.
  • Delivering more action-based learning, in which interactions between students and practitioners serve as catalysts for learning.

Once thought of as ancillary “bells and whistles” on the business faculty, practitioners increasingly will become appreciated parts of a school’s core DNA. This will happen for two reasons. First, these instructors will be attracted to teaching for reasons other than tenure—perhaps they want to add credentials to their résumés or to follow their passions.

And, second, these faculty will enhance the real-world relevance of curricula. They will bring into the classroom innovative business practices that otherwise would not be directly accessible to core academic professors.

Recruiting More Diverse, Specialized, and Versatile Faculty

Traditionally, business schools have taken a portfolio approach to faculty management. But this approach often leaves them with a fragmented collection of professors with set individual interests. This comes at a time when they should be building diverse teams with the task-specific knowledge to deal with assigned challenges—and the ability to adapt as needed to tackle new challenges.

In a fluid institutional ecosystem, business schools instead will need to follow the lead of other organizations that have adopted the “agile teams” model. As agile organizations, schools will be better able to adapt to an ever-changing and unpredictable future. They will hire and train faculty who can handle ambiguity, and who value continuous change and collaboration more than static workloads and high degrees of self-determination.

In the future, a business school’s success will rest on whether its leaders seek out those faculty players who are doers and shapers—who can combine vision and creativity with action.

The leaders of agile b-schools will develop faculty incentives based on factors other than doctoral qualifications, scholarly output, service contributions, and teaching evaluations. Instead, they will look for instructors who have specialized skills and who can fill a broad set of roles and help the school differentiate itself within its network.

They will look for future-proof faculty members who are versatile in their pedagogy and able to meet evolving student needs and expectations. They will reward faculty who produce new knowledge that is impactful and relevant to practitioners, act as mentors and coaches to students, and engage with a wide range of stakeholders.

Furthermore, business school leaders will no longer have the luxury of primarily managing faculty and staff at their own institutions. Now, they will need to assemble and manage dispersed faculty resources across a larger network, with their own faculty serving as the “spider in a larger web.”

Making It Work

But how can business schools turn these ideas into action? The Moneyball principle, popularized in a Hollywood movie with Brad Pitt and explained in detail by Michael Lewis in a book with the same title, can serve as guidance here.

According to this principle, if organizations are working in a system where the odds are stacked against them, they must change the way they work within that system. In Major League Baseball, the Moneyball principle helped the Oakland A’s team outperform expectations, even when its budget was far lower than those of its competitors. This principle helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series after 86 years, and it helped the Chicago Cubs end its title drought after 108 years.

The managers in these organizations succeeded by following two strategies. First, they recruited players whose talents were overlooked by others and who were inexpensive to hire, such as older players. Second, they focused on metrics that other managers in the league did not value. For example, while other teams sought out players with high numbers of home runs and runs batted in, Moneyball teams focused on players who created runs by attracting walks or hitting for extra bases.  

We believe the parallels for business schools are obvious. In the future, a business school’s success is unlikely to depend on the number of papers its professors publish in A+ journals. Rather, its success will rest on whether its leaders seek out those faculty players who are doers and shapers—who can combine vision and creativity with action.

Breaking With Tradition

Now is the time to break traditional mindsets and adopt new approaches. A good first step for all business schools is to review their recruitment and hiring criteria, not only for tenure-track faculty, but also for adjunct and practitioner faculty. They should prioritize faculty with the skills highlighted above, seeking out those individuals from both within their own ranks and across the ecosystem.

Academic leaders who measure their faculty only by traditionally valued metrics will have only a partial understanding of their schools’ most valuable assets. Even worse, they will have no one to call on as leaders who can manage a more fluid—and uncertain—future.

Martin Boehm
IE Business School
Ulrich Hommel
Managing Director, XOLAS GmbH, Professor of Finance, EBS University of Business and Law
Benjamin Stévenin
CEO, ACADEM by RimaOne
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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