‘Business Schools Need to Change’

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Wednesday, June 22, 2022
By Jean Charroin
Photo by iStock/Eoneren
Our interdisciplinary blueprint for the next 20 years of business education.
  • Business schools must change dramatically if they are to continue to add value and make a positive impact on the world.
  • Students and employers alike are looking to business programs to provide stronger foundations in areas such as digital transformation and global sustainability.
  • To address complex global challenges, we must embrace interdisciplinary teaching and research and establish wide-ranging partnerships that cross boundaries between disciplines, industries, and nations.


Is our current system of business education set up properly to meet the needs of both students and employers over the next 20 years? My answer to that question is a firm no.

To be clear, as dean of ESSCA School of Management based in Angers in France, I am extremely proud to work in this industry. Management education has made huge strides in research, teaching, and engagement.

However, if we look at the changing nature of work and society, along with the myriad problems currently facing the world, we must come to an uncomfortable conclusion: Our traditional business school offerings are not sufficient to train students to address complex and systemic problems. If we want to continue to add value and make a positive impact, we must design curricula that train leaders to work comfortably across different fields of expertise.

In other words, business schools need to change.

How Are We Organized—and Why?

There are established reasons for why business schools are typically structured as they are. First and foremost, we are academic institutions, each with a distinct approach regarding a defined area of interest; to conduct our research, we must examine subject areas with necessary depth, rigor, and specialization. As a result, institutions often are organized along subject matter and specialization lines.

This organization is often reinforced and rewarded by the ways that business schools are audited and measured, whether for the purposes of accreditation or rankings. But this system no longer suits the expanded role our schools must play in serving the future needs of organizations, shaping business practice, and creating positive societal impact.

It is said so often that it is a bit of a cliché, but we live in world that is increasingly complex. From 1999 to 2010, the world enjoyed a relatively stable geopolitical environment. But in recent years, we have seen the rise of political conflicts and the terrible events in Ukraine. Right now, the geopolitical situation seems anything but stable.

Additionally, we have come to the realization that our planet’s resources are finite. According to Circle Economy, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable practices, in 2020 the world’s annual consumption of finite resources—all used to provide food, housing, heating, and other material goods—had hit an all-time high of 100.6 billion tonnes. This is nearly four times the 26.7 billion tonnes we used five decades ago. Alarmingly, experts predict that by 2050, this number will nearly double again to approximately 184 billion tonnes.

In the future, perhaps we will find ways of living elsewhere than on planet Earth. But for the coming decades, we are here and have big challenges to overcome.

How Are Expectations Changing?

Today’s business schools are under increasing pressure to address these issues. Much of that pressure is coming from students, who expect far more from business schools than they have in the past. Around seven in 10 respondents want their degree programs to teach ethical leadership, responsible management, and diversity and equality, as well as address global challenges. That’s according to Tomorrow’s Masters, a recent survey of more than 1,600 prospective students by higher education consultancy CarringtonCrisp in association with EFMD.

The survey also revealed students’ growing interest in digital transformation—four of the top seven master’s subjects in business are technology-related, including business IT, artificial intelligence, e-commerce, and big data/business analytics.

The world needs people who can harness the power of technology and develop innovative services and products that are right for a planet with ever-diminishing resources.

Like business schools, employers are finding that their stakeholders expect them to do more to address massive global challenges such as social inequality, poverty, and climate change. At the same time, as organizations across all sectors undergo digital transformation, they must manage technology’s many challenges, from the spread of disinformation over social media to the threat of cybersecurity breaches.

One result of these trends and challenges is the global need for people who are skilled, flexible, and adaptable. The world needs people who can harness the power of technology and develop innovative services and products that are right for a planet with ever-diminishing resources.

What Does This Mean for Business Education?

A phrase that captures the critical skills our students must develop is “frugal innovation.” The term refers to the act of creating simple, effective solutions that don’t swallow resources. It’s an approach that I have seen entrepreneurs in developing countries apply with great success—especially compared to entrepreneurs in Europe, where we are often guilty of adding to global complexity, rather than finding elegant solutions to problems.

For business schools, I think there are two fundamental ways we need to change if we are to train students to produce the innovations that the world needs most:

Embrace interdisciplinary teaching. We know that the world’s biggest problems are multifaceted—to solve them, people from vastly different fields of expertise must work in close collaboration. If we are to develop leaders who can address the extremely complex challenges, we must integrate humanities, arts, math, engineering, and medicine, among other subjects, into our general business and management curricula.

By giving students a holistic understanding of complex problems, we don’t just train them to understand the reasons for, and the implications of, their business decisions. We also train them to ask better questions—finance professionals with a basic understanding of engineering, for instance, can ask good questions of engineering professionals, and vice versa.

Naturally, the need for interdisciplinary teaching has implications for how business schools organize and develop their programs, reward their faculty, and measure their progress. Schools will need to recruit faculty with different backgrounds, insights, and experiences, as well as create new opportunities for different academic disciplines to collaborate.

Form a wider array of partnerships. Our institutions must adopt the same interdisciplinary approach in their research. We must work with partners in different fields, in different industry sectors, and from different parts of the world—especially those outside the established domains of Europe and North America. We can draw on these partnerships to experiment, develop new ways of working, and come up with global solutions to complex global problems. 

Returning to the theme of frugal innovation, accredited business schools should intensify their partnerships with institutions located in developing countries, such as some African nations where economic actors must optimize their resources. Such cooperation not only could lead to improved managerial and industrial practices, but also could result in unique hubs of innovation where accredited institutions support unaccredited ones.

These partnerships will offer business schools opportunities to develop their programs, put new forms of sustainable development into practice, and contribute to building a more equitable and sustainable world.

What Does the Future Hold?

At ESSCA, we are putting these suggestions into practice in multiple ways:

Our redesigned Master in Management. In 2019, ESSCA seized the opportunity of the reform of the French Baccalaureate to radically transform our five-year Master in Management degree program. We converted the program into a hub of knowledge and competencies to enable cross-disciplinary approaches. In the first three years of the program, 40 percent of the content focuses on management and economics, 20 percent on mathematics, 20 percent on humanities, and 20 percent on foreign language (including a compulsory semester abroad). During this part of the program, students learn general management concepts while developing an interdisciplinary mindset.

For example, in their second year, students following our humanities track in geopolitics and international relations participate in a climate change simulation game. Playing the roles of national policymakers, intergovernmental organization leaders, civic leaders, and executives with multinational enterprises, the students go through three rounds of discussions and negotiations to formulate global climate goals. In the process, students develop their skills in interdisciplinary research, communication, teamwork, and negotiation. 

As bridges between future global talent and companies, business schools can make a tangible difference in addressing complex problems.

Students take advanced management courses in the last two years of the program, followed by a specialization in a business discipline. Students also can pursue a second specialization in either law, engineering, art and design, or political science. In the fourth year, students take a course in data analytics and market dynamics, where they complete a project that requires skills in mathematics, economics, and management. Students finish their fifth year with an internship and a master’s thesis. 

We want to ensure that, by the end of the curriculum, students can select and analyze relevant data while integrating numerous fields, all to support responsible decision making.

A center for interdisciplinary research. In June 2022, ESSCA launched an interdisciplinary laboratory dedicated to experimental economics in Lyon. The research center will be part of an international network dedicated to neurosciences and the study of factors that shape consumers’ decision making. Center research will explore topics such as how small interventions (known in behavioral science as “nudges”) lead people to adopt more sustainable behaviors and what factors facilitate or hinder antisocial behaviors (such as lying or cheating). Some studies will even track consumers’ eye movements to help marketers identify more efficient strategies to capture their attention.

An online master’s focused on technology. To address companies’ need for workers skilled in digital transformation, ESSCA is offering an online MSc in International Business 4.0. Launched in January, this degree program mixes concepts in data analytics and sustainable practices.

Attention to engineering and design. We welcome more engineering students wishing to add a managerial competence to their scientific background. We also have linked up with institutions that can help us expose our students to design—these include Université de Laval in Quebec City, Canada, and Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle in Paris. 

A partnership to reach underprivileged students. Regarding partnerships, we are working with the French NGO Apprentis d’Auteuil (AA) to reach high school students from suburbs where there is little access to higher education. Through this program, we work with local agencies to identify promising students and then bring them to ESSCA to attend courses and engage in extracurricular events as an introduction to our campus culture and business study. While they are here, they also collaborate on business games and projects, including a three-day entrepreneurial simulation. The program provides a path to enrollment in ESSCA’s Bachelor in International Management. Once students are accepted into either program, ESSCA and AA pay for all tuition and fees. 

A new campus in an international hub city. Our next campus will be located in Strasbourg, a well-known French city that hosts the European Parliament. From this location, we envisage cooperating with a range of new organizations in the fields of international relations and public management.

Such efforts form the basis of ESSCA’s strategic blueprint for the next 20 years. We want to continue to be a source of dynamic problem solving that the world can draw on to address its greatest problems.

Our Unique Opportunity

Business schools have always been a bridge between future global talent and public and private companies that shape how we all live and work. In this role, we have a unique opportunity to collaborate, innovate, and make a tangible difference in addressing complex problems.

However, we can help our students and partners find solutions only if we, as an industry, innovate our programs and expand our partnerships—that is, only if we ourselves are open to change.

Jean Charroin
Dean, ESSCA School of Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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