‘Cultural Fit’ Matches Students With MBA Programs

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Tuesday, December 12, 2023
By Madeleine Corcoran
Illustration by iStock/Tatyana Bezrukova
New research compares business schools by organizational culture. How can schools use these insights to attract the best students for their programs?
  • Even highly ranked schools might not be the right choices for students seeking out the MBA programs that suit them best.
  • A new cultural fit tool measures a school’s qualities in three specific areas: communication styles, social norms and expectations, and shared values.
  • Students can use the tool to find the program that will suit them best, and schools can use it to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Data suggests that when individuals are choosing which MBA program to apply to, more than half use media rankings to help guide their choices. In a recent survey of 54,000 candidates, the higher education media company Advent Group found that 56 percent of them used “reputation or ranking” as their main selection criterion. That’s 29,939 candidates from across the world who look to the rankings when choosing a school.

But a school that is considered “best” by a ranking might not be accessible to that candidate, and in fact might not always be the “best” for that individual. If candidates have more accurate perceptions of what the MBA experience and the community life will be like at the colleges they’re considering, there will be better outcomes for everyone. However, it is difficult for candidates to perceive and measure cultural fit.

At the MBA recruitment platform Unimy, part of the Advent Group, we have been thinking about ways to help candidates compare schools and help schools recruit the candidates who would do well on their campuses. We wondered: What if we could get to a deeper level and help candidates consider the true experience of being in a program? What if we could make a personality-to-culture match between candidate and program? Could we determine the real meaning of the “best” school for a student and the “best” student for a school?

To answer these questions, we undertook research into the organizational culture of 172 top business schools. Our goal was to explore the unique identity of schools and the ways schools can use their own data to recruit MBA candidates based on cultural fit.

A New Recruitment Tool

Back in 2019, the Unimy team started to develop the idea of a recruitment tool that uses cultural qualities to find a fit between candidate and school community. The team was led by Kalin Yanev, our former chief business officer (digital products). As Unimy is in the business of recruiting top-quality students from across the world, one of our main aims was to create a free tool that would help students find the best schools for them. Unimy has several tools that serve this purpose, but this time we wanted to address the issue of school experience and community.

We also wanted the tool to be something that schools could use in their recruitment efforts. Schools that do not feature highly in the rankings still need ways to differentiate themselves and connect with their ideal candidates. Many programs also need ways of fostering the diversity that will lead to the best educational outcomes and reflect the global business environment.

Cultural fit cannot stand alone as a basis for recruitment, but it is a very useful tool for both students and schools to have in their kits. Of course, many U.S. schools also ask candidates to express in their application essays why the school is a good fit for the candidate. Cultural fit in this sense is a broader concept than what we have measured within the MBA Cultural Fit Index, but the two things are certainly connected.

What if we could make a personality-to-culture match between candidate and program? Could we determine the ‘best’ fit between a student and a school?

In order to describe the culture of business schools, we had to consider how to measure organizational culture and along which dimensions. We wanted to capture three specific qualities:

  • how members of the community work and communicate with each other.
  • what norms and expectations are in place.
  • what values are shared by members of the community.

Essentially, we wanted an objective way to describe the community and the experience of being at each school.

Dimensions of Culture

To gather data, we embarked on a large-scale research project. To date, we have conducted more than 5,100 in-depth surveys with business school students and alumni from 172 schools.

We used six dimensions to measure the three qualities outlined above (communications styles, social norms, and shared values). We based four of these on the GLOBE project’s dimensions for assessing organizational culture across nations and workplaces, and we use these with the permission of GLOBE:

  • Is it a structured or flexible organization? (That is, how much does the organization avoid uncertainty?)
  • Does it value personal contribution or collective accomplishment? (What are its attitudes toward individualism versus collectivism?)
  • Are its relationships respect-based or informal? (What’s the degree of power distance?)
  • Does the organization have a long-term or ad hoc orientation? (What is its future orientation?)

We used six dimensions to measure the three qualities of communications styles, social norms, and shared values.

After we conducted our initial research, we added two dimensions specific to business education:

  • Does the school offer a liberal or classical style of community?
  • Do community members engage in intuitive or explicit communication?

Unimy used quantitative and qualitative research to validate the dimensions of business school culture. First, the team conducted a series of interviews with alumni and admissions directors from top-ranked schools. These identified which psychometrics to test further. Then, we ran a pilot study of 654 student respondents from regional and global institutions to confirm we had identified the right dimensions.

Our results, therefore, allow us to compare schools along these six dimensions. None of these qualities are better or worse than the others, as culture is only about difference. However, the results allow us to see differences between specific schools as well as between regions.

Communicating About Identity

Once a school knows what kind of culture a prospective student wants, how can it foster that culture? That’s a short question with a long answer!

Of course, the real answer is that different prospective students want different things. The challenge for each business school is to identify what is unique about its environment and its community and to communicate that to the relevant prospects.

The MBA Cultural Fit Index can help with both aspects of that challenge. By identifying a school’s organizational culture, it highlights the unique features and dynamics at play. It can be eye-opening for administrators to compare their schools’ qualities to those of their competitors and recognize what sets them apart.

For example, it is a regional trend among U.S. business schools to value collective accomplishment—and the Cornell Johnson School of Business in Ithaca, New York, is one of the most collective organizations within our study. The school also is famous for its team ethos and its close-knit cohort model; it holds the No. 1 spot for alumni networks in the 2023 MBA rankings from the Financial Times (FT). While we can’t be certain that these particular features explain why Cornell Johnson registers as so strongly collective, it’s likely that they play a part. It makes sense that the school’s identity is represented in this way.

Even when schools share a national and metropolitan culture, they can be quite different in school culture, as evidenced by IESE, ESADE, and EADA, three schools in Barcelona. Compared to other European schools, IESE and ESADE are both relatively flexible and collective. However, EADA has a more structural approach than the other two and places a slightly higher emphasis on personal contribution (individualism).

Again, it is key to remember that no qualities are necessarily better or worse; they simply provide a better fit for certain prospective students. Administrators can use these insights as a scientific basis to develop or support their messaging to candidates.

A Demand for Diversity

While difference is the watchword for culture, certain qualities are popularly desired by prospective students. For instance, most applicants want their cohorts to feature students of diverse nationalities and backgrounds. One of the Cultural Fit Index’s dimensions describes the different ways that communities manage forms of diversity. Yet again, no one approach is better or worse than another.

Liberal-style schools adapt their norms to the individuals within their communities. If there is variety within the group, we’d expect to see that variety expressed. Classical-style schools share a common style. They manage diversity by including everyone in the established group identity.

If schools want to foster a collective culture while increasing international diversity, they will need to pay special attention to group cohesiveness.

Globally, we see that the most liberal schools tend to be those on the West Coast of the U.S., including Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. In Europe, where schools tend to be more classical in style, INSEAD stands out as one of the most liberal institutions.

Most Chinese schools are classical in style, as exemplified by the Shanghai UFE College of Business. But some American schools also fall on the classical end of the spectrum. For instance, the College of Business at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi is the fourth most classical in style globally. As with other dimensions of school culture, schools in the same region may differ widely in terms of their classical or liberal approaches to education.

Interestingly, we note some correspondence between our results and the FT’s diversity score within its 2023 MBA ranking. As the FT’s diversity ranking goes up, collectivism within our index goes down. This suggests that if schools want to foster a collective culture while increasing international diversity, they will need to pay special attention to group cohesiveness.

Impacts So Far

Nearly 8,000 prospective business students have used the MBA Cultural Fit Index to identify the schools that align with their values and preferred ways of learning. However, there are other perhaps less tangible but equally significant impacts of the index.

We have seen more conversations around what culture really means within business education and how schools can discern and represent their values. GMAC’s Prospective Students Survey 2023 shows that Gen Z students are motivated to undertake business education in order to enrich their lives rather than to increase their salaries. This suggests that “soft” topics such as culture, values, and identity are going to become ever more relevant.

The Cultural Fit Index is one instrument schools and students can use to explore the issue of differentiation and values within business education. We hope it continues to encourage a shift in perspective. Not only can it help orient business education around the needs and preferences of prospective students, it also can be part of the conversation as to how schools can better differentiate themselves from their peers.

Madeleine Corcoran
PR and Brand Manager, Unimy, Advent Group
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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