What Can Business Schools and Industry Do Together?

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Wednesday, March 20, 2024
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
At a recent roundtable, business and academic leaders exchanged ideas about how they can collaborate more frequently to produce market-ready talent.
  • Under pressure to adapt to emerging tech and adopt sustainable practices, businesses struggle to find resilient workers who can lead teams effectively.
  • Business schools can provide greater value to companies by designing experiential opportunities for students to hone soft skills, cultivate professionalism, develop ethical foundations, and discover their sense of purpose.
  • Schools also can collaborate with practitioners more frequently to co-create curricula, producing more graduates with the skills that industry needs most.


How can the leaders of business schools and industry organizations come together more often to align curricula with the realities of today’s business environment? That question framed a recent roundtable discussion held in February at the AACSB Deans Conference in Barcelona. Or, as one participant put it, how can educators and practitioners join forces to ensure that there is “more classrooms in the firms and more business in the classroom”?

Among the roundtable participants were six business leaders representing companies in the technology, accounting, and media sectors; four business school deans; and five AACSB representatives. AACSB arranged the discussion to help close the gap between business education and industry.

With that in mind, the group engaged in a conversation about the challenges today’s organizations face in attracting, hiring, and retaining quality talent, before brainstorming ways that business schools and businesses can create a more robust and market-ready workforce. Here are the top takeaways from the discussion, which encompass seven challenges affecting the labor pipeline and eight ways business schools can help firms address them.

1. Changing Worker Demographics

Global demographics are swiftly changing, making it more difficult for companies to find, hire, and train employees, said Ron Tuninga, session moderator and vice president and managing director of AACSB’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa office. For example, populations in the European Union are aging; as a result, EU companies face a future when there won’t be enough younger workers to replace those entering retirement.

At the same time, African countries have comparatively young populations and will require better and more accessible training to support growth and prosperity across the continent.

2. Changing Worker Expectations

According to several participants, young people today expect greater flexibility and mobility in their educational and career trajectories. More are seeking self-paced and short-term learning experiences, as well as options for remote or part-time work. They want to work for companies with policies that are friendly to families and support worker well-being, and they’re seeking greater social connection and a sense of purpose.

One dean wondered whether it was even possible for business schools to give students a sense of purpose. Even so, she added that business schools could offer students ample opportunities to find their purpose through activities that compel them to explore their passions and see how they deal with problems. Business schools could design curricula that help students “develop different types of curiosity” and view their work as a way to give back and “produce something good for society.”

3. A Shrinking Talent Pipeline

The group agreed that many companies are struggling to find workers with the skills they need—especially in fields such as auditing and accounting, which students often perceive as boring or lacking diversity. The two roundtable participants from accounting firms noted that many students are not aware of the positive societal impact that these fields have.

That’s why it’s important for universities and businesses to “communicate a passion” for the work, a participant said. Students need to know that accountants and auditors don’t just crunch numbers—they analyze data, define strategy, ensure transparency, and work on approaches to help mediate climate change. “How can we make accounting sexy? How can we make it more interesting? It is such an incredible career,” said another. “There are so many opportunities.”

4. More Options for Training

While companies are looking for candidates with the skills to be programmers, analysts, and engineers, young people do not necessarily need formal college degrees to attain these skills. In fact, as one person pointed out, companies in some countries are hiring apprentices straight out of high school and providing them with on-the-job training for technology-driven careers.

Prospective students have so many educational resources available to them—ranging from free instructional videos on YouTube to corporate universities—that business schools need to focus on providing experiences that students cannot find elsewhere. “We don’t have the monopoly on education anymore,” said one panelist.

5. Greater Multidisciplinary Challenges

The world increasingly needs multifaceted solutions to complex problems in areas ranging from healthcare and energy to sustainable supply chains and digital technologies. If organizations are to tackle these issues effectively, Tuninga noted, they will “need people who understand different disciplines.”

6. A Need for Diversity

The last five years have seen both a call for greater diversity and a backlash against diversity initiatives—especially in the United States. At the same time, recruiters are being asked to “do more with less,” said one practitioner. For that reason, business schools can help organizations more effectively pinpoint and attract diverse talent.

Several participants said that their companies would especially like to see more women pursue careers in accounting and STEM fields. “In many programs,” said one dean, “we have a lot of female students, but in economics and finance programs, which are quite large, we graduate hardly any women.” Although her business school offers discipline-based scholarships to women, young women often have “already made their decisions when they were in high school.” By the time they come to college, it might be too late to influence their career choices.

A practitioner shared that, each year, her technology company conducts workshops for girls 16 years old and younger to introduce them to STEM fields early in their decision-making processes. The consensus was that business schools could attract more women to certain fields by starting their own recruiting efforts earlier as well.

7. A Need for Ethics

Although it has been more than two decades since the corporate scandals at Enron and Arthur Andersen, the need to teach ethics has never been greater, said another dean present. He pointed to South Africa and its need to address intractable issues such as poverty, unemployment, and inequality, as well as to fix a struggling healthcare system and an unreliable energy grid. However, these problems all are exacerbated by a lack of ethical leadership.

He paraphrased the words of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, saying that  “Africa is not poor, but it is poorly led.” He cited the example of the Gupta brothers, who through unethical business dealings essentially “captured” major industries in South Africa and gained influence over its government.

Their corruption has soured many young people on careers in business, he said, especially in accounting. But business schools can help “destigmatize the profession” and restore trust in accounting and auditing by teaching ethics, sustainability, and environmental, social, and government issues. In this way, schools can “empower leaders that are going to be forces for change.”

Minding the Skills Gap

To address the issues above, organizations need to hire talent with a range of skill sets. Unfortunately, said several panelists, many job seekers seem ill-prepared, and recruiters at their companies are reporting a “lower quality” and a “slight decline in professionalism” among recent graduates.

Candidates most often fall short on important soft skills such as communication, creativity, innovation, negotiation, and team building. Additionally, one panelist said that job applicants often lack the ability to tell their own stories well enough to highlight what they can bring to an organization. And once employed, they can struggle with the behaviors expected of them in professional roles.

Some corporations take that training upon themselves. A panelist pointed to her organization’s corporate university, which focuses on “upskilling, reskilling, and making sure that people who join our organization have the right cultural fit.”

Another emphasized that too many young workers lack interpersonal or human-centric skills such as empathy and compassion. “Leaders have to take care of their teams. Relations between humans are very complex, and leaders must manage this complexity,” he said. “We have to train our people to manage people—in a world of machines, humanity is more important than ever.”

What Can Business Schools Do?

Lily Bi, CEO of AACSB, suggested that the discussion highlighted four building blocks of skills that students need to develop: foundational knowledge, technical skills, soft skills, and contextual knowledge. She pointed out that students might be able to develop technical skills via self-paced learning options (such as free online courses and YouTube videos). They can gain exposure to organizational contexts only by working in real-world business environments.

The value proposition for universities and business schools, then, lies in developing foundational and soft skills—especially the latter, where business schools can add tremendous value.

The group then brainstormed ways that business schools could best prepare more well-rounded talent and presented the following ideas:

Teach personal presentation skills. Show students how to present themselves professionally and tell their own stories clearly—to articulate their skills and the ways they can contribute to organizations.

Hone interpersonal skills. Provide students with opportunities to collaborate with people who are different from them. As one panelist put it, “You need to know how to talk to people, you have to persuade them, you have to take care of them, you have to be charismatic, and you have to be passionate.”

Build resilience. Teach students how to handle challenges and bounce back from failures. One practitioner shared that employee turnover rates at his company have become unusually high, often because young workers quit at the first sign of difficulty—or after receiving one negative comment in an otherwise positive evaluation. Business schools can help students grow accustomed to accepting constructive criticism and using that feedback to support their personal and professional growth.

Teach how to frame problems. Require students to “frame their own problems, rather than just presenting them with problems, which we tend to do a lot in academia,” said Geoff Perry, AACSB’s executive vice president, global chief membership officer, and managing director, Asia Pacific. When students learn to identify both the real and potential complications in the situations they face, they “develop curiosity and critical thinking” and learn to work with others to find solutions when they hit problems,” he said. “That’s the sweet spot that we’re looking for.”

Develop maturity through experiential learning. Require students to work on hands-on projects to help them grow more sophisticated in their use of technology and more knowledgeable about sustainable practices. Ensure that they often work directly with companies, so that they can develop the maturity they’ll need to become effective leaders and become more fluent in the language and behaviors of business.

Use popular technologies. Don’t forbid students from using new technology, such as artificial intelligence, in the classroom. Instead, encourage students to use the same platforms and devices that organizations are deploying today. Turn to corporate partners to supply the latest technology and provide projects that support its application.

Provide mentorship. Help students sort through the myriad options open to them as they try to choose their future careers. Industry mentors can help students “understand what the market needs, and which direction would be the best based on their capabilities.”

Teach and model values, not just skills. Communicate the values you want the next generation to take forward. Also, encourage faculty and administrators to model skills such as collegiality and collaboration in their own research, teaching, and workplace behaviors. “Kids are great imitators,” as one panelist put it. “If you’re a student, your professor is one of the most important people to shape your thinking. So, we need to think about how we handle and behave ourselves.”

In the end, it will be important for business schools to assume much of the burden for training and reskilling, so that companies can focus more on advancing their missions and refining their business models. “What is it that we can do together, business schools and businesses,” one dean asked, “to create the people that you need in the future?”

What Comes Next?

The group agreed that to supply the talent industry needs, schools must have ample input from business. Schools could best incorporate business perspectives by inviting business leaders to participate in classrooms, on advisory boards, and in collaborative projects.

In addition, a panelist suggested that, instead of simply surveying corporate partners about their needs, schools should create opportunities for multilateral conversations. During these discussions, academics, business leaders, and students could exchange ideas, learn from one another, and co-create curricula that more directly reflect immediate market needs.

The roundtable concluded on the idea that AACSB could act as a catalyst that connected its member schools with businesses via future discussions or an online forum. One person suggested that the association might bring educators, practitioners, and students together for specific immersive projects.

“For universities, this is a tremendous time” to help companies find, retain, and reskill workers via training that no other providers can offer, said one dean. “We have the legitimacy, we have the expertise in education,” he added. The faster business schools can connect to organizations as each reskilling need arises, the better they can help companies bridge their training gaps.

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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