Last month, I attended the AACSB annual meeting in San Diego. The event is typically informative and this year was no exception. From the sessions to the informal conversations with other deans and B-school leaders, I reached four interesting conclusions about the future of business education.
First, there was substantial discussion of the coming tsunami of online education. The subtext was that technology has dramatically affected most industries and yet education, including b-schools, still operates using a model that our 19th century colleagues would easily recognize. While we may use whiteboards instead of chalkboards, our classrooms are designed to allow a professor to be at the center of attention for our students. Everyone on stage and in the audience agreed that technology was going to swamp traditional models. Everyone also seemed to agree that b-schools were not ready for the coming change – especially faculty. Since I discussed the issue of online education in an earlier post – via the vehicle of self-service lines – there is no need for elaboration here.
Surprisingly, few suggestions were made as to how the lack of preparation would be remedied. There was reference to the few top schools that had started online programs (e.g., Indiana and North Carolina). But the deans played their cards close to the vest. Either there is indecisiveness on how to proceed, no clue as to what to do, or a belief that the online revolution would swamp some other dean’s b-school. I don’t know what other deans are thinking. I expect that this phenomenon is going to emerge, though it is not clear that it will do so in a tsunami. Instead, I expect flooding to occur in different places first and over time to expand and affect B-schools more broadly.
Second, in the face of the technology challenge, as well as budget constraints, enrollment issues, growing competition, and other factors, it was interesting to hear dean after dean (and speaker after speaker) identify the same general strategy to the future. The strategy included development of specialized masters programs, improvement in the core MBA programs, creation of joint MBA options, enhanced executive education, and growth of the undergraduate business program. Since everyone sought to differentiate his/her school through this strategy, I wondered exactly what was going to be said when the existing problems persisted because everyone was adjusting in the same way.
Schools with resources were likely going to have an easier time managing the strategy. But otherwise, B-schools were not going to achieve much differentiation from the commonly discussed strategy. Of course, deans may have been unwilling to reveal the underlying approach they planned to take. On the other hand, the lack of an obvious breakthrough strategy may be causing reluctance across schools (deans) to follow a different path – at least until something new and replicable is obvious.
Third, discussions about the first two issues revealed that most deans perceived the faculty to be a barrier to new strategies and that schools adopted policies to buy the faculty off in order to generate new approaches. I was somewhat surprised by this as the tactic was mentioned by deans at very highly regarded and unknown schools alike. In addition, unionized and nonunion faculty were lumped into the same pile.
I inferred from this skepticism of faculty an underlying pessimism about where business (higher) education was headed. Success in our competitive environment will require all constituents of a B-school to work together towards common goals. Even the richest school would run out of money if the faculty required payoffs to follow an approach dictated by changing currents in our industry. I doubt that progress will be made in B-schools where the faculty lack trust in the efforts of the administration. I also doubt that progress will be made where drastic adjustments are imposed to address problems that are only half in bloom.
Fourth, the efforts of AACSB to adjust accreditation processes to fit the needs of a broader set of institutions and an increasing number of schools outside of the U.S. has caused frictions that are not fully resolved. I wondered whether the result of this would be more rigidity in the accreditation process at a time when flexibility is needed. While the notion of mission-driven accreditation suggests I may be over-interpreting the problem, there was little common understanding of some issues by a broad and diverse set of deans, including many who will be responsible for implementing the standards.
Overall, there are considerable opportunities for B-schools that execute effectively and accept the reality that education is changing (and must change). There are few easy fixes available and much evidence that long term approaches are needed. Of course, this conflicts with the reality that the tenure of deans is shrinking and the fact that our institutions often hire outsiders to lead a school. (I was an outsider when I arrived six years ago.)
The lesson I take from these inferences is that it is necessary to work collaboratively and deliberately with faculty to develop a better school. If skepticism exists in other places, congruency will help us improve and thrive. If our operating model reflects a shared understanding of the nature of our business and how a school can leverage that understanding, then it will be possible to succeed. We must all accept that the golden age of business schools is over. And the emerging age will be less kind and stable. It is a perfect time for new approaches, especially ones leveraging technology and optimizing faculty skills. Our new age will be a faculty age if our faculty embraces the skills expected by our students and recruiters. Otherwise, it will be a difficult time – and much worse than today.