Throughout its history, the MBA has been closely linked to innovative thinking. Since its inception in late 19th century America, where the business Masters degree evolved as a reaction to an industrial age requiring new management approaches, MBA programmes have been developing new teaching structures and embracing new technologies: as early as the mid-1980s, at least one US school was handing out a new device known as a "laptop computer" to students.
Times have changed, but the need for innovation in business schools is as pressing as ever. Institutions all over the world are coming up with new technological, pedagogic and even philosophical ideas to meet the future head on. "The complexity of today's business world is growing rapidly," says Chris Tsang, executive director of MBA/MSc programmes at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). "There is no single strategy which can last forever. MBA students need to adapt to the ever-changing world, and so do business schools."
Tsang believes the learning experience business schools offer students can help them become more competitive. In the case of HKUST this means providing every student with an iPad and creating a portal for tablet users to access school information, plus a dedicated online platform hosting videos and learning resources.
Shanghai's China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) also offers a tablet e-learning platform to executive MBA students and is encouraging them to get to grips with social media. The school encourages students to join one of more than 60 CEIBS-related LinkedIn groups, alongside its official Twitter, Facebook and Weibo accounts. "Social media is also informally integrated into some courses," says Professor Chen Shimin, associate dean and academic director of the MBA. "For example, in one recent marketing class it was the broad basis for a class project."
Other schools are using technology to create new teaching spaces. Henley Business School's MBA programme, for example, offers a virtual learning environment to encourage tutor-led and peer-based study, with access to electronic study aids, forums, webinars and remote connections to students and alumni worldwide. "As the boundaries between virtual and actual learning environments become increasingly blurred, knowledge sharing at a global level continues to expand," says Dr Elena Beleska-Spasova, programme director of the school's flexible MBA. "This forces business schools to continuously look for novel ways to create content and share knowledge."
Whatever the approach, it's critical to use technology to add real value, says Alick Kitchin, business director at Edinburgh Business School. Using an online "profiler" tool, EBS students can produce a report that measures their grasp of a particular subject, where they are strong and which need more work. "This is more than even an experienced tutor could do for every member of a conventional class in every topic," explains Kitchin.
Innovation also comes in many more forms than technological. Three of the finalists for the Association of MBA's 2012 Innovation Award, for example, have all developed new teaching approaches to stretch and improve their students.
IEDC-Bled School of Management has thrown its doors open to the arts to encourage creative thinking. "Nothing can be more revealing about practising leadership than standing in front of a choir and having to work with singers," explains Dr Ian Sutherland, deputy dean for research. "Nothing can be more revealing about the processes of creativity than a group of our students standing in front of a blank canvas and having to figure out how to work together to produce a meaningful painting. This kind of learning creates highly memorable and usable knowledge for them in their professional lives."
China's Wuhan University also looks beyond quantitative business thinking. "We select professors in humanities from the whole university to give lectures to our EMBA students," says Yu Jingjing, associate director of the Economic and Management School, "who provide diverse perspectives when thinking about management problems."
Insead, meanwhile, has established partnerships with scientists from other universities to develop commercial technology projects. The 10-month programme uses workshops, bootcamps, classes and competitions centred around entrepreneurial development, says Filipe Santos, associate professor of entrepreneurship. "The students love the experiential learning aspect of this programme. They're not simply hearing about theories and working on published case studies: they're being challenged to roll up their sleeves and create real companies."
Schools also have a duty to keep up with the shifting sands of the business world. "Business schools have been regarded as vacillating and failing in courage to integrate reverse logistics and sustainability topics within the management education curriculum," says Professor Shimin. "The main pressure on business school curricula innovation today is in catching up with leading industries and investment funds who are actively implementing sustainable development and enterprise projects within their strategies."
The pressures arising from technological change catalysed the first business management programmes, so perhaps readying a new generation of leaders for an uncertain future is the best reason for innovation. "The world is changing at a faster and faster rate," says Dr Sutherland. "Given this climate, it is not only important for educational institutions to innovate, it is essential."