Why MBAs will have to adapt to survive

Jessica Moore finds the future of business education is in question

Those contemplating the business education of tomorrow should ask not what lies in store for the MBA, but whether the programme has a future at all, according to Elena Liquete, a director at IESE Business School in Spain.

Liquete was among a number of high-profile speakers at this years' Amba International Conference for Deans and Directors, held in Geneva from 25 to 27 May. Top figures from global MBA providers gathered to hear the thoughts and concerns of business education leaders, seizing the opportunity to examine the MBA and its future.

So what did these deans and directors learn? Several overarching themes emerged for them to ponder. The importance of lifelong learning came across strongly, as did an awareness of evolution: cultures, communities, recruiters, students, ethics and, perhaps most crucially, technologies are changing, and business education must keep apace. MBA providers' new goal, the conference concluded, should be to produce holistic thinkers.

Liquete cut to the heart of attendees' fears. The MBA, she said, faces increasing competition from specialist Masters programmes, many for a fraction of the cost. She addressed changes in students and their recruitment, asking schools and the Association of MBAs to look closely at how they can evolve.

Other speakers had similarly controversial messages. Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, looked for multi-functional leaders able to serve in public and private sector roles. He urged his audience to move away from shareholder models and come back to the "stakeholder theory of the firm", which states that business is part of society and should serve that society. Schwab went further, pinning the origins of the current global economic crisis on management models that were too closely aligned with shareholders, thereby losing sight of the purpose of serving all stakeholders.

The impact of technology was of central importance to the conference. It was addressed by Lamia Walker of the Graduate Management Admission Council, Mark Stoddard of the Association of MBAs, Professor James Fleck, dean of the Open University, Karen Guerra, non-executive director of Davide Campari–Milano Spa, Gary Parkin of HR Talent Management, Janna Bastow of BraveNewTalent, and Dr. Elisabeth Kelan, an expert on generational relations – albeit in very different ways.

Walker, Stoddard and Fleck explored the rapid growth of postgraduate business education in emerging economies, such as India, China and Latin America. Walker and Stoddard highlighted the diversity of programmes students now demand, that full-time programmes, while still popular, are giving way to more flexible modes of learning. The Open University was one of the pioneers in this area, Professor Fleck arguing for this education model, saying that face-to-face interactions are not superior to online forums.

Gary Parkin, Janna Bastow and Karen Guerra all considered the impact of technology on future recruitment. Guerra painted a sobering picture, advising young people to train themselves rather than expect to be trained by employers, to plan on having multiple careers, expect to be made redundant, and brace themselves for personal and economic crises. Flexibility and adaptability, said Guerra, are crucial for business success. Bastow described a future where people increasingly engage in online "talent communities", such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, for recruitment and peer interaction.

There was also talk of the "Millennials" – the new generation of technology-savvy, social media-friendly business leaders. These Millennials are shaking up the way management is taught, responding to different stimuli and demanding immediate feedback. In her speech, Elisabeth Kelan argued that technology can be an effective educational tool if used constructively. This generation is much more open to sharing ideas, which creates opportunities for collaborative learning. However, she added, with so much information at our fingertips, educators must help students differentiate between high and lower-quality information.

Rajeeb Dey is one such Millennial. An entrepreneur at 17, he later founded Enternships.com, a portal connecting students and graduates to entrepreneurial work placements. At the conference, Dey called for MBA programmes to engender an entrepreneurial spirit in students. His words supported Kelan's theory that Millennials see long-term employment as an out-dated model. They want to increase their employability, or work for themselves, either of which stimulates a goal of constant learning.

Overall, the conference articulated the key issues facing business education. The speakers raised more questions than they answered – but that should be a welcome challenge for today's internet-savvy, information-seeking, collaborative, communicative and international business community.

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