Innovation is key to the future of the MBA

The annual AMBA conference calls for schools to move with the times, which will pose new challenges

Last week the Association of MBAs held its annual international conference for deans and directors of business schools. The event took place in Barcelona, home of Gaudi's groundbreaking Sagrada Familia cathedral – an appropriate backdrop for this year’s principle theme of innovation.

Setting the scene, Ibon Zugasti of the Millennium Project delivered an opening speech considering the future of business. The Millennium Project itself looks at the challenges facing humanity; in terms of business education. Zugasti highlighted the ways in which computers will develop and how learning methods will change. In particular, he said, e-teaching will be more widespread and smarter-than-human computers will have been developed by 2030.

In the meantime, current MBA programmes are finding a range of ways |to develop themselves. The conference heard presentations from Waikato Management School’s Te Raupapa on the creation of an MBA to complement the particular needs and traditions of New Zealand’s Maori people. Nova SBE and Católica-Lisbon discussed the Lisbon MBA, which embraces a unique forum series involving speakers from outside of the business community to address students. Netherlands-based Nyenrode Business University, meanwhile, outlined their methods for creating a flexible, entrepreneurial MBA through digital learning innovation and close collaboration with business leaders.

This kind of flexible approach will be vital to the MBA of the future, concluded a panel discussion examining trends in management education. With students viewing education differently, a proliferation of new technology (particularly tablets, regarded as the education tool of the future) and a steady rise in the popularity of part time programmes, all business schools will need to look at how they deliver their programmes. The services, support and opportunities to connect with the wider business world they offer will be vital, the panel noted.

A further prediction was that as that wider business world becomes ever more fragmented (and the influence of India and China grows) the traditional idea of the ‘workplace’ will cease to exist. “Location will be irrelevant as entrepreneurs may never meet their team, suppliers, customers or funders,” said Dan Sandhu, owner of Ark Horizons. To keep up, innovation will need to be driven from a basis in business schools, shaping leaders who – says Jeannette Liendo, global director of Microsoft’s Corporate Marketing Group – “lead with trust and connect business to the broader social construct”.

What will this mean for the business school of 2022? The general consensus was that although bricks-and-mortar schools will still be with us, their offerings will have changed a great deal. Virtual classrooms and distance learning methods will be on the rise, as will programmes enabling the same approach to the MBA that users can enjoy when they buy music from iTunes. Instead of being forced to get a whole album, they will choose the elements they like or need the most.

However, AMBA Student of the Year Alex Dalley sounded a note of caution. Developing new strategies and adapting to social media and e-learning practices should not be at the cost of a personal learning experience, he pointed out. Students resent being treated as consumers, and will still need face time with their schools in order to make meaningful, mutually beneficial connections with them.

As the conference drew to a close the clear message was that successful innovation over the next decade and beyond will depend on how business schools and leaders understand technology and use it within their organisations. “The leaders of the future will be people who manage the link between technology and society and create rich user experiences,” said Joe Lockwood of The Centre for Design Innovation at the Glasgow School of Art. Indeed, as orchestra conductor Itay Talgam pointed out, business leaders, like conductors, control the processes of creativity – not the people involved in it.

The road ahead will pose plenty of challenges to business schools when it comes to innovation. According to survey data collected by the AMBA over the course of the conference, the majority of schools see the need to embrace innovation and engage with the wider community – but few feel they are doing it as well as they could so far.

Yet there’s plenty of cause for confidence, believes Sharon Bamford, CEO of AMBA. “Our accredited business schools are responding to change by introducing innovative ways to prepare graduates to be 21st century leaders. They are taking risks and showing creativity and courage by implementing new ideas into their MBA programmes to adapt for the future.”

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