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Business Education and the Inevitable Change

This editorial was originally published in the Council on Business and Society‘s latest issue of the Global Voice magazine, Walk On, Issue #17.

The Global Voice Magazine

The Council on Business & Society’s quarterly and special issue magazine. The publication features research-based and opinion-piece articles made readable for the student, practitioner and instructor on business and society, management and leadership, sustainability, entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, CSR, green finance and social and environmental reporting.     

Just like in business, in business education the winds of change are always blowing. Unlike business, however, these winds usually seem to pass without significantly impacting the industry. In recent years, however, the pressures have been mounting. And the Covid-19 pandemic has spread the view that profound change is inevitable.

What fate awaits incumbent business schools in this future? Broadly speaking, there are two different scenarios. The first one involves a massive disruption, in which the bulk of traditional business schools are rendered obsolete by new kinds of providers, which bring specialized, up-to-date knowledge at much lower costs and with a global reach. In one version of this scenario, degrees are broken down into micro-certifications, customized to particular job profiles and employers’ expectations. The other, less dramatic, scenario echoes the famous line in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s. The Leopard, “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change.”

Business schools will keep up with the times and survive with some minor adaptations, like drafting new missions, doing some nice seminars, and perhaps launching some well-intentioned programs. In the end, incumbent business schools will occupy a shrinking portion of the growing market for management education and development.

We believe both scenarios are unlikely for two reasons. The first reason is the business school model itself, which is a curious combination of academic rigor and business flexibility. Many people think that a commitment to scholarly values and the ability to adapt are incompatible, and thus the former represents the greatest weakness of business schools in a changing world. Yet, this model has stood the test of time. Only business schools have managed to articulate research (i.e. the search for truth) with education (i.e. the dissemination of truth). No other organization attempts this delicate balance, nor has the capacity or incentive to do so.

Even while sticking to their scholarly roots, business schools have been remarkably adaptable over time. They have reinvented programs, pioneered pedagogies, invested in enabling technologies, built value-creating collaborations, and developed new markets. The wide variety of circumstances faced by schools, have given rise to a remarkably diverse set of opportunities and responses. Every school has its own situation, its own set of resources, its own challenges. And each school must find its own way. The second reason why the both scenarios are unlikely is that education technology is not the only driver of change, or even the most important one. We believe instead that the most significant development in business education is on the demand side. Simply put, the world is expecting more from business schools—to go beyond business to help address the most complex, important challenges of society. There are mounting social pressures for business schools to create more positive social impact, locally, regionally, and globally.

At the same time business schools embrace the incredible opportunities, they must also address the challenges. Making a bigger difference in society will require profound changes across many dimensions, including curriculum foundations, faculty disciplines, program offerings, community engagement activities, funding mechanisms, and faculty models. To be clear, we see academic independence and rigor as key strengths for business schools in this transformation, but the methods and metrics must evolve to align with the shifting purpose. In this context, technology is viewed more as enabler than a disruptor. It provides new tools for improving research, personalizing education, simulating practice, and more. It steers and supports the industry towards collaboration.

Business schools will leverage their core strengths and working with each other, and with online providers and other players, such a consulting companies, to serve new markets, especially in the continuing education space. Other parts of the business education ecosystem, such as rankings, assessments, and accreditation, will also change in order to support business schools in their new role.
In the end, we believe this is indeed a pivotal moment in the history of business education. But it is hardly the end of business schools. It is the rebirth of business schools, nay each business school, in the context of society.

Dan LeClair is the CEO of the Global Business School Network. Prior to GBSN, Dan was an Executive Vice President at AACSB International. Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries. 

Adrian Zicari is a Professor in CSR & Performance at ESSEC Business School; Executive Director at the Council on Business and Society and Honorary representative for Buenos Aires city in Paris. My Google Scholar: http://bit.do/eTkWi