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Media Rankings and the Challenge of Change in Management Education

If you could change anything_Ñ_anything at all_Ñ_about your business school, what would it be? In one form or another, that basic question is placed before every business school leader. Whereas “nothing_Ñ_nothing at all” might once have sufficed for the sake of continuity and tradition, it’s no longer viewed as an acceptable response. Business school leaders, like the rest of us, live and lead in an economy described by terms and phrases such as disruptive, exponential growth, Fourth Industrial Revolution, automated, and VUCA. The time to think that business schools can continue teaching what they have, the same way, to the same people, in the same places, and with the same faculty is over. This article is about how business schools are stepping up to the challenge of change and what rankings can and can’t do to support them.

The Challenge of Change

However basic the question_Ñ_”What should our school change ?”_Ñ_the answer is not easy for business school leaders to get to. Different stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, institutional leaders, donors, and local community leaders, have variable and sometimes conflicting needs and expectations. And there is no single right answer that can be shared, passed along across all business schools globally. What truly matters depends on the school’s strategies, strengths, weaknesses, structures, and relationships, as well as on its history and the context in which it operates. Even when a school decides to change, implementing it can be especially challenging in higher education. The culture still favors tradition over innovation and reputation over results.

Like any organization, business schools are part of a larger ecosystem that connects competitors, learners, employers, suppliers, distributors, regulators, and more. The ecosystem includes business and government, startups and incumbents, disruptors and resisters. It includes an expansive group of organizations supporting management education with services, such as admission tests, learning management systems, marketing plans, scholarships and loans, content and cases, certifications, and accreditations. The defining characteristic of an ecosystem is interdependence_Ñ_each organization affects and is affected by the others. Organizations collaborate and/or compete. They flex and adapt. They co-evolve. Change_Ñ_a mutation_Ñ_is risky and may not replicate when it isn’t fit for or doesn’t fit the system, which is itself changing.

Enter the Rankings

For three decades, media-driven rankings have been a significant part of the graduate management education ecosystem. Proponents claim that rankings have been instrumental in turning the MBA into one of the most successful education products in the history of higher education. Some credit rankings for motivating business schools to place more emphasis on soft skills and career services. At the same time, rankings have been criticized for intractable methodological problems, causing excessive and expensive reporting burdens, creating perverse incentives, stifling innovation, and more. Good or bad, the numbers and whether they rise or fall are not inconsequential to the students (including prospects and alumni), faculty, staff, and supporters of a ranked business school.

A new report, Business School Rankings for the 21st Century released in late January at Davos, points to existing research confirming that (a) MBA programs do indeed affect the attitudes and behaviors of students and (b) rankings are a major force shaping what business schools do and don’t do in those MBA programs. Based on this research and round table discussions with deans and other industry leaders, the authors of the report conclude that MBA programs have been slow to adapt curricula in a fast changing world in part because rankings do not_Ñ_by design_Ñ_consider what is actually taught.

Instead of assessing curricula and learning outcomes, the rankings include more easily tabulated variables such as student test scores and prior experience, alumni and recruiter opinions, salaries and placement statistics, and publications in top journals. Over time, MBA programs have adapted to these kind of metrics, with unfortunate results. Change is seen as “too risky”_Ñ_even when there is a strong belief that doing so will improve the quality, relevance, and impact of their program. Why jeopardize our rank by recruiting a more diverse class or one that more favors entrepreneurship? Why expand the business experience of faculty when academic citations count more than relevance to practice? Why take the risk of reinventing the MBA when it could cause even a temporary drop in our rank?

Why, indeed. However compelling the status quo may feel, the report’s main recommendation advises a bolder path: it is time to transform rankings so that business schools will and can do more to achieve a “more productive, sustainable, and inclusive economy.”

If that’s what we want, then transforming MBA education is an effective lever. We can seek ways to revise rankings criteria so that schools are rewarded rather than punished for welfare-enhancing changes. While the authors stop short of offering a blueprint for new rankings, they do offer a list “topics that might be put on the agenda,” and acknowledge that some changes will be more controversial and difficult than others. We can already see signs that these recommendations are being heard, as at least one ranking body is reconsidering their formula and new ratings are being co-created by business and academia.

Beyond Rankings: Catalyzing Innovation in the Broader Ecosystem

With the contributions from dozens of stakeholders, from across the media rankings landscape, it’s hard to disagree with this report’s conclusions. Business schools should be enabled, rather than hindered in their efforts to change. Rankings can and should help business schools that want to lead efforts to move purpose ahead of profit and elevate the needs of tomorrow in relation to today. It is, increasingly, what readers and leaders want, and it is what business and society needs. However, rankings reform isn’t enough. They are only one part of the larger system. Rankings are neither the beginning nor the end of what must be done.

So with that, here are three reasons why we must think beyond the rankings to catalyze the kind of changes that society needs_Ñ_and three directions to explore.

First, media rankings have been limited mostly to MBA degree programs offered by a relatively small number of schools. Meanwhile, fueled by technological advances and accelerating change in business, the broader demand for advanced management education has been growing rapidly. Workers are also learners and will need help navigating their own managerial development, connecting to a growing array of shorter educational programs, and signaling their skills and competencies with new types of credentials. Yet, we have only just begun to build the infrastructure to support lifelong learning and the reskilling revolution. Over the last few years, I have been excited to learn about and support many initiatives to better align education to the changing needs of learners and business. These efforts are connecting business and higher education in new and important ways, essentially rewiring labor markets as well as education ecosystems.

Second, it makes sense for rankings to put more weight on the business experience of faculty, but we also need new platforms to strengthen the connections between practicing managers and academic scholars across disciplines. The current systems and culture supporting research are entrenched and will require more concerted efforts beyond rankings reform. That’s where the growing community of leading scholars across business disciplines participating in the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) initiative have been making a difference by seeding experiments, building new awards and recognitions, and stimulating policy changes across the ecosystem. We are seeing digital disruption in research from new and established companies. They are for example, redefining social networks for scholars and metrics for measuring impact.

Third, while the most powerful rankings are globally-oriented, many of the needed transformations and impacts are local. Global challenges, including poverty, climate, water crises, and human rights_Ñ_require local solutions that business schools can help to create. How will we help schools deal with the pressure to achieve global recognition, largely supported by rankings, and enable them to be locally relevant and impactful at the same time?How do we scale education, even while providing access to locally-relevant content and experiences in developing worlds? Indeed, more and more business schools have started to measure their local impact_Ñ_tracking the companies and jobs they help create and attract, and myriad ways they contribute to improving their communities. These are the challenges that the Global Business School Network addresses by bringing together business schools, industry, foundations and aid agencies from around the globe to improve access to quality, locally-relevant management education for the developing world.

So, yes we must rethink rankings but should not convince ourselves that it is enough for the world we want. Just as any business school should view rankings as a means to achieve its mission and intended impact, rather than as the end, we all should see reforms as part of a larger, shared vision in which business schools are vital to achieving global prosperity. Every part of the ecosystem, including businesses that haven’t yet been created, can play a role in helping business schools to be the kind of institutions that society needs. It is difficult for every part of the ecosystem to change dramatically and overnight, but the larger vision can guide individual and progressive improvements, bending the current path in ways that will make a huge difference in the future.

This blog article can also be found on the GRLI Blog

The GBSN Annual Conference in Lisbon will continue the conversation around Measuring the Impact of Business Schools. Lead the conversation around measuring the impact of business schools by preparing a session proposal for the GBSN 2019 Annual Conference. Submit a session proposal

Dan LeClair width= is the Chief Executive Officer at the Global Business School Network. 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.

Connect with Dan on LinkedIn and Twitter @drleclair