The evolution of business schools: London School of Economics

Written by
Emily Sexton-Brown

12 Jul 2016

12 Jul 2016 • by Emily Sexton-Brown

What was the first business school you worked at? And what were the core components of the MBA?

The first school I worked at was London Business School. At that time, I was working on a 2-year MBA. The first year was about developing core skills in accounting, finance, organisational behaviour, and other basic core functions of a business. Then the second year was used as an opportunity for a lot of electives, either to allow people to go into a large number of areas to get a very wide range of knowledge – or on the other hand, to go into very great depth in fields like finance or strategy. It was a fairly open structure.

Have you sensed an attitude shift throughout students and faculty members, if so, how do the attitudes compare now to back in the late 90s?

Yes, I have detected a very big attitude change. Firstly, I think students are much more aware of what they want. They are less willing to accept what faculty say is required, and they have a much clearer view themselves of what they want. Secondly, the students are also much more diverse. A typical student body now has a much wider range of people seeking completely different objectives, and a business degree has to encompass all of them effectively. Intellectually, there has also been a big shift on the faculty side. There is a far greater focus on evidence-based management, where managerial decision must be based on facts and analysis. There’s also much more emphasis now than 20 years ago on issues of ethics and governance. Business schools are teaching people not only how to succeed, but how to do so in a morally acceptable way.

What was the desired skillset for leadership in 2005 across large organisations? How much had the syllabus changed in a 10 year period in your opinion? What is the desired skillset now in the present day?

I think the skills required for leadership today have changed enormously in the past decade, because the nature of the organisations has changed in several fundamental ways, and the syllabus taught by business schools has reflected this. Internally, ten years ago, organisations had begun to move away from a traditional hierarchical ‘command and control’ structure, and at that time research was debating the merits of both hierarchical systems versus much flatter structures as alternative models. Today, I think there is much less focus on the command and control model for leadership, and instead training leaders is much more about how to work in teams, and lead diverse teams. In the past ten years, operating in a global economy has also become much more important for leaders in most large organisations. International experience, addressing issues of cross-cultural diversity and management, is crucial. Other issues of diversity, for example in terms of gender or race, have also become much more significant. A lot of research suggests that performance in organisations is enhanced by increased diversity of these various types, and therefore managing diversity in its own right has emerged as a key leadership skill. Externally, globalisation over the past decade has also meant that organisations face the issue of global integration versus local adaptation - whether to focus on local markets, or drive standardised products and methods. In recent years there has been quite a big shift toward local adaptation and local responsiveness, and that has changed the nature of leadership quite significantly, because it means one is dealing with a much more context-specific form of management.

How much has the advance in technology change how students are taught?

I think this has changed rather less than one might expect. Given the potential which technology offers to advance teaching and learning, business schools haven’t yet seen as much progress in this area, and faculty and Learning Technology departments in schools are just beginning to explore the full possibilities offered by technology. In my view, one great area of possibility is a notion known as ‘flipping’, where all the material which the educator would have previously needed include in their course is now actually virtually, through open access courses, lecture recordings, and the wider online academic community. This means the value-added part of the business degree becomes the discussion and debate in the classroom, informed and guided by the educator – giving students an improved learning experience with more hours in class to explore and test their ideas, and learn from their peers, rather than those hours being spent passively taking in information from lectures. I believe this is one big area of potential for the future of management education.

What do you predict will be a needed skill for the future of human resources? Do these skills even exist yet?

I would predict that HR divisions in firms are going to need to adapt and change the way they operate in the future, in order to cater for the next generation of managers and professionals. This new generation is going to have very different ambitions to their predecessors in the past. The Millennial generation, entering business school in the past few years, is expressing increased interest in new areas such as sustainability, digital technology and entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial skills. Moreover, we can see this generation is signalling a change in the way that they want to develop their careers within organisations. They are less interested in choosing one profession to build and develop for the duration of their career, and instead have interests and ambitions across multiple disciplines. ‘Portfolio careers’, where one person pursues several different specialisms across a lifetime, could become the norm as Millennials moves further into the workforce. Firms and HR divisions currently tend to focus heavily on training people with skills that are of value within the organisation, but the shifting interests of the talented professionals of the future may give rise to a mismatch between their expectations for personal development, and what the organisation is providing. The next generation may not want to be treated as a resource, and pigeon-holed in one area for development, and HR and talent management might need to address these issues in the future.

Do you think executive education will evolve? If so, how?

Yes, I believe business schools catering for executive-level professionals will need to evolve the education they provide. As outlined above, the aspirations of future executives coming into the workforce are changing, and executive education will need to match this. I think it will become important for exec programmes to be more customisable to focus on individual needs and individual personal development, because every person coming into this level of education wants something a bit different. Training people how to think, rather than informing them of already-established tools and frameworks, is one way to do this. I founded a new Executive Master’s in Management degree at LSE three years ago under this philosophy, designed to train managers with critical thinking and complex decision-making skills with a broad core of global business knowledge, which they can adapt to in any context to their own diverse needs in working life. Executive education will also need to start meeting some of the interests of future generations, as well as the leadership skills required in a globalised world, and it will be hard to imagine an executive programme which doesn’t contain something relating to entre/intrapreneurship, and managing innovation, change, diversity and sustainability in a global context. Finally, I think that programmes will increasingly need to confirm to modern lifestyles. Full-time immersive programmes, which require people to stop working altogether for 1-2 years, could become less important as time goes on. 

What do you think is the ultimate aim of executive education?

There are two different answers to this question, which could create a little inconsistency and a certain conflict for HR divisions. On the one hand, for students, executive education is primarily about advancing and furthering their own individual career. Sometimes that’s about changing direction or changing type of business activity, or for other people it’s about accelerating an existing career and moving up the professional hierarchy. Executive education needs to encompass all these aspirations from the point of view of the student. On the other hand, for organisations, the primary interest is in educating staff to be more effective and perform better in their own role within the organisation. HR divisions need to find a balance between the individual and the organisation’s aims, and if this is correctly struck, executive education can be a valuable investment to enable leadership staff to follow their own aspirations within an organisation, helping to retaining talent and increase employee engagement and satisfaction.

 Prof Saul Estrin is Deputy Head of Department and Professor of Management in the LSE Department of Management. He is an expert on global foreign direct investment, and Programme Director and founder of the Executive Global Master’s in Management (EGMiM) - LSE’s innovative alternative to a full-time MBA. He is also founder and Vice Dean of the TRIUM Global Executive MBA programme, ran in partnership at LSE with HEC Paris and NYU Stern School of Business ad ranked #1 in the Financial Times global EMBA rankings 2014.