Navigating the professional education revolution and the future of the MBA

Written by
Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

21 Nov 2019

21 Nov 2019 • by Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

As the professional education landscape shapeshifts in response to market forces, we discuss the drivers, innovations and the future of the MBA.

Once the pinnacle of professional learning, guaranteeing lucrative careers, the full-time MBA is dead or dying – at least in the opinion of some.

Writing in The Guardian last year, Professor Martin Parker, author of Shut Down the Business School: What’s Wrong with Management Education, described business schools as “intellectually fraudulent… fostering a culture of short-termism and greed”. With his perspective drawn from a 20-year career within business schools, he slammed them as “places that teach people how to get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves”, pointing out that “since 2008, many commentators have suggested that business schools were complicit in producing the crash”.

Other critics have been warning for years that most MBAs fail to impart practical skills grounded in business practice, cater only for privileged students who can afford the high fees, and are slow to adapt their curricular to today’s exponential pace of change.

However, the MBA’s return on investment remains high for recent graduates, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, a global, mission-driven association of leading graduate business schools (and owners of the Graduate Management Admission Test – GMAT™– exam).

Its 2018 Alumni Perspectives Survey (based on survey responses from 10,882 alumni, representing 274 institutions and a wide variety of programme types) found “a professionally rewarding experience” to be the primary driver of overall value of a graduate management education: 79% of respondents rated the value of their graduate management education outstanding or excellent, with just 4% rating it fair or poor.

An overwhelming 93% of alumni said they would pursue a graduate management education again knowing what they know now, while 95% would recruit a student from their alma mater for a job opening at their organisation. 

It must be stressed that not all MBAs are created equal. Types of format and programme – and levels of prestige – vary. Where there was once a full-time MBA (and potentially a part-time option), now MBAs can also be executive (EMBAs), online, global, international and accelerated, differing in length, format, entry requirements, cohort demographics and cost.

Degrees for rent

But the need for business schools to work harder at matching their MBA products to current needs is clearly acknowledged. Earlier this year, Professor Bodo Schlegelmilch, chair of the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and Business Graduate Association penned a ‘call to action’ in AMBA’s magazine, Ambition.

This urged business schools to “embrace and adapt to environmental turbulences” and “to think very carefully about their resources, capabilities and, in particular, their purpose”, bearing in mind the appetite among prospective students for flexibility, personalisation and meaningful values (such as sustainability and inclusive capitalism).

He referenced today’s pace of technological and societal change, going so far as to suggest a new model of “degrees for rent”.

“What MBAs learned five, 10 or 15 years ago is certainly not current, often irrelevant and sometimes even wrong,” he acknowledged. “Business Schools need to change their business model. For example, in sync with the sharing economy, future business schools could move from ownership to renting. Under this, schools would not award their MBA degrees forever (the ownership model) but would grant the degree for a limited number of years (subscription model). Unless MBA graduates demonstrated a commitment to continuous professional development, their degrees would expire.”

So, innovation (and lateral thinking) is apparent within the business-school sector. And while arguably slow to react to the forces of change, some schools, at least, have been rising to the challenge.

Specific examples include France’s NEOMA Business School, which has redesigned its Global EMBA with “built-in flexibility in both format and content”. As academic director Charles Waldman explains, “we have three intakes, three lengths of programme and different intensities”.

Elsewhere, with online learning and globalisation representing two key trends, schools are learning to collaborate to meet students’ needs. The Future of Management Education Alliance comprises likeminded business schools (including London’s Imperial Business School and Singapore’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business) which “share a vision that online learning should have the same transformational impact as the very best face-to-face courses” and offer a shared learning experience platform.

The alliance’s website positions it as “a productive and vibrant partnership with global reach, pooling resources, knowledge, expertise, co-developing new pedagogies and collaborating on programmes”.

MBAs versus executive education

Such pioneers are vital to business schools’ survival, since there’s no denying the strength of the competition in professional learning. For Western schools, a direct threat comes from emerging regions, such as Asia, whose schools are rising up the global rankings. Added to this is the spiralling field of executive education, corporate universities (university-style campuses set up by companies to provide tailored L&D activities for its staff) and providers such as PwC, McKinsey and Egon Zehnder, offering specialist training. At the most accessible end of the spectrum are the free ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs), which provide an affordable and flexible way to learn new skills.

This broadening offer drives up standards, increases choice and opens up access to post-graduate learning. But it can make for a mind-bogglingly complex selection process. Elements to weigh up include preferred format, budget, funding stream, location, timescale and, most importantly, learning needs and end goals.

MBAs from respected business schools still provide a depth and rigour of learning, a challenging application process and an emphasis on examination (for the most famous schools, add to that a healthy dose of prestige and invaluable networks).

Given these factors, an MBA cannot be directly compared with other forms of professional learning, argues David Brown, director of executive education at London’s Imperial College Business School.

“They’re different things, not really substitutes for each other,” he states. “With an MBA, the level, duration and the range of topics covered is much greater. There’s a requirement to get onto programmes and places are scarce, plus there’s an element of examination to make sure a certain quality is achieved.”

Business consultant Tracey Groves, who works with Duke CE to design and deliver executive education, agrees that MBAs and executive education serve different purposes.

“Business-orientated executive education, where it’s part of a programme involving cohorts across an organisation at different levels, is very topical, relevant and on point in terms of being able to challenge the contemporary issues that business is facing,” she says.

“It has the agility to reflect disruptors in the here and now. You also benefit from having people from across your whole business, in different functions and divisions, who are part of the system and know, first-hand, why ‘this’ is working and ‘that’ isn’t.

“On an MBA, you don’t get the real-time impact. What you do get, however, is the value of hearing things from different organisational perspectives.”

Lifelong learning and constant upskilling

Even the best MBA will not permanently futureproof the modern career. The frontloading of professional education is a thing of the past; today’s pace of societal and technological change requires ongoing, lifelong learning. (The World Economic Forum predicts that the average worker will need an extra 101 days of learning by 2022 to prepare for the introduction of AI.)

Anna Gowdridge, who runs the charitable organisation ‘100% Human at Work’ on behalf of Virgin Unite, attests that “where we’re seeing change is in this idea that you can’t just do a year or two of learning at a moment in time.”

She works with a network of around 400 organisations and senior leaders in HR, and reports that most “talk about ‘skills for the future of work’ being a very different skill set from today’s”, incorporating social and emotional skills, collaboration and problem solving.

“While we don’t know definitively what future jobs are going to be, we know the ability to constantly learn, to develop and to deal with continual change is going to be crucial. That trend is where the change in qualification comes in. Because doing an MBA for a limited time will not suit that.

“We’ve spoken to universities that are exploring the concept of education taking place over a lifetime,” she adds, echoing Schlegelmilch’s prediction. “In future, you might sign up to Harvard and do a short period of learning right away, followed by access to 10 days a year for the next 15 years.

It would be an ongoing relationship, with learning being constantly topped up.”

However, she reports that, for now, most universities and employers remain set in their ways. “People are still looking at education in the traditional sense,” she says. “The reality is that HR gets a resumé and the first thing they look at is your university, your masters degree, your MBA.”

For Gowdridge, “evolving new methodologies that test capacity, potential and skills” must become a priority for business.

“We work with EY and Unilever, whose graduate programmes don’t take qualifications into account. It comes from an understanding that traditional qualifications are not going to tell you as much as you would like to know about a person’s capacity to play a role in your organisation.”

She points to the development of digital platforms that can capture practical skills and experience, giving employers a new way of understanding an individual’s capacity and capabilities, beyond the roles and education set out on their CV.

To this end, ‘digital’ or ‘stackable’ credentials are being developed by organisations such as Credly and City and Guilds, providing people with a ‘dashboard’ to showcase to employers. “The idea is almost to gamify learning, encouraging people to undertake development,” points out Gowdridge.

Flexible training delivered 'just in time'

While ‘credentialing’ is still in its infancy, what is clear is that today’s pace of change is determining the shape of all professional learning. Related drivers include the desire for practical, experiential and timely learning, which can be fitted flexibly around work and life.

“We’re noticing a huge trend in the need for agile and blended learning approaches,” reports Caroline Taylor, head of accelerating talent development and principal consultant at The Oxford Group, who helps organisations identify their learning needs, particularly in the management and leadership development space.

“Gone are the days of sending someone on a five-day leadership programme. Clients are asking for bite-sized, ‘just-in-time’ learning; a way of doing things in a more tech-enabled way. But still there is a desire to keep people connected,” she adds.

Like Gowdridge, she highlights an increased desire for “social learning” and an emphasis on human skills. “The whole topic of inclusion is key,” she says. “Building leaders who are humble enough to know that they don’t have all the answers; who create environments where people come together to share ideas and experiment.”

The growth of flexibility and customisation is notable throughout professional learning; there is no set format for executive education any more than there is for modern MBAs.

Imperial offers both open enrolment programmes (involving people from multiple companies, countries and industries) plus custom programmes “often working with dozens, hundreds, even thousands of executives from one company in a tailored programme,” says Brown. A USP is its ability to draw on the organisations’ wider science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine capabilities to enhance learning.

“If we have an automotive client, for example, we’ll bring together experts in industrial design, the future of cities, demographics and material science to create this amazing learning opportunity for executives,” he says.

Meanwhile, Duke CE’s model is “to draw in subject matter experts from practice, academia and other sources”, providing “bespoke, experiential learning”. This, Groves says, is “designed in a way that is completely relevant, using a company’s real-life business challenges”, with learning taking place “off site, in parts of the world that people aren’t used to being in”, to push their boundaries. “That’s what the world is like,” she explains. “We’re constantly fighting with change, having to learn, ask questions and be curious.”

Sought-after topics range from ‘the ethical and moral side of leadership’ to subject-matter learning around AI, machine learning and crypto technologies. “All the disruptors,” says Groves. “But viewing them as an opportunity rather than a threat.”

Where learning is put into immediate practice, ROI is more clearly identifiable. However, measures of success must also be tailored, stresses Brown, and consistent with a client’s culture and goals. “Some organisations are looking for things that are granular and quantitative; others for a more qualitative, even narrative-based, measurements of impact. Probably a combination is best. Eventually, one can start looking at longitudinal data to see what is happening.”

Both he and Groves agree that customised programmes are most successful when co-created and designed by client and provider, as part of an ongoing relationship.

“HR, L&D and C-suite all need involvement in designing programmes,” stresses Groves. “It tends to be HR managing this, but sponsorship must come from the top.”

Democratising learning

Leaders also have a responsiblity to create cultures that embrace learning of all kinds, argues HR director and consultant Shereen Daniels. “Some of it is just about the way we perceive and address contracted hours and what people do outside of work,” she says, explaining that pursuing personal interests (whether painting or DJing) helps people to practise ‘learning and doing simultaneously’, while enhancing their mental energy. If somebody wants to leave early because they’re doing an evening class two nights a week, that should be facilitated, as easily as taking a lunch break,” she asserts.

A myopic resistance to people taking 20% time off the job has contributed to negativity around spending the Apprenticeship Levy, she believes. “But that time out of the office gives people space to think about what they’re learning and also how they might implement it,” she says.

Proof that people are happy to learn in their own time can be found in the popularity of MOOCs (studied by 101m students in 2018, involving 900-plus universities and 11.4K courses, according to figures from Being free and open to all is naturally part of their appeal. Costly MBAs and executive education programmes are not accessible to many individuals, nor to burgeoning start-ups wishing to invest in their people. “An MBA can cost £100K,” points out Daniels. “There’s almost a moral piece around how you reward people and facilitate learning.”

This desire to ‘democratise’ learning is embodied by recent entrants into the professional learning market. Jolt, for example, which expanded into the UK this year, provides an eminently affordable ‘NMBA’ (Not An MBA) programme, imparting “practical knowledge that helps students to do their jobs better, the day after learning it”. Participants pay a monthly subscription of £175 and, with the entire diploma programme taking around two years, could complete it for less than £5K.

Tal Shmueli, regional director, UK, explains that Jolt’s product is “experiential, up-to-date and student-centric – less about social signalling, and more about practical tools and gaining experience that speaks for itself. Acquiring knowledge that is outdated, while taking on debt, is not what business education should be,” he adds.

Jolt’s programme offers complete flexibility (learners can book ‘stackable sessions’ as they need them) and its teachers are all working professionals from the frontlines of industry. While they teach remotely, students are present on campus in intimate cohorts of 14, practising ‘intentional learning’ and networking with peers. Their profile tends to be “high achievers”, aged 25-35.

The programme is CPD-accredited earning graduates a diploma rather than a degree. But Shmueli believes its value is comparable. He explains that the programme was developed with input from a committee of graduates from 12 of the world’s best business schools (including INSEAD, Wharton and London Business School), tasked with designing an MBA that addressed all their core professional requirements. “They came up with a programme that looked very different from the ones they themselves participated in. That’s is why we called it ‘Not an MBA’,” he explains.

Jolt is now promoting its B2B offering, which is proving popular with start-ups: firms can subscribe to learning packages on their people’s behalf, buy a retainer, or install a ‘Jolt Box’ in their boardroom, turning it into a learning hub.

With L&D recognised as a growing driver of employee engagement, such investment may pay dividends in terms of recruitment and retention. Other affordable models adopted by scaling firms include taking the challenge of L&D in-house – developing courses “for the people, by the people”, in the case of software company Onfido.

Overall, the picture presented is of a thirst for professional learning being addressed (at last) by innovation across the education landscape. Offerings are being developed to suit different budgets, aims and learning preferences; creativity is rife. Only one thing is certain: professional learning has become something you do, not something you have.