Jack Welch’s Online MBA School Gains Traction

Jack Welch

He’s there in the flesh. Jack Welch, the legendary chairman and CEO of General Electric Co.

Well, maybe not exactly in the flesh. But certainly live, unplugged and on a computer screen, with his trademark tell-it-like-it-is persona, a trace of the Salem, Mass., accent still in his scratchy voice at the age of 78.

Sitting in front of a camera with an open blue shirt and a sports jacket, he’s fielding questions from his MBA students.

“What would be a winning strategy for helping to get the U.S. economy growing at a faster pace?”

“What does it really mean to provide exceptional customer service?”

“Can you discuss skills on listening to and accepting candid feedback?”

Welch handles each question with casual self-confidence and personal anecdotes, often drilling down with follow-up questions.

Welcome to the Jack Welch Management Institute. This is Welch’s online MBA program, and each quarter he shows up on webcam for little more than an hour to engage with the MBA students. All told, the Executive MBA consists of a dozen required courses, each ten weeks in length, delivered online with “synchronous opportunities” (Translation: You can do the class in real time if you’re able to). Besides the quarterly Q&A videoconferences with Welch, video messages from him populate the school’s website and he’ll often respond to half a dozen messages on the bulletin boards two or three times each term.

ENROLLMENT IS UP 36% AT THE JACK WELCH MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE

At a time when many business schools are reporting declining enrollment in their full-time MBA programs, Welch’s Management Institute is doing a brisk business. The institute currently has 538 active students, up a healthy 36% in the past year. But Welch is far more ambitious, having a stated goal to enroll 5,000 students within five years, far eclipsing Harvard’s 1,800 MBA candidates or Stanford Graduate School of Business’ 800 students.

Students say they are drawn to the program because of Welch’s name and reputation, the flexibility of studying online, and the low cost of the program. At $36,000, it’s considerably less expensive than the online offerings of highly ranked business schools, such as Indiana University, the University of North Carolina, and Carnegie Mellon, where the total cost ranges between $60,000 to $118,000.

Steven Scott, chief engineer for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, says it wouldn’t be possible for him to get an MBA any other way. Scott works incredibly long hours and frequently travels, making any commitment to a more traditional MBA program impossible. The same is true of Kathleen Thompson, 31, director of acquisition and integration for PGi, a web conferencing company. Thompson says she has taken classes from hotel rooms in Dallas, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Chicago, New York and Orlando—as well as from numerous airplanes 35,000 feet in the sky. “Thank God for GoGo Internet,” she laughs.

“I’m on the road two to three weeks out of the month so the flexibility of the program was important. It had to accommodate my travel schedule and my 50-to-60-hour work week. The other reason is just because of Jack’s leadership skills. I was very familiar with Jack and his principles. After diving in, I saw a complete alignment with him and how I want to run things.”

‘LEARN IT ON MONDAY, APPLY IT ON TUESDAY, SHARE IT ON FRIDAY’

What differentiates this online program from many others is its emphasis on the pragmatic.  The curriculum is infused with Welch’s core beliefs and ideas on business and management, from the importance of candor in managing employees to the more controversial differentiation policies he made famous at GE. Welch wants the students, as he puts it, to “learn it on Monday, apply it on Tuesday and share it on Friday.”

The courses most heavily influenced by Welch’s teachings are Leadership In The 21st Century, Strategy, and People Management. Those so-called signature courses come early in the curriculum, which ends with a capstone business simulation done with virtual teams of students. The program can be completed from a laptop computer anywhere in the world—from a hotel room to an airplane flight—in two years. Most students, however, take one course at a time, requiring anywhere from 15 to 20 hours of work a week, which would allow them to pass through the program in two-and-one-half years.