Biggest Challenge For MBA Deans? Innovation

The biggest challenge facing global MBA programs is not retaining high-quality staff or recruiting sufficient numbers of students. No — the biggest problem, according to a new survey of deans, associate deans, and MBA program directors at schools in 43 countries, is innovation in the classroom.

Polling 173 business school leaders in 43 countries, the Association of MBAs and global strategy consultancy Parthenon-EY found that innovation and creativity in the delivery of MBAs was the foremost concern, with recruitment of student talent a secondary quandary (except in the Americas, where the problem of recruitment is always preeminent). Through extended interviews, 10 business leaders provided deeper insights into the challenges, trends, and regional issues affecting the MBA industry.

The takeaway: In a time of economic and political global upheaval, change may be the only constant. And that’s a good thing.

“The cataclysmic change impacting and morphing the world of business and economics, on a seemingly daily basis, has allowed business schools to rip up and reinvent the management rule book continually, putting design thinking, innovation, and creativity firmly into the mindsets of leaders of today and tomorrow,” Andrew Main Wilson, AMBA chief executive, tells Poets&Quants.


Andrew Main Wilson

The AMBA, an international accreditation body that has 25,000 members and accredits 236 business education programs from the top 2% of business schools in over 80 countries, marked its 50th year with a May conference in Dubai at which the findings of the study, The Global Business School Leaders’ Survey, were presented. Co-sponsored by the Education Centre of Excellence at Parthenon-EY, the study’s aim was to identify trends, challenges, and regional perspectives on the future of post-graduate business education.

But why, given the range of other difficulties confronting the administration of business education, was innovation and creativity in MBA delivery cited as business schools’ greatest challenge? The in-depth interviews with deans and other officers suggest this view is related to an acknowledged need to adapt to a changing culture among students, as well as a need to adopt and update supporting digital technology used to deliver MBA courses.

“The focus on innovation and creativity in MBA delivery is one of the most compelling findings of the study and indicates that business school leaders are keen to differentiate their offerings in an increasingly crowded market,” Danish Faruqui, Education Centre of Excellence managing director, said in an AMBA news release. Added Wilson: “The biggest challenge facing business schools, according to survey respondents, is being innovative and creative in MBA delivery. An interviewee from China told us: ‘(A primary challenge) is the younger age of the students. We have to adapt to this trend in terms of our teaching ideals and teaching objectives.’

“With the strong presence of blended learning at the respondents’ business schools, as well as many of the interviewees stating that their current focus for developing their MBA programs is on increased ‘flexibility’ and adapting to the way students learn, there could be a link between being innovative and creative in MBA delivery and adopting and upgrading digital technology.”


The innovation is underway and continues apace, Wilson says, citing increased diversification in the structure of degree programs. All 173 respondents told the AMBA that they offer both an MBA and another degree type, Wilson says, with nearly 95% offering executive education and almost 80% offering Masters of Business Management. Almost seven in 10 (69%) B-school leaders said specialist MBA programs were part of a growing trend — though fewer than a third of respondents say they offer such programs at present. Of the current specialist MBA programs on offer, the most popular type were finance-orientated.

Additionally, Wilson says, the MBA itself is becoming a more highly diversified product, with 100% of schools surveyed offering more than one MBA track. The most common: part-time two-year MBAs, offered by about 70% of B-schools, followed by full-time one-year (40%), and part-time 18 months (20%). The survey reveals that nearly 40% of schools are diversified across delivery mode and 50% offer courses that are either fully online or blended (defined as more than 35% of the course being offered online).

The evolution makes sense on many levels, Wilson says. “While, on the one hand, business school leaders have a unique opportunity to analyze and shape business thought, they’re also business leaders in their own right, running organizations and aiming for the same growth and innovation as their aspiring cohorts.” In addition, the growing internationalization of programs means dramatically changing outlooks. Among survey respondents’ MBA cohorts, Chinese and Indian nationals were the most represented, while in the UK, Chinese people on average accounted for 18% of total MBA candidates. That number has only gone up in the last 20 years.


How well a business school innovates doesn’t mean much if it fails to attract students (though of course there’s a correlation between the most innovative and the most popular programs). That means schools must be concerned with marketing efforts to get the word out. And it’s interesting to see where the dollars go. AMBA survey respondents reported that, on average, approximately $3 in every $10 (29%) was spent on advertising through social media, while advertising on careers websites accounted for the smallest proportion of budgets. Echoing these findings, Wilson says, “one interviewee cited social media as being the most effective method of recruiting MBAs, stating that social media channels are the most targeted form of advertising. “‘They’re the most responsive, and in terms of price performance, they do very well.’” 

MBA programs still help schools’ bottom line, as 75% of survey respondents indicated that their programs generated a profit for their school. (A striking contrast: Only 47% of respondents from UK B-schools said their MBA program did better than break even, compared to the 85% reported in the Americas.) Among the schools where the MBA program did not make a profit, 80% said prestige was a key reason to keep offering the MBA. Interviewed officers said that MBAs were “‘flagship” programs and viewed ranked or highly regarded MBA programs as indicative of the quality of a business school. They also viewed MBAs as supporting the recruitment of both executive education and specialist MSc students.

“Overall, our study found business schools are becoming more innovative in their approaches and are seeking flexible, agile students with international roots,” Wilson says. “Their methods, from outreach to students through to course delivery, rely heavily on digital tools. Throughout the student lifecycle, we observe that business school leaders are seeking to impart industry-relevant skills that make students more employable.”


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