A New Model Of Business Education

The press and business schools like to heighten the drama about MBA programmes. In the wake of the recent on application trends, newspapers are focusing on “life and death battles” between one and two-year programmes, full and part-time programmes, in person and online options, single school and multiple school programmes, and different geographies. I pity young people, who know they need additional business skill training but find this all confusing.

Taking off my partisan hat, as the dean of an elite business school, I’d like to make a remarkable suggestion to young managers: You can have it all. There is a way to gain advanced business training via an MBA that allows you to embark on a program of continual learning. The “new” solution is underpinned by five core ideas—if you don’t agree with these, stop reading.

    1. There is merit to mastering a core of integrated material at one time, to appreciate
      the interactions between the various subjects, as well as to create life-long bonds
      with future friends and business associates.
    2. While more education is always better, there are practical constraints on the
      amount of time and money that individuals can devote to formal education at any
      one time.
    3. No matter how excellent the MBA program, the specifics you learn will become
      obsolete or outdated over a decade. As you advance in your career, you will also
      need new skills that you hadn’t appreciated before.
    4. You know more about your future than a school, especially over time.
    5. There is no “best” program.

The “both/and” solution I propose has a condensed integrated core, delivered in person to maximize the social network and bonding element. It has many different “electives” some in person and some online but spread between different institutions and geographies over a ten-year period. Let’s call this new option “One Plus” which involves you (not a single school) taking responsibility for your future.

THE ‘ONE’ BIT

To deliver a condensed integrated core with a strong social network, let’s begin with a strong one-year MBA offering. I prefer an in-person option for this element, but others may recommend an online option. As recent data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) shows, demand for these programmes continues to grow, while demand for two-year programs is weakening. In part, this represents the time and the cost differential between the two, with one-year programs taking up to eight months less time and costing $100,000 less. The trick is using these savings to purchase the Plus part.

THE ‘PLUS’ BIT

While your one-year MBA will allow you to take some electives, we will take this leftover eight months and $100,000 and invest it over the next ten years in a stream of executive education offerings, the “Plus” courses. These courses could be delivered from many different providers in different countries, opening doors to new business practices [or cultures] and new networks. These Plus courses come in many formats: in-person, online and hybrid. The “Plus” course catalog is enormous: the portals that list open enrollment executive education offerings identify over 4,300 choices— 21 times more than any MBA program and growing over time!

This flexibility enables people to try different formats, find their personal learning style, and take risks on less traditional courses or schools to boost their learning and keep pace with how business is evolving. Rather than depending on one school at one time to provide all of your education, you construct a two-part learning path, with the second portion (Plus) involving many schools over many years.

Why won’t this go the way of New Year’s Resolutions? One Plus requires you to commit to a ten-year stream of education. Like many other self-improvement regimes, our best intentions may not be realized due to a variety of behaviors and impediments. To turn this idea into reality I propose the following steps for would-be One Plus MBA students, based on research on household finance and behavioral economics: plan, commit, and execute.

PLAN

  • Consider your possible futures: While most MBA students fixate on their first job before their tenth reunion most will have worked for two, three or more employers. One Plus prompts you to explicitly consider your career path, not in a fixed way, but by considering different scenarios.
  • Know your course catalog: With over 4,000 offerings in the Plus course catalog, become familiar with the information sources that provide lists and reviews of online and in-person open enrolment programs.
  • Set up a provisional ten-year plan: Come up with a ten-year Plus agenda and include a future CV that lists the courses you think you will take and with which schools or providers. Consider likely transition points in the next decade and consider how education might facilitate these moves.

COMMIT

  • Socially Commit. Write down the amount of time and money you will commit to your education after taking the one-year MBA. Give this promise, along with your provisional plan, to friends and family and ask them to keep you honest. Hint: for in-person courses, perhaps combine with vacation time and invite your family at the end of your course.
  • Leverage Mental Accounting: Research shows that we can sometimes trick ourselves by creating separate “wallets” for different activities. Create a separate financial account (My One Plus Account) to fund this activity. It may be possible to get tax benefits or employer contributions to cover part of the cost of your Plus courses.

EXECUTE

  • Reflect and keep track: Put together an annual report of progress to share with friends and family. “Grade” past experiences and learn what formats/topics are most helpful to your personal development. Don’t be afraid to take a few risks with your 13 to 36 Plus courses.
  • Penalize failure: If you don’t keep the promise to yourself, commit to giving the money you don’t spend within ten years to a cause that you detest—an “anti- charity.” Tell your friends and family. Make it personal.

This “both/and” MBA provides all of the benefits of all of the different types, but it does require you to take responsibility for your own education. I’m not claiming it is the “best” alternative (since there is no one best answer) but one that many prospective MBAs may find appealing. In this Fourth Industrial Revolution age—where technology and work practices are changing rapidly—it provides both a point-in-time comprehensive education and the ability to keep up with revolutions in the world, and transitions in your life. It offers a modern alternative to traditional models and provides a flexible but committed approach to lifelong learning to develop the next generation of business leaders.

Peter Tufano, dean of Oxford University’s Said Business School

Peter Tufano is the dean of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. Before moving to Oxford in 2011, he spent over three decades at Harvard University where he completed his AB in Economics, MBA and PhD in Business Economics, as well as spending 22 years on the faculty.