Freed from what David Hummels calls the “fall-spring semester straitjacket,” Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management is testing the limits of academic innovation in its new online MBA program. In this Poets&Quants interview, Krannert Dean Hummels explains how he is leveraging technology to deliver a quality educational experience.
Among other things, he is partnering with other Purdue schools, creating A Life In A CEO online course by tapping into Krannert’s alumni network, and weighing new experiential learning projects for online students.
An expert in international economics, Hummels became dean of the Krannert School in 2015. He launched the online MBA program in early 2020 with an emphasis in teaching a data-driven approach to business.
In this wide-ranging interview, Hummels makes clear that working professionals want more flexible pathways toward quality education. What follows is an edited transcript of his interview with P&Q founder and Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne.
John A. Byrne: You launched your online MBA in January 2020. What was the size of your inaugural class?
David Hummels: I think our first group was 25. And we do three ingests a year in January, May, and August. I think for the last entire calendar year, we’ll have about 200 students starting with us over the course of this next year.
Byrne: It’s grown immeasurably, and more interesting than that, it’s more than double the size of your full-time MBA program that was paused in the fall of 2020, right?
Hummels: Well, we’re doing some rethinking about how that will work and how we can work in combination with our more flexible programs. But one of the things we have seen is that working professionals want more flexible ways to pursue excellent degrees, and so the design of this online program was really aimed at asking the question: How do we meet students in providing the degree programs they need given their life circumstances? And it’s pretty clear that a very high-quality online program is of interest to increasing numbers of highly capable students.
Byrne: I wonder if you think that the pandemic has actually accelerated the pace of adoption of online learning for students?
Hummels: So I think there are a couple of things that have happened here. The first is that a lot of institutions which might have had an allergy to attempting to do online coursework have realized it’s maybe not quite the end of the world and that it’s actually possible to deliver high-quality programming.
We had been experimenting with online work going back seven or eight years. So even before I was dean, as a member of the economics department here, we had launched a Master’s in Economics going back to 2012 and done a lot of experimenting. So we had a comfort level with it that I think some universities have only recently come to experience because they were forced into it.
In addition to that, I think a lot of students really had to ask the question, ‘What is it that I’m looking for from a program? Am I willing to leave the workforce for an extended period of time to pursue a degree?” Or, ‘Have the number and the quality of online programs caused me to rethink, ‘Do I really need to leave work for two years?’ And we’re seeing that people are increasingly answering that question by saying, ‘I’m very happy to learn and pursue a degree in this way.’
Byrne: I would imagine that it’s going to have a bigger impact long-term on the part-time MBA population. Do you think that’s true?
Hummels: It seems likely to me. We’re still seeing a number of students who really want to have an in-person experience. And so I think, especially in the larger cities, there always is going to be a model there for evening and weekend programs.
For those of us who aren’t living in large cities, whose institutions are in smaller places, I think it’s entirely plausible that we’ll see many more pure online programs, or hybrid programs, where you give students the flexibility to be online if they want or to be in residence if they want, and to find flexible pathways in and out of their programs.
Historically, I think there was a tendency to try and say, ‘For every unique student population, every unique set of residential or online or whatever experiences they want to have, let’s create a new program that’s adapted to what that niche wants.’ I think the future, and this is certainly where we’re going, is you create a program with flexible pathways, on-ramps, off-ramps, starts and stops. A student can do the part in residence that makes sense or if he or she wants to do it all online, we’ll do it that way, too.
Byrne: That bodes well for a lot of academic innovation, and a lot of change in the next five years in business education, particularly at the graduate level.
Hummels: I think that’s exactly right. When you are in a kind of fall-spring semester straitjacket, it’s hard to collaborate with other units on campus. Because we’re able to cut some of the new things here, that’s opened up possibilities for us. With our online MBA, we’re offering a number of courses jointly with faculty from one of the best engineering colleges in the entire world at Purdue. So we’re doing, for example, frontier courses in artificial intelligence and cyber security, where students have the opportunity to get exposed to some of the best engineering and computer science faculty in the world. Students get to see the technology piece, but then also understand the business opportunities that are created or destroyed by these new technologies. Those collaborations are feasible in an online and a hybrid environment.
There’s another course that we’re in the middle of putting together now, that I’m super excited about. The course is a day in the life of a CEO, and it’s going to be taught by the CEO alumni of Krannert. They’re going to step students through what it’s like to lead a large, profitable, but also very challenging organization, and all the kinds of things they wish they had known when they were earlier in their careers to prepare for the moment when they took on the big chair. That’s something we could not do, except for in an online environment. We’re pretty excited about that.
Byrne: That’s a really cool example of how using digital technology not only brings the campus together, as you noted with your engineering school, but also with external people who are connected to the university, but often can’t get to campus because logistically it becomes difficult.
Hummels: We have a great alumni base. There are something close to 600,000 Purdue alumni all over the world, and they’re very gracious with their time, and their energy, and their contributions, but the number of times you can prevail on them to jump on a flight from Asia to West Lafayette, Indiana, you have to do that sparingly. But when you can click them in and you get the leader of one of India’s major manufacturing companies to jump online with us and talk about the challenges of supply chains over the last year? That creates a richness, but also, it just becomes much easier for the students and for faculty to connect the kinds of things they’re teaching with things that are happening in real-time; not just relying on a case that was written by somebody three or four years ago.
Byrne: The other obvious benefit of online education is that you can apply what you learn immediately because you are employed. And that has always been a hallmark of executive MBA programs, and part-time MBA programs, to some extent, but I think the online environment is even better suited for this, don’t you?
Hummels: Oh, I agree. And I’ll tell you, as a young faculty member, one of the forward experiences of my career was teaching in our executive MBA program because it really challenged me to ask the question, ‘What is it that I am teaching that is going to shape the decision-making of an executive in my class?’ And then hearing from them about the challenges that they would have in making a decision to offshore production, for example. That, I think, elevates what faculty do in the classroom when they have that exposure, but it also creates an opportunity for exchange within the class and with the faculty, and then taking those things back to the workplace in real-time, as opposed to waiting a number of years to see how it all plays out.
One of the things I’m excited about doing here is the opportunity to take on focused consulting projects, where you say, ‘All right, I’m going to take what I’m learning, I’m going to go solve a problem that my business has right now.’ And I think that’s the kind of thing that can really elevate the performance of someone in the eyes of their supervisors and their leadership. There’s a lot of value to what they’re getting, and they can see it immediately, so we’re excited about that.
Byrne: That’s another interesting thing you’re raising because in the early days you wouldn’t have thought that experiential learning would be easily translated into an online classroom. But, in fact, it may be easier to do experiential learning online, mainly due to how easily accessible the protagonists and the companies are than it would be on a campus.
Hummels: I think that’s right. I mean, any business school that runs a significant amount of experiential learning will tell you there’s a big lift associated with sourcing projects: getting a consistent understanding about what kind of data can be shared; what kind of information can be revealed; all those kinds of things. That’s a pretty significant lift. And so, having folks who are living the experiences while they’re studying is important.
I’d say there’s another part here that I’m also very excited about, which is, I think, a unique angle in our context. Purdue has one of the best technology commercialization programs in the country. It consistently generates more intellectual property from campus than almost any other university in the world. Over the last six or seven years, we’ve made a very significant push to take that bench science and to commercialize it.
There’s also a back catalog of intellectual property like you wouldn’t believe; that creates a really extraordinary opportunity for students in our program who want the experience of taking some of that technology and getting it off the ground through start-ups. So it’s a target-rich environment. We’ve got folks working on everything from virtual reality games, to cancer treatments, to rocket fuel, to almost anything you could imagine that would come out of the science and engineering labs of one of the strongest STEM universities in the world.
So one of the tracks in the online MBA is a specialization in innovation and technology commercialization that gives students both the coursework necessary to succeed, and then a target-rich environment of technologies they might want to partner up with in taking to market.
Byrne: That is clearly a point of differentiation. You’ve taken basically a data-driven approach to teaching the MBA online. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
Hummels: A starting point for us in thinking about, ‘How do we distinguish what we want to offer, compared to a lot of programs out there?’ was in recognizing our strengths, and we’ve talked a little bit about the strength of being on the campus of one of the best STEM universities in the world. But Krannert, for a very long time, has been among the best business analytics shops anywhere in the world. Consistently our faculty are ranked in the top five or top 10 business analytics categories, and we’ve been running a residential master’s program in business analytics and information management that is consistently ranked number one by a number of publications; It has 100% placement rates, amazing starting salaries, and it is really burgeoning in size.
So what do we do? The first piece of this is working to ensure that students are getting exposed to data analytic tools early on in the curriculum, and then having experience with using those tools in many of the courses. It’s not just, you take one quant methods course over here and you’re done with it. It’s integrated into a lot of the coursework. It could be finance; it could be HR practices, or it could be marketing. It is a pretty significant focus on the way in which data drives decision-making in business.
The reason we think that’s so important is the fact that data is going to be a source, or is a source of competitive advantage across a broad range of industries. That’s only going to become more important over time. And so we really feel that a modern leader has got to have at least some facility with those kinds of skills. And if you want to go deeper into it, we’ll take you as deep as you want to go. If you want to learn how to build machine learning models, to understand your marketing projects, we’ll do that for you, or we’ll do that with you, I should say.
And then a lot of the experiential stuff that we were talking about earlier, a hallmark, I think, of what we’ve been able to do in residence and that we’re porting to the online space, is saying, ‘There are a huge number of companies who are behind the curve in terms of their application of data science to solving problems.’ They’re looking for talent, and they’re looking for problems to be solved in real-time. We’ve been very successful with getting faculty-led student teams to take on serious challenges that companies have, solve them, and then in the process, represent their capabilities and then go on to get hired.
That model, we think, will be very successful for us as well in the online space. I believe we will have one of the strongest business analytics curriculum available anywhere in the world, and that’s steadily building up. We’re just launching a new program in data science and finance, as an example, with our College of Science. So it runs through a lot of stuff we do, because we think data and data analysis is going to be at the heart of competitive success for every single business, and you simply can’t avoid it if you want to be a leader.
Byrne: I think this has become a central trend in business education, and in business because of the demand for it, as big as globalization, as big as entrepreneurship, because, after all, companies have now collected massive sets of data, and the challenge is harnessing the data to make it effective for smart decision-making. As you point out, many companies that aren’t Amazon, Facebook, Google or Netflix, haven’t figured that out, and so they’re very eager to hire people who can tackle that challenge for them.
Hummels: One of the things that we hear is companies are really struggling with hiring business students who don’t know enough data science to be useful, or data scientists who don’t know enough business to be useful. What they need are programs that bridge those capabilities and people who have enough exposure to deep enough techniques in modern data science but know how to apply those in the service of driving business decisions.
So if you’d like to think about the model, it’s really three steps: You define a business problem; you translate that into a data problem or data analytic problem; and then you turn that into a set of business decisions, right? Trying to take each one of those steps requires both data science understanding and it also takes an understanding of what is important to business.
I love my colleagues on campus, but the folks across campus who don’t have a business background can be wowed and excited by very deep data science problems that are simply not that relevant to business decision-making. If you pair the two together, though, you generate an enormous amount of value. So we’re pretty excited about the stuff we’ve already built there, and now that we’re using it in the online space, we think we’ll be able to reach a dramatically larger number of students, and in the process, help a transformation of business along the way.
Byrne: David, you also spoke earlier about the interdisciplinary approach you’re taking on things like machine learning, artificial intelligence, and how they’re going to shape the future of business and life and bringing that into your online MBA program. What about business analytics? Is there an interdisciplinary approach to that, as well, or not necessarily?
Hummels: There is. I think the first piece is that, as we’ve gone through and hired faculty over the last five or six years, we are increasingly hiring faculty whose PhDs and whose research foundations are in hardcore data science. We’re hiring computer scientists, we’re hiring statisticians, but people who have application of those fields into a business context. So the starting point of interdisciplinarity is actually how we hire our faculty and develop them with an explicit recognition that this is the methodology of the future.
The second piece of that is, we have this amazing partnership with the College of Science, one of the best data science and best statistics programs in the country. And so we work closely with them in creating a data science program in finance, that will be online, and those courses will be available to the online MBA students as well.
But part of our design here is, we now have six different online master’s programs, and we created them in a kind of carousel fashion which means, if you want to go deep into HR, you can take all of the HR stuff that our human resources masters students take. If you want to go deep into business analytics, you can take everything that our Masters in Business Analytics, our data science, and finance students can take. Same thing for global supply chain, or for economics. So there’s an opportunity to go very, very deep in this. And through a combination of the faculty that we have hired, and the deep connections we have with the Colleges of Science and Engineering, and the Purdue Polytechnic, we’ve been able to create some cool stuff.
There’ll be some new coursework, for example, on cyber security. This is part of the data analytics program that we’ve done jointly with scientists here on campus. We have one of the best cyber security research centers in the entire world here, and a lot of great coursework that typically sits across campus along more technically-oriented people, but, goodness, business people need to understand cyber security and the challenges it creates. So students in our program will have that opportunity.
Byrne: Let’s talk a little bit about the basics of your online MBA approach, meaning, what can a student expect when they enroll in the program? How does it start? Do you have live internet classes? If so, how often are they? Are there office hours online with faculty? Do students really get to know each other? Because that’s always a concern of people who are considering online MBA programs. You mentioned one specialization, how many do you have? I know, a bundle of questions. You can take them in any order you’d like.
Hummels: Why don’t we start with the student experience because I think that’s probably at the heart of what a lot of students will be interested in.
So the first piece is that we have three starts in a year. In an online space, students transition from thinking about a program to enrolling in a program much more quickly than they do residentially because, among other things, they aren’t leaving their jobs and moving some place. So you could make a decision and a week later be taking classes. So three starts a year.
Our cohorts are averaging around 50 to 60 students per start, so you’re not with an overwhelming number of students like some programs and that 50 to 60 is enough for a good deal of richness in the course work you are offered over your time. Yet, there’s still a good deal of intimacy between the student teams within a given cohort.
If a student wants to do primarily asynchronous experiences, they can do that. So the materials are all online. You can do readings and lectures, and interact in the discussion boards whenever it works for you. But every class also has live sessions each week, live office hours, team meetings and these kinds of things that students can participate in at their discretion. And the reason we’ve done it that way is that we think it’s very important that, in any given week, if you’re a working professional, this may be the week when everything happens: that a quarterly report is due, some major project has got to be in, and there’s simply no way I can show up and attend a synchronous course section. So we don’t want to disadvantage students who are juggling the challenges of work and school and life. So that’s available. But we also recognize that a program that consists only of doing asynchronous online stuff can be kind of sterile.
And we really have to generate as much interactivity as the students are capable of, given their experiences. So the faculty are available multiple times a week for each class to do synchronous office hours and discussion sections. We have a lot of social hours. In fact, I will be meeting with a group of our MBA students, I think they’re calling themselves The Krannert Lions; they’re students who are over the age of 40. And so we’ll do a social hour, share some beers, and just talk about some of the stuff I’m working on in my research on the future of work.
Then, we’ve been able to bring in lots and lots of these different spot engagements: We bring in someone who’s leading remote work HR practices for an informal discussion and really build on the things we were talking about earlier to create a lot of synchronous interaction that fits well with students’ schedules. So that’s what I would say about the student experience.
You asked about specializations. So right now, we have four specializations. So there’s one in business analytics, we talked about that. One is in innovation and technology commercialization that builds on the unique capabilities of the Purdue Foundry. A third one is on global supply chain management that is highly-ranked. And there’s just a lot of interest these days in those kinds of issues, especially as COVID has just destroyed supply chains worldwide and people with the capabilities to solve those problems dynamically are very important. And then, finally, one in leadership negotiation and change management.
Byrne: And the time frame to complete the program?
Hummels: We’ve organized it so students can do it in as little as two years, and the outer range of it is five or six years. One of the things that we have seen in our Masters in Economics program that we’ve had running for something like eight years now, some students go boom, boom, boom, and they’re done in a year and a half or two years. For other students, life happens, work happens, and they take a little bit longer to get through. And I think as long as students are making steady progress, then that all works out just fine.
Byrne: David, what kind of students are you drawing into the online MBA program?
Hummels: We’re drawing students from really all over the country, and I would say we’re probably about 80/20 domestic versus international at this point. I think that, actually, the international component may grow over time, especially as we’re picking up a lot of students connected to business analytics, internationally.
A lot of schools, when they go online, it’s a bit of a paradox; you’d think distance wouldn’t matter, but they tend to be very concentrated in their home state. That’s not been the case for us.
Demographically, our students are probably on average early 30s. I think the other part that’s been a real success point for us is that we’re attracting students from leading technology companies, and in particular, aerospace. Purdue has this amazing history in aerospace and aeronautical engineering. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was a Purdue graduate. We’ve had 26 astronauts. We have very deep connections to aerospace engineering companies: Lockheed, Raytheon, Collins, Boeing, all down the line. We have a bunch of students from aerospace engineering companies, and we see that across a wide range of other technology-oriented firms. And I think that reflects, both who we are as a university, and the unique kind of flavor we have to this online MBA.
Byrne: Most people think that if you want to accelerate your career in a particular company, or even in your industry, an online MBA or part-time MBA or an Executive MBA is a great option. But if you want to actually do a major career transition, it’s often thought that a two-year MBA program with a summer internship is the better choice. What’s your take on that? Are you finding more online MBA students who actually want to use the online experience for a career transition?
Hummels: We’re seeing a couple of things. The first is: students sometimes will think to themselves, ‘Maybe I want to transition, or maybe I like where I am, but what I want to do is explore. And I want to explore without giving up the option to stay where I am.’ And so, I actually was having a conversation with a number of prospective students who were employed at amazing companies, and they saw this potentially as a way to level up within the company, but without having given up that option to also explore what other opportunities there are.
Everything that you can learn in an online MBA, and certainly in ours because it’s really meant to create transformative educational opportunities, is helpful to a student who wants to really switch careers. If you think about folks who are coming from a STEM background, and say, ‘I need to add the business and the leadership elements to that in order to go someplace pretty special.” they will be very well-qualified to do that. The other part of it that, at least as important, is you have folks who don’t have engineering or science degrees, but who want to get engaged in a technology company; maybe they’re in consumer products or something like that, when they really want to go to something more high-tech.
A program like ours gives you the opportunity to make that jump, partly because of what’s in the coursework, but also because of who you’re exposed to and what kind of people you’re in classes with. Someone who might want to be in the HR space, or finance, or marketing or something, but in a technology company, and because they spend time around folks who have those technology capabilities, and because we’re going to do these frontier courses that give you a chance to understand these technologies and the business opportunities they create and destroy, we’ll facilitate a significant amount of job changing, if that’s what students want.
Byrne: So help a person who’s out there thinking, ‘Okay, I’m really interested in an online experience.’ Is there a decision tree for me? Are there certain things I need to check off to know that this is the ideal experience?
Hummels: Our full-time recruiters spend a lot of their time trying to help people through that. And not just trying to shoehorn them into a program that doesn’t make sense for them, but helping them to explore that question in more depth.
When I talk to people, I start with a question, ‘Where do you want to be when you’re on the far side of this?’ Because, at the end of the day, that’s the most important question: where do you want to be? What kind of capabilities do you need to add to get you to that place? Then second, ‘What are the experiences that I want to have?’ And experiences could be coursework; it could be consulting opportunities; it could be interacting with my peers or with faculty; what experiences I think are going to help shape those capabilities.
I think the third question you get to is things like, ‘Am I in a financial place where I can leave my job? Where is it that I want to, if I’ve got a family, do I want to move my family for two years?’ And you can think of some of these modality questions third, but I think, in general, if you start from where do I want to get? What capabilities do I need? How am I going to add them? And then some of these questions about mode, program, and those kinds of things follow from that.
We don’t think there’s a right program for everyone. Different programs are right for different people. And we created a program that is going to be the perfect program for some folks, and it’s not going to be the right fit for others, and that’s okay, because there’s a lot of great programs out there. But we think for the kinds of people we want: people who have strong STEM backgrounds and want to lead organizations, or who want to go into technology companies, we think it’s a great program. If you want to be at the frontier of data science applied to business, we’re a great place to be.