10 minute read

The future of the Exec MBA

We are excited from the next season of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast hosted by BlueSky Education's Stephanie Mullins and Kerry Ruffle, and International BizEd Guru Matt Symonds, with guests from top business schools across the globe. Watch this space for the release date...

While you wait, here's a recap from one of season one's episodes on the future of the executive MBA with Matt Symonds, BlueSky Education’s Adrian Barrett and Stephanie Mullins, Bill Kooser from Fortuna Admissions and Olivier Lefaivre of NEOMA Business School.

Here's what they had to say

Adrian: Welcome to the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast. Hi, everybody out there in internet land. It's Adrian Barrett again with the BlueSky Education podcast. With me, as usual, the Dream Team, Steph Mullins, Head of Practice here at BlueSky Education, and the man who's got his finger firmly on the pulse of business education around the world, Matt Symonds. Today, we're going to be looking at one of the most intriguing areas of the business education world and, specifically, developments around the Executive MBA that have been going on for the past year or so and where we think it's going to be going in the next year. So again, as usual, a lot of ground to cover. Let's not hesitate anymore. Over to you, Matt.

Matt: Thanks, Adrian. I think the two of us are so far gone in our careers that we may have even moved beyond being eligible for these Executive MBAs, which of course typically attract individuals a little older than the full time MBA, slightly more senior executives but in very similar ways looking for an accelerator to their career and transformation. There are many different formats that we've seen emerge into the market, global modular programmes and of course many of them that increasingly use technology to connect classmates in different locations around the world. Steph, I imagine with BlueSky clients the Exec MBA is very much a core product.

Steph: Definitely, it's really interesting to see how schools are tackling the evolution of the Executive MBA differently. NEOMA, for example, are trying to be more flexible, they're offering different options like various programme lengths. We're also seeing the rise in specialist Exec MBAs, which are being offered a lot more, customised Executive MBAs as well. And this all hinges on the fact that more Executive MBAs are paying for themselves – so schools must appeal to their personal natures. The money's coming out of their own pocket at the end of the day. Executive MBAs aren't purely company funded anymore. And it's an interesting aspect that's definitely affecting the evolution of the Executive MBA.

Matt: It's interesting to see how more and more individuals are now paying for the Executive MBA and intent on using it for as the opportunity for change and new opportunities. Now, as with other BlueSky podcasts, Steph, you've been out and about talking to experts about the Executive MBA and how it's evolving.

Steph: Yes, I had my first chat over the phone with Bill in Chicago.

Bill: Hi, my name is Bill Kooser. I am currently a Director at Fortuna Admissions, which is a company that helps candidates applying to business schools. We coach them through the strategy and a system with the preparation materials. But, for many, many years, I was an associate dean at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and during that time was involved in just about every administrative aspect of the school, from admissions to career services, to international programmes, to the Executive MBA programme which I managed for a number of years, back just a couple years ago.

Steph: So in this episode of our business education podcast, we've been talking about the Executive MBA, could you tell us a little bit about its history and how it's changed over the years?

Bill: Well, sure. The very first Executive MBA programme was actually started at the University of Chicago way back in 1943 when the school realised that during World War Two that there was a need for even more skilled business managers to help with the war effort. And so the University of Chicago – at that time Graduate School of Business now Chicago Booth – decided to create a programme for more senior managers, senior executives to provide them with fundamentals of business training, and prepare them to run their companies more effectively. And for the longest time, probably until the early 60s, the University of Chicago was the only school that offered the programme, and at the time it was called the executive programme. It was not an executive MBA, although the students did earn an MBA, it was more an MBA for executives. But by the early 60s, other schools had decided that this was an important thing to do to prepare more seasoned, more senior executives for business success, and so a number of other schools began developing programmes in the early 60s. And so you get to today where there are many, many programmes for executives around the world.

One of the concepts that the University of Chicago pioneered was that the programme should allow the students to continue to work while they were engaged in the programme. So, initially, the programme was an every-other-week Friday and Saturday programme. And over the years, the actual structure of the programme has changed, but the key concept is that students can come to class, learn the material in class, and then go back to work in the next couple of days, and they're able to actually apply some of that material directly to their work. It's this interesting interplay between the classroom and the practice in their positions, which I think is a very effective way of solidifying the learning and creating a sense that you really have mastered the material.

So some things have changed over the years, as I say, there are many, many more programmes for executives around the world now. One of the key things that has happened is there's a great interest in international components to programmes. So, for example, the University of Chicago back in 1994, opened up a campus in Europe, soon followed in 2000 by a campus in Asia, so the University of Chicago has the opportunity to prepare students from all around the world. Other schools have developed partnerships with other institutions around the world and others have study trips, so there's a great interest in adding international components, whether that's a week-long trip or an entire semester, brought to these programmes.

And the other thing that has become more important over the last, probably 10 years or so is an increase in the support for career changers. More and more students coming through executive MBA programmes are interested in making significant career changes. They're no longer simply expected to stay within their companies and move up there. Many are thinking about changing industries, changing positions, and quite a few are interested in starting their own firm. So there's a greater interest and a greater emphasis on Career Services and career support.

So those are some of the key things broadly in the industry over the last 40 or 50 years or so.

Steph: Awesome, thank you. It sounds like things have definitely changed and definitely the background of the participants has changed in that time.

If we look to the future, can you speculate on how you think the Executive MBA of the future might look? What might be important to students? How it may be taught differently perhaps?

Bill: Well, I think what you're likely to see with executive MBA programmes is similar to what you're likely to see in full time programmes as well – and that is a greater use of technology in providing material. And so, I could see much more of the basics, the fundamental concepts, being delivered electronically, but still having an opportunity for students to get together with a faculty member in person to discuss and evaluate that material. So I can see a greater amount of distance learning, greater opportunities for reaching students from farther afield and, as technologies change, having more and more programmes that rely more and more heavily on technology of various sorts, whether that's AI or video presentations or various ways of communicating with fellow students via a variety of electronic links. In terms of basic curriculum, I don't see that changing dramatically. Of course, as the world of business changes, there are changes in how we think about business issues and the concepts that are necessary to address those business issues, so curriculum will change and evolve as it has for the last several years. But I think the challenge is trying to predict what technology is going to do. I mean, how many of us would have, 15 years ago, predicted what the internet has become, what the iPhone enables us to do, what AI is doing, etc, etc.? So it's really hard to predict where it'll go. I

Steph: Definitely, I think we're already seeing these changes come into force. It's really interesting to see how business schools are using things like holograms in the classroom, or VR headsets in case studies.

Bill: Exactly. I think the whole concept of VR and holograms and instead of reading a case, you can actually be in the case, I think that's – to me in my generation – that's kind of frightening! But I think it's a tremendous way to actually learn the material, and learn it in a very different way than just reading.

Steph: Definitely, for Executive MBAs, they are working at the same time as studying, so not only do they live the case studies, they can then take that back into their own workplaces.

Bill: Exactly. Some of the things they've done in class with VR may be exactly the same issue they have to deal with when they're back at work. So, you know, practising negotiating or practising a performance review, all of a sudden you have “Well, I learned how to do this last week and I'm relaxed right now”, so it's a great opportunity.

Steph: I totally agree. A hands-on personalised degree is where the Executive MBA seems to be heading more and more.

Let's talk to Olivier Lefaivre, Director of the Global Executive MBA Business Unit at NEOMA Business School. Olivier, looking at the Executive MBA programme over the past few years, how have you seen this programme change?

Olivier: The competition is fierce. That's why we need to adapt, in order to keep selectivity, to make sure that we attract the best candidates and, on the other hand, to adapt to needs and to customise our programming to provide the best courses and the best professors as well. We also make sure that we have e-learning and pedagogical innovation within our programme, what we call blended learning, because our participants are all senior executives, who don't have a lot of time to train but they need to be trained, yet they cannot stay out of the office too long. We need to adapt the way we train them. And, actually, the fact that we propose more and more blended learning courses is something that's quite popular among this target audience. This practical innovation, providing e-learning courses and webinars, all the technology like Zoom for instance, is quite popular – so participants can avoid being away from their office.

On the other hand, we really do believe that gathering together in a class, let's say one week per month, is very important because that's typically the time when they can share experience, share best practices together and, of course, get feedback from the professors and the consultants that deliver the courses.

Steph: Absolutely. And you make some really interesting points there – just talking about things like technology playing more of a part in the EMBA, do you see more changes? What do you see as the future of the EMBA?

Olivier: Well, the future, as I said, for me will be this adaptability and flexibility of the provider, of the business school, being able to adapt to changing habits of senior executives.

Steph: Definitely, and I imagine there are a lot of other business schools who are looking to stay ahead of the game and do these things too.

Olivier: We have to really stick to the current world, you know, contents related to social responsibility and what we call collaborative leadership, personal developments.

Typically, today's executives who are, let's say, 40 years old, in the middle of their career, they are asking questions – regarding positioning the company, what they want to do, how they feel with the manager, about the team, so really the kind of coaching is related to personal development and also leadership. And typically what we offer is, on one hand, leadership growth, just for them to understand the organisation of company globally – organisation behaviour – and, on the other hand, to be able to help them to stand back to understand where they are, who they are, what they're going to want, what they want to grow, where they want to go, what are their goals, and how to achieve those goals.

That's typically what I would call collaborative leadership but also peer learning and active learning, a meaning that we developed in our programmes. I mean by peer learning, sharing practices between candidates. Participants who joined the programme a few months before, their experience is very precious for new candidates – they can discuss, to understand and to take benefit from their experience as a participant in the programme.

Steph: Definitely, it's really interesting what different aspects are so important to what makes up the Executive MBA.

Olivier: Yeah, correct, it is really this peer learning and, also what people like in our programme, is the flexibility of the programme. The fact that they can take a course online, as well as face-to-face, work together for the assignments as a group, that’s typically the things that are really popular.

Steph: Definitely, I actually think that NEOMA’s Executive MBA is one of the most flexible that I've ever come across in the business education market so it's really interesting and, for our listeners, I know they will love to hear about all the different aspects that you speak about.

So we've heard from Olivier just how important flexibility and adaptability is and will be in the years to come to the Executive MBA. I must wonder if that's a reason why all schools tackle their executive offerings a little differently.

Adrian: I think that's really insightful stuff.

Steph, Matt, let's try and sum up for the listeners what we think are the key takeaways on this area.

Steph: Sure. So, we had Bill who was heavily involved in the Chicago Booth Executive MBA, he talked about how applicants are looking to change or set up their own businesses, and how that's changed over the years. And it's had to adapt to these needs, especially as many people are now paying for the programme itself. And then we had Olivier from NEOMA who talked about combining face-to-face and online delivery – something that's really important now in Executive MBA programmes – a lot relating to CSR and personal development, peer learning, all these things are coming into play now, as the Executive MBA progresses and changes.

Adrian: Matt, as our very own business education Guru, how does what we've heard today fit in with your wider experience?

Matt: I've been a guru for so long that I might even be too old for the Exec MBA, but certainly it's the programme, I think, that really defines when business schools talk about lifelong learning. And I love what Bill was saying about how, in your late 30s, early 40s, the growing number of EMBA students that are really using this to fulfil their entrepreneurial ambitions and looking to start a business. Of course, the MBA has a long tradition of targeting the C-suite and the companies that support them to get there. So, I see that there's this continued appetite that people have to develop both the personal professional skills that the networks that these top schools provide and the sort of global exposure that these programmes are able to give them. So I continue to think that the future for the Executive MBA will be very bright.

Adrian: This has been the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast. Thank you for listening. 


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