A spotlight on Business Schools in Asia Pacific

Three Deans and two employer speakers at AMBA’s Asia Pacific Conference in November 2018 explore key trends, challenges and strategies for Business Schools, MBAs and businesses in the region. Interviews by Jack Villanueva and David Woods-Hale

Rick Smith, Professor of Strategic Management and Deputy Dean of Programmes at Singapore Management University 

Why do you think there has been such an increase in management education over the past 20 years? 

If I go back even further than 20 years, there has been an insatiable appetite for professional skills in management. This was seen in the 1980s and 1990s, when the MBA hit its heyday. 

There was a need for a network for advancement and careers, and the return on investment was clear in terms of employment. That trend, until recently, has been strong.

Now we’re starting to see a shift and this is worrying for Schools. They’re questioning whether employers still want to pay a premium for this type of graduate. 

As we think about the future of Business Schools, we see many potential areas of disruption, so we need to pay attention to this and rethink what we’re doing. 

We need to think about where we set value as a Business School. What are the things that, as leaders of Business Schools, we should be thinking about in order to address and reshape the market in which we operate.

Is the question of an MBA’s value for money set to become more prominent? 

There is still strong demand around the world for the MBA – emerging markets are getting more students. 

But in some countries there are questions around the cost of the MBA – especially the cost of being in School for two years and not working. So the question of the value of the MBA is there. 

Will this trend plateau? 

A number of Schools are seeing decreases in their MBA applicants (particularly in the US and UK). Even the elite Schools are seeing this. There will always be demand for those, but the rest of us need to figure out a response.

In terms of undergraduates, are students and their families willing to pay? In the past couple of months, a lot of employers (such as Google, Accenture and Deloitte) have said that a college degree is no longer a prerequisite [to gaining employment with them]. So this leads to questions about the real value of degrees. 

What does the future hold for the traditional Business School model? 

The traditional model is not in jeopardy, but it is in question. We need to be prudent and ask some tough questions. For some Schools, the game needs to change and we need to really challenge ourselves. 

For example, we need to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and think about what we offer. Should we be niche players in specific areas? This is going to be different for every School and coming up with a strategy for a Business School is not something we’ve done very much of as an industry.

How should Business Schools begin to re-evaluate their current strategies in order to ‘future-proof’ themselves? 

We are all proud of our institutions and all think we have great brand equity, but we need to be honest with ourselves in terms of how far this will carry us outside our local context. We must think about some competitive things we can do. 

We need to look at the portfolio of what we offer, to students and employers. We need to think about where we play and where we don’t play. 

The other dynamic is location. Some Schools may be located in fabulous college towns, but if they are not close to a metropolitan area, it will limit them in terms of what they do. Could this hold us back in terms of programmes and executive education? These factors are up for question and I think more and more Business Schools are thinking through these things, in terms of competitive advantage, and how they align themselves. This is our challenge going forward. 

Richard Hall, Deputy Dean of Leadership and Executive Education, Monash Business School, Australia

Why do you think the topic of ethics is often overlooked in MBA curricula? 

MBA programmes are trying to look at ethics in a modern manner, which helps our leaders and emerging leaders deal with some of the complexity, stresses and problems in pragmatic and practical ways. 

The ethics piece has been controversial in MBA programming for a lot of Schools. Sometimes, it’s a business unit or session or a discrete part of the programme. It could also be infused throughout the programme rather than being a standalone course. 

It’s often underdone or overlooked because it brings issues that are difficult to grapple with. A lot of the time, we don’t know where it fits into the programme. The traditional MBA programme has been overly focused on technical knowledge in particular, with ethics seen as an optional add-on. 

I think this is changing now but since the global recession, we have continued to see stories of ethical breaches (for example, by Volkswagen and Facebook) so MBA programmes are responding to the challenge. 

Ideally, how should ethics be discussed with MBAs – in standalone ‘ethics’ modules or as a thread throughout the programme? 

There is a real debate here; there is a debate as to whether ethics can even be taught. We discuss whether or not there should be standalone courses in business ethics. But more and more, we’re seeing ethics infused throughout the course. 

Students are being asked to look at the ethical principles that apply to any decisions being made in any course. Are we recognising the breadth of stakeholders to whom we have an obligation? In the wake of scandals, this infusion is becoming more popular. 

Ethics is not the concern of one single part of an organisation. It has to be in the culture of any business so, similarly, it needs to be infused throughout an MBA curriculum. 

In complex environments, do you believe MBA graduates are struggling to thrive under pressure? 

Complex environments characterise business now, and MBA graduates moving into these dynamics are facing extra challenges. No longer is it the case that you can thrive on technical expertise in one area. 

You need to have depth of technical knowledge, but you also need to be able to work across various areas. While you might not have depth of expertise in these areas, you need to be able to communicate effectively across them. 

One of the challenges for our contemporary graduates is the pace of change – the innovation and agility imperative. They need to accept that projects they’re working on can be ended. They need resilience. They need to be horizontally effective as well as resilient. 

Do you feel optimistic about the growth in ethical teaching and an increase in ethical practices across the board? 

I’m optimistic about how ethics on MBA programmes is taught. I’m less of an optimist when it comes to the systems in businesses that allow ethical decision making.

Those concerned about ethics recognise sustainability, breadth of stakeholders, duty to shareholders, employees, and communities. This is demanded by students and they want to work in and for organisations that understand their place in the world. It therefore makes good business sense for Schools to be taking these matters seriously.

Patrick Butler, Professor of Marketing and Director of MBA Programmes at Monash Business School, Australia

How would you define ‘next-generation MBA programmes’?

I’m interested in how we, as Business Schools, can move towards practice-based MBAs. One of our important learning platforms is to commit to the idea of next-generation programmes. We need to let go of industrial-era problems. 

We are no longer concerned in the main with issues of standardisation and control and command, but we’re keen to engage students with contemporary issues, such as how technology is shaping business, as well as resilience, agility and ethics. 

Is there still a disconnect between theory and practice in MBA programmes? 

This tension between theory and practice in all management programmes is longstanding and well recognised. There should be a tension and we should be conscious of connecting great ideas with great application. We can develop skills to extend our theoretical grasp, as well as our ability to manage in complex environments by teaching people really well. 

One way to do this is to commit to practice-based MBA programmes, especially through applied projects.  

Can you share some insight into your new MBA programme at Monash? 

Three years ago, we committed to creating next-generation MBA programmes that would have a very strong practical component. 

Rather than placing a practical project at the end of the programme, we placed projects in every module across the whole MBA programme. First strategy, then commercialisation, technology startups and then international business with fieldwork on the ground. 

Our students will have demonstrable evidence of practice. They can show the precise value they can add to the employer. This is similar to an art student having a portfolio of project work. 

What challenges did you face in growing a practice-based MBA?

Creating a practice-based MBA programme is not easy; it’s risky. You are putting students in difficult and complex situations. 

The key to success is not to shirk from risk, but to mitigate against it at all points. It’s important to have clear specifications and back the students with staff that can guide them well, supervise their process and recalibrate as they go through. 

What would your advice be to MBA directors that want to follow in your footsteps? 

We’ve learned that the design of a practice-based programme is critical. You have to be clear about the process and you have to be clear about the outcomes. You’ll need to recalibrate and pivot. If you start off without clear outcomes, it’s very hard for students to make progress, it’s hard for your sponsoring companies to understand what’s going on, and it’s almost impossible to supervise. 

Amber Anderson, Client Partner at Korn Ferry, Australia

What are employers looking for in MBA graduates?

A variety of things: they’re looking for people who can work with others; a diverse range of people. They’re looking for people who can work with stakeholders. They need people who are externally focused, have a global outlook, and who have digital acumen and can understand artificial intelligence (AI). 

Recruits will need to be adaptable in the future. They need to be articulate in order to sell themselves throughout their career. 

In terms of ethics and sustainable outlook, this will become more important. 

Do you think employers are looking for generalist or specialist MBAs? 

An MBA is increasingly seen as the ticket to fly. It’s a baseline and the specialist knowledge depends on the role. The MBA will supplement undergraduate technical skills, so we want ‘T-shaped candidates’ with [breadth and depth of] generalist and softer skills; more than data-processing and accounting skills. 

These technical skills are a prerequisite for an MBA but not the be-all and end-all that we look for. 

What would differentiate an MBA applicant from the rest of the talent pool? 

Recruiters tend to favour the Schools they know or the ones they went to. In terms of brand, there is an affinity with better-known Schools and that can jump off the page. 

More MBAs are popping up that are online or shorter programmes. Employers need to understand what the programmes comprise before they can make a call on the quality of their graduates. 

We need to know what an MBA has gone through to get the qualification. The diversity of the cohort and the quality of the teaching all goes towards making a decision. 

Do you think MBAs are bringing both theoretical and practical skills to the workplace? 

Absolutely. Theoretical and practical skills in an MBA are very useful. Theory around case studies is necessary as it puts students in real-life situations. And practical skills around management and people are vital. 

How important are soft skills to you? 

From an executive search perspective, soft skills are what differentiate candidates. We know of people in the market, but their soft skills make them stand out. 

A CEO will have a track record that often speaks for itself; technical skills will have got them so far. But what would make them an effective CEO would be their ability to manage people, adapt to change and set strategy. We test this at interview and with psychometric and assessment processes. 

Do you think the qualities on your wishlist are being met by applicants? 

The qualities put forward by current MBA graduates are often hitting the mark, but we have to tease these out of individuals as the skills we’re looking for aren’t always readily coming through. We’re looking for what differentiates them from other MBA candidates, so we can understand what they’ve accomplished and the standard they’ve reached. 

How important is a global mindset for MBA graduates? 

The global mindset is increasingly important for Australian businesses. We can be quite insular in our viewpoint. We’re quite far away from North America and Europe. Increasingly with visa requirements, we cannot bring in talent from overseas easily. 

We need Australians who can understand different countries and cultures. Markets are increasing overseas and the need for a global mindset can only increase. 

Are Business Schools rising to the challenge of developing leaders that are future-proof? 

Business Schools are rising to the challenge, but it’s also down to the individual. This all comes down to cohort selection. 

By their nature, some people are adept at changing – this makes them future-proof and able to adopt different viewpoints. 

Business Schools need diverse cohorts and perspectives to allow people to have a more rounded view. 

Where are the skills gaps in terms of what employers expect from MBAs? 

The only skills gap I can see is around the presentation of candidates going forward in their careers – the ability to sell oneself. 

We see people who have been in organisations for years before completing an MBA. 

They want to move but they are unclear about their own value proposition. This is difficult for us to help them with. 

Greater inward reflection – to allow candidates to interview better and know where they can add value in their careers – would be very useful. 

How could Business Schools build closer links with employers to strengthen their talent pipeline? 

Networks are vital. Programme directors should be reaching out to local businesses to have these discussions, because it won’t be proactive the other way. 

Business Schools need to market themselves to people like us. Let us know what your programmes are and what’s going on in your School. Tell us about the standard of graduate that is coming out. 

Rob Papworth, Group Manager, Talent at MMG (Minerals and Metals Group) Limited

What are employers looking for in MBA graduates?

There are various perspectives, but the skills depend on the organisation. We’re looking for an awareness of culture and self-reflection on your career.

There are various factors at play. It also depends on what a particular manager is looking for. In HR, we want to support managers to make their selection. We have views around culture, criteria and leadership frameworks, but managers will have their own mindset around what they need from MBAs. 

Fundamentally, technical skills, knowledge and experience from completing an MBA programme are important. Certain Schools have strengths and weaknesses in these areas. Some focus on management and others entrepreneurship. Employers need to know these skills have been both taught and applied well. 

Second, we look at personal characteristics – what have the students learned but, just as importantly, what have they unlearned? Often, the MBA can be transformational for people in awakening their minds. Personally, I like people who are reflective, aware and adaptive because business leadership and executive management will bring challenges that MBAs need to address. 

What would differentiate an MBA applicant from the rest of the talent pool? 

When employers are hiring, they will have a natural preference for their own School, but I haven’t seen a bias towards particular Schools. We look at rankings, but we’re more concerned that recruits have gone to a reputable School and had a good experience.

The decision to do an MBA and the awareness that there’s more to learn makes a candidate stand out. It’s the acceptance that there is 100 years of thought in modern management theory that they would want to access. 

We take into account the amount of work it takes to do an MBA and to balance life and work around this, as well as the sacrifice that comes with it. It’s a reflective piece for a person to take this difficult path. 

I think the belief that you’re out to better yourself and the realisation that learning is a lifetime thing, puts MBAs in high regard. 

Is it always a success story when you recruit an MBA?  

People have different strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important to find the right opportunity for them. If I can use an analogy, I feel that when you’re recruiting people you’re buying plants for a garden; plants don’t always work where you think they will. 

Hiring people with MBAs is similar: you might think someone would be good in strategy, but they’re actually better in stakeholder relations. I’ve never had a failure as such, but you need to think about where the person is placed. 

I’m focused on talent management in our company. We have 6,000 people and want to produce leaders from within, so part of this is moving these ‘plants’ around and making sure they’re broad. They need to be ‘T-shaped’ so they have a breadth as well as a depth
of knowledge. 

I like people with a variety of experiences, because some of the business and political challenges are broad, so the more experience you have, the better. 

Do you think MBAs are bringing both theoretical and practical
skills to the workplace? 

I do. Most MBAs have come from the workforce already, so they have had five or 10 years of experience behind them. 

The Schools with which I have worked have remarkable theoretical foundations. I’ve noticed, in the Australian context, that many people take MBAs to broaden their mindset. In South America, the MBA seems to be done earlier in careers. Universally, the average age of the MBA student seems to be reducing, but I think it’s important that MBAs have had time in the workplace.

How important are soft skills to you? 

For me, soft skills are critical. Being exposed to internal workings of organisations, I can see that things have become unstuck due to a lack of soft skills. There might have been mistakes made culturally or from a management perspective. 

Soft skills drive leadership. They articulate the meaning and purpose of your actual work. Soft skills make great leaders – shaping people and moving them. 

However, if you don’t have basic commercial and strategic grounding, there’s no point in having soft skills. Soft skills are the core and you build the hard skills on top of these.

How important is a global mindset for MBA graduates in terms of employment opportunities? 

In the context of heading up talent, it’s critical. It’s also complex. We have leaders who need to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Peru, Australia or Nigeria, so they need respect and curiosity. 

We have 6,000 people globally and 3,000 of these are in South America with 1,000 in Africa, so leaders need to respect this and understand all these cultures. 

More broadly, the global mindset is growing ever more important. Considering immigration into Australia, for example, how can you not have a global mindset? 

Are Business Schools rising to the challenge of developing leaders that are future-proof? 

I’m not sure and at the moment I’m quite reflective. We’re still seeing stagnation after the financial crisis and the changes in neoliberalism. 

Schools have a structure and certified programmes. Can they respond quickly to change? Probably not. There are core things around ethics they can teach to help business leaders. 

There are also fundamental things around humanities that Business Schools should teach. 

Where do the skills gaps exist in terms of what employers expect from MBAs? 

When I look at skills gaps, I don’t look at them in relation to the course, but in relation to the job. 

Often, roles need specific skills and it’s our responsibility as the employer to plug these gaps. We need to teach new hires about our company – not just how to manage it, but how to manage from a cultural perspective. 

How could Business Schools forge closer links with employers to strengthen their talent pipeline? 

All Business Schools want to build links. There is a lot of pressure within organisations in terms of business performance, restructuring and external factors.

I’ve found a lot of interest with Business Schools. The challenge is working out which Business Schools to form these relationships with, and indeed what these relationships look like. 

Our relationship with Monash Business School is important to me and this grew out of our shared vision. We have a good history there and there is trust. Monash feels like a partner. 

I think it’s more up to the employers to accept the interest from the Schools when they reach out. 

How often does diversity enter the process in recruitment? 

We look at many facets of diversity: gender, identity, nationality or education. We recruit based on merit, but diversity does come into play in terms of building pipelines of people coming into the selection process. 

You may also like...

Translate »