Why Business Schools must embrace project management

Project management will be a core skill for future leaders, and Business Schools must take immediate action to address this learning gap, write Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez and Marco Sampietro

Organisations implement processes to produce, sell and distribute products and services, in addition to projects to ensure that they survive and grow. While most traditional organisations are process-based, it is hard to find one that does not undertake projects as well. 

Over the past decade, organisations have become increasingly reliant on projects, since access to wider and cheaper information, fierce competition and customer preferences have shortened product life-cycles by 25% (according to Roland Berger, 2012), with 50% of annual company revenues across a range of industries derived from new products launched within the past three years (according to Inform, 2012). New products become obsolete much faster and replacements or enhancements are requested more frequently. 

These market influences have also put an emphasis on increasing the variety of products rather than on concentrating sales around a few best sellers. This has more than doubled in the past 15 years (Roland Berger, 2012). As a result, new products or services must be developed more frequently and processes including digitisation and business model transformation have to be improved and updated more often as well. 

Organisations are undertaking an increasing number of projects, but lack the competencies to manage projects effectively. This can be detrimental to their immediate performance and long-term success. 

Project success is not only influenced by project managers and team members, but also by middle-managers and senior executives who provide support as project sponsors or develop an organisation that supports the proper management of projects. As a result, leaders require project management competencies – and these must become part of the curricula at Business Schools.

The research model

The effectiveness and relevance of Business Schools are, in many cases, measured by organisations which compare and rank Schools. For the purposes of this research, the most well-known international rankings (such as those of the Financial Times, The Economist, Bloomberg and Time International) have been used to identify what we defined as ‘top Business Schools’. 

Here Business Schools are considered ‘top’ when mentioned in at least one of the above. The rankings we considered evaluate programmes and not Business Schools; where a programme is jointly delivered by more than one Business School, all the partner Business Schools have been inserted in the list. The final list comprised 197 Business Schools. Once this list had been created, data was collected by looking at the websites of all the Business Schools in order to find project management content in the following programmes:

  • MBAs
  • Online MBAs
  • Executive MBAs
  • Specialised master’s
  • Certificates
  • Open executives programmes

Data was collected between November 2016 and February 2017. Out of 197 Business Schools, 180 (91%) offer MBA programmes. In some cases, Business Schools run more than one MBA programme; MBAs may focus on specific topics, or have different formats such as being full-time or part-time. Based on this, the 180 Business Schools offer a total of 379 MBAs. 

Research results

Of 180 Business Schools, 45% (81 Schools) include project management content within their MBAs, while 134 out of 379 MBAs (35%) have project management content. Since some MBAs have more than one course focused on project management, if we count the number of project management courses delivered in the 379 MBAs, the total is 181. 

Generally, MBAs are organised into core and elective courses. Elective courses allow a student to choose from a number of optional subjects or courses in a curriculum, as opposed to a required (core) course which the student must take. Using this classification, it emerges that 8% (15 out of 181) are core courses, while 80% (145 out of 180) are elective.

Looking at the type of content delivered, 53% (96 out of 181) of the courses appear to be providing general project management skills. The word ‘appear’ is used because no detailed syllabuses are provided on the websites and our classification is only based on the course title. It also seems that focusing on specific sectors (IT, construction) or issues (project management for innovation or for R&D) is another frequent option, probably derived from the type of MBA (MBA with a focus on IT, construction etc.) or the dominant job offers resulting from the connections that particular a Business School has with the companies.  

More than two-fifths (45%) of the MBAs include project management content, and, while there is room for improvement, the percentage cannot be considered low. The vast majority of project management courses are offered as electives, so there is no certainty that MBA participants gain project management competencies.

Online MBAs

Only 13% of the Business Schools in the study offer online MBAs. The percentage of Business Schools with project management content in their online MBAs is very similar to the ‘traditional’ programmes. In fact, the percentage is 41% against 45% of the non-online MBA courses. 

Some Business Schools run more than one MBA, so that the total number of online MBAs is 31, of which, 42% (13 out of 31) provide project management content, which is slightly higher than for the traditional MBAs (35%). As with their offline counterparts, the vast majority (92%) of the online project management courses are elective. 

Executive MBAs

Out of the 197 Business Schools in the study, 172 (87%) offer EMBA programmes. The 172 Business Schools offer a total of 248 EMBAs. 

Only 14% (24) of Business Schools include project management content in their EMBAs, a much lower percentage when compared to MBAs (45%). The percentage decreases slightly when programmes, rather than Business Schools, are taken into account. In fact, of 248 EMBAs, 12% (29) have project management content – again, much lower than the figure for MBAs (35%). Since some EMBAs have more than one course focused on project management, the total number of project management courses delivered in the 248 EMBAs is 37.

As with the MBAs, the majority of project management courses (65%) are not mandatory, but are offered as electives. Also in this case, the most frequent title is simply ‘project management’, but since syllabuses are not available online, it is not possible to evaluate whether content targeted to executives (such as strategic project management; project portfolio management; or being an effective project sponsor) is provided. 

Specialised master’s

While MBAs and EMBAs are general management programmes, specialised Masters focus on specific topics (such as marketing, finance, strategy, IT, and HR management) and are normally shorter in length. More than half (55%) of the Business Schools offer specialised Masters and, since many Business Schools run more than one Masters, the total number is 788. 

When it comes to considering how many Business Schools include project management content in their specialised Masters, the percentage (42%) is very similar to the findings for MBAs.

Again, some Masters programmes provide more than one project management course; for this reason, the total number of project management courses increases to 122. The low percentage of Masters with project management content is partially explained by the fact that these type of programmes try to limit general management skills in order to stay focused on their specific specialisations. Among the Masters, six are focused on project management and those six are provided by five Business Schools. 

The percentage of mandatory courses (23%) is much higher when compared with MBAs and EMBAs; however, it has not been possible to assign one of the two categories (core and elective) to many project management courses since the information was not available online. For this reason, the percentage is probably underestimated. If we consider the courses for which a classification was possible, the percentage rises to 42%.

The explanation may be two-fold: on the one hand, project management could be considered very important meaning that it should be a core course, but on the other hand, specialised Masters, with a few exceptions, are normally targeted at relatively young students. The strong presence of project management within the core courses may reinforce that idea that project management is for low-level managers rather than for senior executives.  

Regional analysis

The analysis at regional level is influenced by the fact that some Business Schools have subsidiaries in more than one region; however, their number is very limited and, for this reason, the overall results are not affected. 


Given the importance of project management in achieving positive business results, the current proliferation of project management content among the offerings of top Business Schools does not seem satisfactory. 

One potential reason relates to competition and costs. Business Schools of good standing are much more expensive than other training providers, and there is no shortage of alternative project management courses, both face-to-face and online. This can discourage Business Schools from investing in project management since the competition is fierce and it is unclear whether students are willing to pay a premium price for course that, at least on paper, has similar content to lower-cost alternatives.

Another possible reason is that participants already have project management skills and competencies. However, in our experience of teaching project management to specialised Masters, MBA and EMBA students at some of the top Business Schools suggests that this is only true in 15%-20% of cases. The majority of the participants we have taught over the past 10 years have not previously learned the techniques and behaviours to lead projects successfully. Most had been exposed to projects during their careers, and some had experienced working within project management environments, but the way in which the projects had been carried out appeared to have been far from good practice. 

A third potential reason for the limited inclusion of project management content within Business School programmes is that many participants do not consider project management a core skill for their careers. Having delivered project management courses, the feedback we tend to receive is: ‘I didn’t see how project management fitted in with what a manager or senior executive should know, but I now understand its relevance.’ 

There are many reasons for this lack of understanding, one of which is particularly relevant. All too often, people associate project management solely with project managers, while in reality it is a relevant skill for every individual involved in projects. This may originate from the vast body of project management literature, targeted almost exclusively at project managers.

A fourth interpretation is that Business Schools are not fully aware of the role that managers and executives play in supporting project leadership and performance. Discussions we have had with some MBA and EMBA Directors suggest that they too have a tendency to relegate project management to operative or middle-management roles. It is no coincidence that many project management professors work in the operations department of Business Schools. Project management is too often considered to be an engineering, IT or technical discipline, which ignores its managerial components and the strategic role that many projects play in transforming organisations. The vast majority of courses are simply named ‘project management’, with only a few focusing on topics relevant to managers and executives (for example, strategic project management, project portfolio management, or project sponsorship).  

A fifth reason is that, while many topics taught by Schools match academic interests (there are many full professors of marketing, accounting, finance or HR management, for example), project management is rarely a career path followed within many Schools. There are only a handful of full professors in project management worldwide and many who teach project management are also (or mainly) focused on other topics. 

Our conclusion is that the reasons we have listed are interlinked and cannot be considered independently of one another. To enhance the diffusion of project management across Business School programmes, a multi-faceted strategy is probably required that addresses the way project management is communicated, both internally and externally; the way it is taught within Schools and also who teaches it. 

Having looked through the curricula of many project management lecturers, we noted that many are project managers by profession. This may sound positive, but when we bear in mind the perspectives of participants who want to become managers or executives, this can be a limitation, reinforcing the idea that project management is primarily a skill set for project managers and that project management does not support the development of a robust managerial career.

We urge Business School Deans to take action and to address this critical learning gap in MBA curricula.

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Visiting Professor at Duke CE, Durham, US; Marco Sampietro, SDA Bocconi School of Management, Italy

The authors would like to acknowledge the invaluable support provided in collecting data for this research by Stefano Cavallazzi and Kannan Swamy.

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