Simply having an MBA diploma in hand isn’t enough nowadays. In a dynamic and changing business environment, the need for business leaders to continue learning beyond graduation day has become increasingly important.
Some business schools are trying to innovate and keep up with demand. Paul Danos, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US, said students are looking for new ways to regularly discuss business trends and practices.
“We have seen growing demand among leaders in business for ongoing, continuing education and discussion on best practices in their fields,” Danos said. “In the past, keeping up depended on traditional courses and publications and, to some extent, the hiring of personal consultants.”
Today, graduates want more from their schools, especially in a fast-paced information age. While management educators are aware of this need, establishing a “lifelong learning” program is no easy task. Most schools have a long way to go in providing alumni with genuine continual education programs – rather than just reunions and networking events – and without charging people additional tuition after they graduate.
According to Richard Shell, a professor and chairman of the MBA review committee at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, executives often require different knowledge for their first job after an MBA program, compared with what they need to know at later career stages.
“Specifically, technical knowledge is more important early on, and more general knowledge of self, society and other people is more important later,” Shell said.
As part of a major overhaul of the school’s MBA program late last year, Wharton announced it will provide new graduates with tuition-free executive education throughout their careers. The program change is part of the school’s efforts to meet the needs of “this generation of business leaders who want greater control over their educational choices, continued exposure to peers with deep, global experience and more opportunity in their academic experience to self-analyze and self-reflect.”
Online strategies – which are inexpensive and can connect people all around the world – will be imperative for lifelong learning programs, Tuck’s Danos adds.
“Business schools should create ways for extending the education of its graduates beyond the on-campus experience, and online methods are clearly the way forward,” he said. “MBA programs have the faculty expertise to lead and direct discussions, and they have graduates who have different areas of expertise and experience.”
Chinese business schools are also warming up to the concept of lifelong education, according Yin Zhiwen, a professor and associate dean of Fudan University’s MBA program in Shanghai.
“In China, business practices are quite dynamic at the moment and business frameworks are constantly changing,” Yin said. “There is a demand for [ongoing education], as the market is asking managers and executives to update frequently.”
Yin adds that Fudan provides a variety of free seminars, networking events and lectures for MBA graduates. The school will also launch an online portal later this year, which will enable students to watch lectures online and read new academic papers. In addition, EMBA alumni are offered spots in courses with current students, but for an additional fee.
Other major business schools in China, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, offer similar online and networking services. What’s lacking, however, are designated departments that administer and promote ongoing education – which is a rising trend among MBA programs in the US.
Bringing students together
The downside for Chinese students who take their MBA abroad, though, is the difficulty they face in participating in such programs when they return home. Joy Wei, an MBA graduate of Emory University in Georgia, US, is one such example.
The Hangzhou native remained in Atlanta for five years and took additional courses after graduation while working. But since returning to China in 2006, Wei has found that Emory’s continual education services are only accessible to graduates in the US.
And while online teaching methods appear to be the answer to this dilemma, Winston Ma – an MBA graduate and co-president of the University of Michigan’s alumni association in Beijing – doesn’t believe they’re a substitute for real-life exchanges.
“[Online methods] are not so effective,” he said. “The best way is to attend the course physically, so you can engage in classroom discussions.”
Another obstacle is the high cost of taking courses, which is a disincentive for most alumni. In the US, for example, most business schools typically charge US$2,500 for a single elective class.
Shell stresses that overall, schools are not doing enough for graduates. He hopes that Wharton’s pioneering efforts with its lifelong learning model will inspire other schools to do the same.
At the same time, a business school’s responsibility only goes so far. After all, it is in graduate’s best interest to take a proactive approach if they want to remain competitive. That means going further than just staying in touch with alumni.
Shell suggests that executives set aside a short period every year for renewing expertise, by either attending an industry conference or participating in a short course held by a credible expert. And every five to seven years, business leaders need to take an even longer break to renew their knowledge.
“What you need is a genuine 1-2 week ‘retreat’ to gather your thoughts, read deeply, and reflect on the future of your business and career,” he said.