Stuart Robinson graduated with an MBA from London Business School in 1998—two decades ago, but an entirely different business epoch.
Now the MBA director at the University of Exeter Business School, he is working in a time where tech disruptors are throwing spanners into the works of MBA programs the world over, and sustainability and ethical management are sought after less as a pseudo badge of honor, and more as a genuine mission statement for many business schools.
The Exeter MBA—ranked number one in the world for sustainability by the Corporate Knights’ Better World Ranking—is well stationed to pursue that.
“Seven or eight years ago, sustainability was a more controversial topic than it is now,” Stuart explains. From a business school perspective, he adds, you had to do a lot of convincing around the notion of sustainability—the questions have moved on though. “We know it’s a bad idea to use too much plastic, but how do you go about using less?” he asks.
Exeter Business School’s mission is to make business a force for good. To do that, it is vital to collaborate with industry, as businesses themselves tackle the question of how to adapt and change to drive the sustainability agenda.
On the Exeter MBA, Stuart says, incorporating company projects into the curriculum is one way his students are immersed in the real business world—he teaches a module with IBM and SAP.
“Students can use the projects to support and shape their future direction,” Stuart asserts. He recalls an American student of his, Stephanie Lindan, who needed to secure employment after graduating to be granted a working visa.
She undertook a project with IBM on the Exeter MBA, working with one of the UK’s big energy companies on the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the UK’s utilities market. She came across consultants from Accenture working with the same company. This led to job interest, interviews, and a job—she still works for Accenture as a consultant.
The impact of technological disruption on these companies—which is making technological displacement a more frequent occurrence—is something Stuart has seen first-hand.
He began his career with BT in 1991—when he says the company employed over 250,000 people—before the technological revolution. Now, that figure hovers around the 88,000 mark.
“It’s one of the challenges organizations face,” Stuart adds, “not just how to manage the transformation, but the consequences of how the organization actually works. Tech replacements and internet disruption is just what’s going on, [and] students have to find way through that.”
On the Exeter MBA—a diverse environment of 41 students from 21 countries—Stuart explains that they bring in tech specialists to work with the students. “We give them the toys and ask them to create things that are interesting,” he adds.
MBA students have to research up to eight new, different technologies—AI, blockchain, and quantum computing to name a few—and make a video about how each one works.
“I think it’s a creative approach,” he says. “There is not a module within the curriculum because we’ve accepted that there’s no point—we’d have to change the curriculum all the time.”
Stuart taps into the notion that an MBA is about immersing students in an array of areas, equipping them with the tools to mould their careers in any direction they wish—“an MBA is not about becoming an expert in something,” he adds, “it’s knowing enough about how to approach a topic in order to make progress.”
So, is that what separates an MBA from a specialized Master’s?
For Stuart, it is. “I did an MBA when I was 33,” he recalls, “the average age on our MBA is 31. I had a background in product management and marketing, and I left the MBA as an accountant—becoming a finance manager, an IT director, moving to work in the City, and now I’m an academic.
“At the age of 31, what specialized masters should I have chosen?”
Stuart believes the MBA is about learning a general set of skills—a specialized Master’s restricts that. There is, of course, a spin on sustainability and good business practice on the Exeter MBA, but in the end “you’re going to learn how to do some things, and we’ll continue in that direction,” Stuart confirms.
“We need people who know about business who can make and lead change and move the world on. We need to equip those people with the training, and that training is the MBA.”