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Business Schools Respond To Need For More Practical MBA Programs

Too long on theory and too short on practical experience? It's a thing of the past: Business schools across the world have opened the doors to live cases and more practical courses.

Wed Jun 11 2014

For Pierre-Yves Sanséau, demand is high. His business school course in Grenoble, France, can barely keep up with demand from the increasing number of budding twenty-somethings looking to beef up their CVs. He already has dozens of students enrolled in his new practical-based course. Another raft are expected to join next year. 
“They move to an internship for one month at different companies around Grenoble,” he said. “Only after that, in November, do they start courses with professors.”
Across Europe and North America, an increasingly practical set of business schools is emerging. Pierre-Yves is just one of hundreds of professors adapting to the demand for out-of-classroom experiences in management education.
The concerns among this group of MBA students were laid bare in two studies by top business schools in both Europe and the United States. A new service from the Institute of Equality and Diversity Practitioners sought to bring together the best academic thinking from leading schools – including Stanford, MIT and Oxford – to find practical applications for MBAs to use the knowledge they have acquired.
At the same time, the Association of Business Schools (ABS) also published a report that highlighted areas of b-school education that need improvement. Chief among the recommendations was to design more practice into courses.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the need for change was overwhelming: business schools needed to design more practice into courses. Yet bringing about change is much more difficult than it seems. The issue is rooted in academic culture and history, and a long-standing academic concern for a high proportion of staff to be academically qualified, rather than be industry-insiders.
One professor from a leading business school said: “My impression was that there was little strategic thinking as to how to engage with industry. That is to say: what is the purpose of engagement with industry? What concrete benefits does this engagement bring to the school, as well as to the wider university?”
Rotman School of Management recently launched a new MBA project which gives first-year students a chance to embrace corporate culture in Toronto, one of Canada’s business hubs. It is the second year of the course, which 350 MBAs now take. 
It is an understandable move. Live case studies are now in vogue. While business schools still teach plenty of classroom theory, it is not the main driver of relationships with local businesses. 
“It transitions them from the standard MBA classroom to going off into work – a go between,” said Mara Lederman, co-creator of Rotman's course. “These [companies] like to hire our students. It gives them an opportunity to show the students about what it means to work there,” she added.
An astonishing 90% of leading UK employers surveyed agreed that embedding work experience within business courses like MBAs would make graduates more employable, according to a separate report from ABS. Yet 50% of them said they have difficulty hiring high-calibre managers. In every industry from luxury to real estate, frontline recruiters are more likely to be lured by MBAs who can boast of practical b-school experience.
Across the world, there is now a huge focus on securing a more practical education for the next generation of MBAs. While some schools have been slow to adapt, others have been running practical projects for years.
Janelle Goulard, an MBA student at the Sauder School of Business who worked with real estate firm Winkworth in India on a live case, said: “There’s definitely an advantage to Sauder from that perspective. Being in India and seeing some of the challenges, and being able to effect change, gives me an advantage over other schools.”
Beijing has been an economic rocket, a city whose economy has been propelled by investment and exports. While economic growth cooled to 7.4% in the first quarter of 2014 from 7.7% in the previous period, there are few more prosperous places to practice management skills. 
The city’s companies are being filled with MBA students who are immersed overseas for practical experiences. 
Daniel Duric, a Swiss Master's student studying at Grenoble Ecole de Management's Chinese campus, says growth is tremendous. “All these [experiences] are things that cannot be learned by reading a book, but must be experienced in your own skin. I am sure that these experiences would set me apart from other potential [job] candidates.” 
Saurabh Sakhuja, a Global MBA student at France's ESSEC Business School, has just completed a team consulting project centred on a month-long immersion in an emerging market. He also spent weeks studying at the school’s Singapore campus, met with established alumni and visited companies – including KPMG, the leading audit firm. 
“We also had a lot of companies that visited us at careers fairs, who spoke about how to apply for jobs and how things work in Asia,” he says.
“We have a lot of people working in Asia and always had alumni that we could get in touch with; there were a lot of good networking opportunities.”
Rotman, one of the leading business schools in Canada, is one of the MBA providers that has been careful not to get the balance wrong. 
Its Capstone Course-team developed a program specifically to throw students into the practical deep-end, but in a safe environment. To develop MBA’s practical skills, Rotman students are guided by professors over six weeks. Time with companies is shorter but has been effective. 
Mara, also a Rotman associate professor of strategic management, said: “It helps teach them to solve problems, but at same time [with] guidance and learning.” She added: “There’s a disconnect between teaching them in a safe class environment, and throwing them into the real world.” 
One of the most popular functions for MBAs this year has been marketing. 54% of firms polled in a GMAC survey who hired business school graduates did so for marketing roles – above the consulting and finance functions. With the boom in online marketplaces, many MBAs may be heading for marketing roles at e-commerce websites. 
Heather Duncanson is a first-year MBA student at Rotman. She spent her time on the Capstone Course working on marketing and strategy with Kanetix, Canada’s leading insurance comparison website. 
“It was a good opportunity to solidify my learning throughout the year in a real-life context, which made it that much more real,” she said. 
Business schools across the globe are putting students into live business situations like Heather’s. Commentators argue that MBA students need to get out of the classroom. 
Valentin Beau, a Master's student at Grenoble, worked on a live business case for a leading Chinese design and rebranding firm in a team of six for six weeks. 
“The fact it was with real company with real issues was the main thing I learned. You have to respect everything they ask you, and [apply it] in a short period of time,” he said. 
Valentin added: “A project that happened two years ago; [there are] no deadlines to respect. But we had six weeks to do the job.” 
ASB’s research also suggests that live cases and practical work will develop closer ties with businesses. The organization, which works with hundreds of the UK’s top business schools, hopes to improve MBA hiring.
“I personally benefit from working with the students from the Creative Industries module, who are encouraged to contest and provoke established ideas,” said Jane Donald, marketing and communications director at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who worked with students at a Scottish business school.
“Accessing academic networks, through the University of St Andrews, has also evolved my own working practices and enabled me to challenge my own views and opinions.”