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How The MBA Syllabus Is Changing For The Future

With industry changing at a rapid pace and business schools trying to keep up, find out what deans think the MBA syllabus should look like in 2021

By  Thomas Nugent

Thu Aug 5 2021

The cost of going to business school means you need a strong return on investment when you graduate, and that goes beyond just your MBA salary.  

Business is changing quickly, and the World Economic forum predicts 50% of all employees will require retraining by 2025. You therefore need a business school that’s going to equip you with the skills you need to succeed for the foreseeable future, or risk falling short.

"Corporate leaders and hiring managers often report a gap existing between what they need from their new hires and what those individuals are able to do once onboard,” explains Tim Westerbeck, president of Eduvantis, a higher education consulting firm. 

“They report a great deal of retraining and even fundamental education required, along with a sometimes significant lag time between the hiring date and the period at which high productivity can be expected—this gap needs to be closed by business schools if they seek to remain relevant and competitive.”

Business schools are starting to adapt to that need. From working more closely with companies to integrating wider university research into the MBA curriculum, here’s how the MBA syllabus is changing for the future. 

Experiential learning will form the bedrock of the MBA

Business schools should move away from traditional classroom lectures, and towards experiential learning, thinks John Delaney (pictured right), dean of Kogod School of Business at American University. When a colleague suggested the school moved away from talking to students about business, to letting students experience business, he knew they were onto something.


“I think that's one of the directions that everyone is going to have to go in,” he says. “That'll be really healthy for business schools as it's going to cause us to get closer to the organizations and people that our scholars may study and our students will work at, and I think that makes us better able to train students as a result.” 

Kogod is adapting its approach to experiential learning in a way that looks to give students more focus on how to apply their learning and monitor their performance. 

Students will work on multiple pro bono projects with companies during their education at Kogod School of Business, and the way the school measures performance and works with companies throughout those projects is changing.

Before, the different data points on your performance might have been an end of course assessment, feedback from employers after an internship, and then after you’ve been hired post-graduation. 

John thinks those data points are too far apart, and they don’t serve businesses as effectively as projects where the school interacts with them more frequently over the course of an assignment. 

Although John admits Kogod isn’t where it should be yet, the goal is to get to a place where multiple touch points with employers give the school more data and a quicker overview of where things are heading within organizations, and whether their students are meeting those needs. 

“If we can get in that direction, we'll be faster in our ability to make adjustments and I think speed is going to continue to make a difference in the future.”


Being able to dedicate more time on the MBA syllabus to real time application of knowledge through company projects could be a benefit that comes out of the covid pandemic. 

With a lot of schools implementing remote communication technology into their MBA programs to cope with lockdowns and mandatory online teaching, there’s an opportunity to use that tech to free up lecture time. Students who haven’t been in their host countries because of travel restrictions have made use of an asynchronous learning model that sees them watch and study recorded lectures on their own time. 

John believes that when students return to the classroom, they’ll demand that lectures continue to be recorded, as he thinks the asynchronous method of teaching is an appealing way to learn the basics. 

“I think that’s going to stay,” he says. “Then the issue is going to become how can you better use the time you have in the classroom to expose students to the problems, challenges, and opportunities that they'll have when they're in the real-world setting.”

The MBA syllabus is expanding to meet industry demand

Several years ago, the chemistry department at Northeastern Illinois University approached the school’s College of Business and Technology to raise a concern. They did a lot of work at masters level with pharmaceutical firms, and knew their masters grads would shortly go on to run labs of their own. But they lacked the necessary management experience.


The result was a fresh approach to the school’s MBA that took university-wide expertise and introduced new tracks to meet emerging industry demand. There’s now a piece of the MBA that’s used to provide the management track for chemistry. 

Mike Bedell, the dean of Northeastern Illinois University’s College of Business and Technology, explains the new approach has extended to other areas of the University.

“One of the things I've heard for years is that one of the hardest things to find in the medical industry is solid leadership talent, and one of the other things that's hard to find is tech talent.”

The College of Business and Technology has partnered with the University’s public health masters to launch a health track as part of the MBA syllabus. The elective sequence will be provided by the healthcare department, so if you’re a nurse or doctor and you want to gain an MBA alongside specialized healthcare knowledge, you can. 

“We’re taking the MBA where it makes sense, particularly in our market, and trying to provide something that fits the needs of the kinds of industries where we're seeing more people coming from,” Mike (pictured above, right) explains.  

The school has also added a tech track to the MBA syllabus, which is run out of Northeastern Illinois University’s computer science program. “You’ll be able to take classes and become an MBA with a tech focus,” Mike says. “The goal is to be plugged into industry.”

The future of the MBA syllabus comes down to a school’s ability to “turn on a dime”, Mike says. When industry demands change, a school’s MBA program needs to reflect that. 

Live cases are replacing the HBS case method

What happens when the heads of HR at companies like Google, Microsoft, and General Motors tell you you’re teaching your MBA students what you want to teach them, not what they need to know?


That’s what happened to Joe DiAngelo, the dean of Saint Joseph’s Haub School of Business and, according to Tim from Eduvantis (pictured right), highlights one of the challenges facing schools looking at redesigning their curriculum.

“While many of the core principles of any given disciple—finance, marketing, supply chain and others—may still be relevant, many core principles have evolved significantly,” Tim says. 

“Curriculum designed without specific, objective knowledge of these changes as their basis is destined to be outdated before it’s even approved.”


Joe completely overhauled the school’s MBA program. The school has recently launched a stackable MBA, made up of a series of three certificates you can study at your own pace.

There’s a certificate covering the core MBA modules, as well as certificates in applied investment analysis, data analytics, data management, and data science. There are also certificates in healthcare management, HR management, leadership, and marketing. 

Students can complete any certificates alone, or for a full MBA complete the core certificate along with two of their choice. The program attracts full-time students as well as working professionals who either attend flexible on campus classes or take their degree fully online.

Joe (pictured below, right) says more companies are now sending their employees back to gain single certificates to top up their skills. 

The school has partnered with a biotech incubator to offer a certificate in pharmaceutical marketing, for instance. Local hospitals are also sending their medical doctors to get certificates in healthcare marketing, as their CEOs feel they need to build their understanding of the business aspects of healthcare. 


All of this industry collaboration means students are having their MBA syllabus updated in real time through live case studies. 

“We're actually getting problems from the companies and using them as the cases instead of buying Harvard cases,” Joe explains. “We take the case from the organization, they give us the data, and we use them in the classes.”

Students have recently worked with hospitals on projects looking at patient transportation and urgent care. Groups are mixed so industry professionals lead teams made up of students from a variety of fields.  

Joe thinks this should become the norm for the MBA syllabus today. “The days of teaching the same course over and over every semester are over,” he says. 

Engineering, technology, and business are intersecting

Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business has around 80,00 alumni, many of whom end up as CEOs in and around Georgia.

When Rich Phillips (pictured right), the dean of the school, went to see some of those CEOs to ask what kept them awake at night, they told him it was the 22-year-old with a software engineering degree and a laptop who’s going to disrupt their business or industry, not the marketing and accounting grads coming out of business school.


Rich found that these CEOs were striking up partnerships with MIT, as well as going out to the West Coast to tap into the tech and engineering ecosystem there. In Atlanta they were getting close to the engineering and computer science side of Georgia Tech and cosying up to Tech Square, a tech ecosystem.

Their priority was emerging tech talent, and Rich realized he had to act.

“Our view here was that the fundamental tenet of the business school needed to change, and then that would change the MBA and other programs,” he says.

His school has since launched the Institute for Insight and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute.


The Institute for Insight hired computer scientists, data scientists, and engineering faculty to teach students. They have one member who is an expert in image analytics—something that will change the face of marketing, Rich explains. 

These experts are connected to the MBA syllabus through modules in finance, accounting, and marketing. They’re tasked with creating coursework that helps students think about and solve problems related to the future of business. 

The Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute employs faculty from entrepreneurship, innovation, and design thinking.

“Scale allowed us to build this unique ecosystem here and turn it on our undergrad program, MBA program, and specialized masters programs,” Rich explains.

The College of Business and Technology has basically launched a spate of labs that not only offer consulting advice to industry, but the prototyping of new product services and solutions for companies with the faculty, students, and companies working together on projects in real time.

“We think of ourselves as helping industry invent their future here on campus, much like what happens on a good engineering campus today,” Rich explains.

Students on the MBA and business masters degrees can cover modules on digital innovation, business analytics, and data science. There’s an analytics experience course that sees students use real data to solve real company problems.

The school also has a FinTech lab that runs its own private blockchain. Students prototype solutions in that technology in partnership with companies. There’s also a fintech and blockchain innovation course.

“Industry is becoming much more scientific in how it thinks about running and managing its operations,” Rich explains. “Rather than MBA students just survey what's out there in the world, with this new tech they're coding it up on the blockchain in their labs.”

The idea of the traditional two-year MBA syllabus is changing at some schools, and that’s a good thing. To be a successful business leader today, you need to be able to work at or at least understand the intersection of business and technology.

When picking a school, if you’re after an MBA that’ll best prepare you for success, make sure you research the curriculum, the teaching method, and the experiential learning opportunities, to ensure you multiple opportunities to apply knowledge in real time, to the challenges facing industry today.

Next Read:

MBA Syllabus: 9 Things You’ll Be Surprised To Find