The 10 Biggest B-School Innovations Of The Decade

Poets&Quants is celebrating the 10th anniversary of our founding this month and marking the occasion with recaps of some of our most important coverage. As we’ve moved through the last decade covering every facet of graduate business education, we have gained unique perspective on the innovations that have had the most lasting — and positive — effects on that ever-changing landscape. Here’s a list of the 10 biggest ones.

10. Haas Leads The Way With Virtual Classrooms

Give it a year, two at the most, and this one may well rocket to the top of a future list. After coronavirus wiped out the latter half of the 2020 spring semester at business schools around the world, some schools decided not to get caught by surprise again. Leading the way in pioneering a new, improved virtual MBA experience is the University of California-Berkeley, where Berkeley Executive Education and the Haas School of Business are preparing to unveil a major upgrade to Zoom classes this fall. But this innovation is here to stay, even when coronavirus is a memory.

“When things get back to normal, we plan to fully still lean into digital,” Julie Shackleton, vice president of digital initiatives for Berkeley Executive Education, tells Poets&Quants. “We imagine that it might be more hybrid. Even international people, we might do some work in The Forum before they arrive and they have the in-person time and then we follow up. So it’s still going to be here. This is not a short-term, temporary fix for us. This is the way we’re moving.”

Mike Rielly, CEO of Berkeley Executive Education, says Zoom still has its place, including as a tool for breakout sessions and other pedagogical needs. Virtual classrooms are just the next evolutionary step. “It’s nice to be a first mover,” Rielly says. “I believe as a business school, as a top business school, I believe Haas is the first to introduce virtual classrooms in the degree programs. It’s not something that top business schools have ever had to solve for, so it’s not that this technology hasn’t been in existence or ideal for this, it’s just that that wasn’t the pedagogical approach for being on campus.”

9. Toronto Rotman Pioneers The Use Of Video Interviews

Video interviews are so firmly established as part of the MBA interview process that few realize they are less than a decade old. The technology was pioneered by Kira Talent, a Canadian startup, and first adopted in admissions by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, which began using a short video interview as another application data point in 2013. “We are a talent management business school,” Leigh Gauthier, former director of careers and one-time director of admissions at Rotman, told P&Q in 2014. “We find great talent across the world and train and develop that talent. Big business employers are increasingly looking for applicants with good presence and communications. At Rotman, we do a lot of teams and classroom discussions; consequently, we are looking for a different type of student — someone who will be successful in all forms of communication.”

Recognizing that video is an essential part of our world and business in general, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Yale School of Management followed Rotman’s lead, and video interviews quickly became a common element of the app process.

Now, in the age of coronavirus, they are absolutely indispensable — though they will persist past the current health crisis because admissions committees want to know whether an applicant can present themselves well over video, because inevitably those candidates are easier to place at graduation. “You can’t fake this,” Gauthier said six years ago, advising applicants on how to handle themselves. “We’re looking for a real person with thoughtful answers. Take a deep breath, smile, and shine simply by being your best self.”

8. Darden Makes Waves With A Test-Optional Admissions

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business was among the first institutions to get out ahead of the calamity. Darden Dean Scott Beardsley was the first B-school dean to recognize that the pandemic and the recession it would cause would open the doors to a flood of new MBA candidates, some newly unemployed, others who saw their opportunities for advance scuttled by the downturn and the health crisis. The school aggressively extended its round 3 application period by more than three months. Then, no less crucial at a time when standardized test centers were closed down, Darden agreed to accept undergraduate entrance exam scores on the SAT and ACT or LSAT, MCAT and Executive Assessment scores in lieu of a GMAT or GRE. Darden even agreed to chase down recommenders on behalf of its applicants.

The results of one of the boldest move in MBA admissions: Applications in Darden’s extended round 3 soared by 364% over its year-earlier final deadline. The increase drove a 25% jump in total applications for the 2019-2020 admissions season to roughly 2,730 from 2,283 for 2018-2019 for the 338 classroom seats in Darden’s full-time MBA program. At the time the admission changes were announced on March 24, applications for this year were flat after a 19.8% decline in the previous two years. The steep increase reinforces the notion that this coming admissions season for business schools could be among the largest ever (see Could 2020-2021 Be The Biggest MBA Application Season Ever?).

All of this begs the question: Should schools do away with entrance exams, or make them optional? The debate continues.

7. Harvard’s FIELD Program: Case Studies Take A Break

Early in the decade, under new Dean Nitin Nohria, Harvard Business School added a required experiential exercise that departed from their fully case-study approach to learning. It was an incredible undertaking to bring an entire cohort to different locations around the world for consulting assignments with companies — and it was a huge historical step for HBS, which departed significantly for the first time from the case study, which is a near-religious belief at HBS.

FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) is based on small-group learning experiences that focus on leadership, global business and entrepreneurship. “There is a real learning by doing as opposed to simply putting yourself in the shoes of the actor and asking, ‘what would you do?’ Nohria said in 2011. “Now you have to actually do it.” FIELD includes a required eight-day global immersion experience during the January term. To accommodate the new yearlong course, Harvard cut roughly 10% of the classes from its 10 core courses in the required first-year curriculum.

Olin MBA students in Shanghai. The school completely revamped its MBA

6. Washington Olin’s Highly Experiential Revamped MBA

Washington University at St. Louis Olin Business School made one major change to its MBA program — but it was so radical, and so popular, that the move earned Washington Olin 2019 Poets&Quants Program of the Year honors. At the heart of the reimagined Olin MBA is a required global immersion that takes the entire class of newly arrived students on a 38-day, round-the-world learning experience to Washington, D.C., Barcelona, Spain, and Shanghai, China. To pull it off, the school required some faculty and all the students to show up for the program a semester early in late June. What’s more, Olin did not increase its MBA tuition to pay for the immersion or the extra semester. Instead, the school ate all the costs, flying students to the three locales, putting them up in hotels, feeding them, and arranging meaningful coursework, assignments and projects in each location.

Olin’s global immersion comes at the very start before the core courses are taught, setting the tone for the program and providing immediate insights into how business is done across different cultures, countries, and economies. “They are on the road for eight weeks, 24-7, traveling together and working together on tough deadlines,” Olin Dean Mark Taylor told P&Q earlier this year. “The dynamics of the group change. At some point, everyone is in a foreign country and that changes the leadership dynamics of the group. In China, the Chinese became the leaders and then it turned back when we came back to the U.S.”

Washington Olin’s huge overhaul will obviously be curtailed by coronavirus in 2020; but expect the experiential odyssey to return as soon as the pandemic ends. And watch for other B-schools to imitate the Olin model.

5. Where Experiential Learning Is On Steroids: The Asia School of Business

Charles Fine. MIT photo

If you want to have a truly unusual global MBA experience, the Asia School of Business is a sure bet. The school, a partnership between MIT Sloan and Bank Negara Malaysia, the country’s central bank, can rightly claim to have one of the most innovative MBA programs in the world today — as it has since its creation six years ago.

The architect of this program is MIT Professor Charles Fine, who was asked to lead the creation of Asia School of Business in 2014. As president and dean of the school, Fine was able to build a new and highly creative program from scratch, with no academic legacy or bureaucratic politics. “We felt that action learning, clinical work, and interaction with companies was central to where business education was going,” Fine told P&Q in 2019.

“And the Sloan School does a lot of action learning projects. But by being able to take a clean sheet of paper, we were able to design a curriculum around action learning right from the start. So we built our curriculum around MIT courses and projects with companies in Southeast Asia every semester.”

Roughly a third of the 20-month MBA curriculum at the Asia School of Business is comprised of required experiential learning. Every MBA candidate has four team-based projects, one each semester, plus an individual project in the summer. That’s five major projects in five different countries with five different companies. Meanwhile, most of the fundamental coursework in such business basics as accounting, finance, and marketing is done in intense one- or two-week modules to make it easier for visiting MIT professors to fly into Malaysia, teach, and then return to the U.S. And the emphasis on project learning — together with a six-week trip to the U.S. — has meant there is no room for electives at all. In ten years, Fine said in 2019, the Asia School of Business will be a vibrant intellectual community turning out exceptional global business leaders for the region on a regular basis.

“I hope it will be a vibrant center of business thinking,” he said. “To some extent, we are attracting students who want to do good in the world. I hope we build a reputation for having students who want to do something better for the world.”

4. One-Year Tech MBAs Take Off In New York

Another P&Q Program of the Year makes an appearance on this list (and a third will show up presently), as the one-year MBA at Cornell Tech, honored in 2017, joins the one-year Andre Koo Technology and Entrepreneurship MBA at NYU Stern School of Business. Business schools all over the world have been innovating new ways to teach business skills to young professionals, modernizing traditional MBA programs, and launching new, more specialized degrees in such fields as data analytics and chain supply management — but Cornell Tech’s unique approach, the creativity of its curriculum, and the devotion of faculty and staff stood out, earning the degree P&Q‘s first annual program award.

Cornell Tech’s MBA program, based on the school’s Roosevelt Island campus in New York City, was creatively designed to deliver on what the blooming tech industry sorely needs: ambitious and intelligent young professionals adept in product management skills. It is a program of and for the digital economy, where technology is transforming every facet of how the world lives, works and plays. No student leaves this MBA program without a highly valuable toolkit in turning ideas into real product and services, a core MBA function in many of the world’s leading tech companies from Amazon and Apple to Google and Microsoft.

Stern’s Andre Koo MBA, meanwhile, like Cornell’s program and a handful of others (more are sure to follow), is a reflection of the widely shared belief that two years is too long to be out of the workforce, and that B-school curricula needed major modernization. “People are less willing to take two years off,” Raghu Sundaram, NYU Stern dean, told P&Q last year. “They worry what they could lose in two years in a tight labor market. So I think that is one factor that is undoubtedly leading to a decline in applications in the last two years. The second is the international factor. It’s not only a fact that we have regrettably become more hostile to foreign talent; it’s also that other countries have now copied the U.S. model and have their own MBA programs. So the competition is increasing. I also think as business school deans we have to face up to a third factor: The cost-benefit ratio is not what it used to be. So we need to look into that at much greater depth.”

Coronavirus undoubtedly throws Sundaram’s calculations into disarray, but only temporarily. He thinks B-schools need to provide more options to students, including one-year models, specialty master’s degrees, and certificates. “The MBA is in need of some fine-tuning for the times,” he said in 2019. “But it is a program designed particularly well for people who are looking to change careers. It’s a wonderful model, and I think the MBA will remain a very important degree in the years to come. But it’s perhaps time to move from a one-size-fits-all world to multiple models.”

HBS photo

3. HBS Online Expands Graduate Business Ed To The Masses

Online MBAs aren’t new this decade. Some schools have been doing virtual learning since the days of VHS cassettes arriving by snail mail. But as usual, when Harvard gets involved, it changes the whole game.

HBS Online launched as HBx in 2014, rebranding in early 2019. Though it does not yet offer an MBA, it is an undisputed leader in online graduate business education. HBS’ flagship program is the Credential of Readiness, a 10- to 17-week boot camp of interactive learning, problem-solving, and decision-making skills development taught by HBS professors, but HBS Online also offers courses in business analytics, global business, and much more. By December 2019, 70,000 students had completed an HBS Online program and about 28,000 had taken CORe; at any given time, between all available courses, HBS Online supports between 5,000 and 8,000 students in hundreds of countries around the globe. Nearly a third of the latest entering class of Harvard MBAs completed CORe before starting their MBA experience.

The core appeal of CORe, however, is its accessibility. The program schedule is flexible: CORe can be completed in as few as 10 weeks or as many as 17, with typically nine starts per year, or one every one to two months. The shorter program involves 12-15 hours of study per week, and the “Extended CORe” generally involves eight to 10 hours. The cost for both is the same: $2,250. Most importantly, there are no gatekeepers: no GMAT, no GPA threshold, no interviews to gain admission. “The beauty of the online platform,” Senior Associate Dean Debora Spar says, “is that, in theory, it enables you to reach people who otherwise would never be able to come to Harvard Business School campus.”

2. The Rise Of STEM MBA Programs

Hard to believe that just a few short years ago, STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — was an unfamiliar term at most business schools. But now, with every top-25 B-school in the United States having established a STEM pathway in its MBA, STEM is a permanent addition to the portfolio of graduate business education offerings. Credit where it’s due: Wisconsin School of Business was the pioneer, adding a STEM concentration in 2016, and a year later Rochester University’s Simon Business School took things a step further, designating their entire MBA STEM. That earned the Simon School our 2018 Program of the Year honor.

STEM has a lot of appeal for B-schools. Schools big and small in the U.S. have embraced it as a way to mitigate the losses of Indian, Chinese, and other indispensable international student populations that have dwindled in response to heated political rhetoric, higher tuition and cost of living, and other negative factors. Designating all or part of their MBAs and specialized master’s degrees as STEM allows B-schools to lure international students with the promise of legal standing to remain in the U.S. three times longer, making it an easy and popular move — if not nearly enough to offset the larger antipodal forces driving down both application volume and international enrollment.

STEM is popular with domestic students, too. After all, employers prize the quant skills that come with a STEM degree.

Rochester Simon paved the way, leveraging its quant-heavy curriculum with a strong focus on analytics and economics to gain STEM designation. It helped that from the business school’s earliest days, Simon adopted an academic approach that has leaned heavily on economics and the application of empirical research in every business discipline. But since its world-shaking move, all the top schools have followed suit, recognizing the value employers place on STEM grads — and therefore the value of producing them.

Illinois Gies has five iMBA studios on campus. The iMBA has revolutionized online business education, and not just because of its $22K price tag. File photo

1. Illinois Gies’ Super-Affordable iMBA: Disruption Epitomized 

In 2015, when the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business announced it would offer a $22,000 online MBA degree, rival business schools were stunned. The price of the school’s iMBA program was by far the lowest of any major university’s online MBA at a school that typically ranked among the top 50 for its full-time, on-campus MBA.

Despite the bare-bones price, Gies put its most senior faculty into the online courses, having them hold weekly live Internet classes and office hours, with occasional city meetups between students and faculty, and a portfolio of elective courses with eight different specializations, including a new data analytics track in spring 2019. All for a price at which rival programs are generally stripped down digital textbooks with no live classes, trips, or electives.

The (predictable) result: The ranks of applicants and students in Gies’ iMBA program exploded. While applications to U.S. MBA programs declined steadily from 2015 to 2019, Gies’ iMBA enrollment has grown to more than 3,000 students from 92 countries and six continents, after a debut cohort of just 114 students. The success has inspired imitators: Boston University Questrom School of Business, partnering with edX, took in the first cohort for its new $24K online MBA just this month.

It looks easy. But as Illinois Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown told P&Q last year, it’s the result of a lot of hard work.

“We’re selling a Tesla for the price of a Hyundai,” Brown said. “Deans tell me, ‘Man, I don’t know how you can do this.’ Well, four or five years ago if we had known how hard this was going to be we might have been scared from doing it.”

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