Executive MBAs must adapt to an altered world

If MBAs are a launchpad to acquire important early-career skills in business and management, executive MBAs are a refuelling station to reflect, retool, refine and recalibrate professional paths. Rarely have these processes been needed more.

The pandemic has forced many executives to reorganise working practices, management approaches and the products and services they provide, while coping with significant pressures on their personal lives in the face of Covid-19 and its consequences on health and education.

As a result, there has been a temporary dip in demand for many business schools’ EMBA programmes as managers have focused on the disruption to their own organisations, employees and families during the pandemic. Data from the FT’s 2021 ranking and report suggest alumni salaries have held up, but there has been a modest reduction in the number of students signing up in recent months. This comes against the backdrop of a shift in the type of EMBA wanted by those who are still keen to study.

Coronavirus has caused many to think more about their values and reflect on changes in direction, inspiring a fresh interest in quitting current roles and organisations and, in a significant minority of cases, creating their own start-ups.

Many of those keen to study report they want to learn more about hard digital skills. That includes knowledge of technology such as artificial intelligence and social media platforms such as TikTok, which are now ever more central to business and consumers.

FT Executive MBA ranking 2021 — top 100

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But executives also want to develop softer skills, such as techniques to manage a more flexible and dispersed workforce, embrace greater diversity and lead staff with empathy during a time of uncertainty.

Business schools themselves have been forced to practise what they preach, adapting their content and modes of teaching with the development of new online and hybrid learning models, formats, curricular topics and pricing.

As our ranking suggests, many of the best schools perform well partly because they are organised across multiple countries, whether with their own campuses or in partnerships. That has long given students exposure to different business cultures and practices.

During the pandemic, this allowed schools to “hedge”, creating different options for participants to attend venues closer to their home or work, or to study regardless of local travel restrictions. But schools have also been frustrated by the difficulties of creating authentic experiences, such as internships or group learning trips, during lockdowns.

One question for the future is whether changing geopolitics, notably the US-China relationship, will stoke further decoupling and reduce the scope for business school partnerships to span the different regions. Robert Salomon from New York University’s Stern School of Business argues that despite the setbacks of the pandemic, globalisation continues apace, with data suggesting continued flows of goods, services, information and, temporary lockdowns aside, people.

Even so, while students and professors are keen to return to business as usual, including face-to-face instruction, the new normal is looking different. More blended learning offers advantages in recruiting and retaining busy globetrotting participants and external speakers alike.

Online engagement has helped accelerate longer-standing trends towards increasing the diversity of students, faculty and oversight boards, notably with a rising share of women, although they remain in a minority at most institutions. To truly tackle diversity by engaging with under-represented groups in society will require more reflection on the structure and cost of courses, providing support and outreach to those who are otherwise excluded. The result will be enriching for more traditional EMBA intakes too.

We portray in case studies EMBA students and alumni who have been drawn to business schools from a variety of backgrounds, including politics, the public sector and the military, as well as others who have moved into less traditional corporate roles after their studies.

As argued in a recent discussion on the future of the corporation, hosted by The British Academy, schools will have a pivotal role in preparing the next generation. But they will need to work more with other institutions and faculties to spread insights and build connections with those outside business education.

The academy’s contributors stressed the importance of values and societal purpose beyond profit — aspects the FT continues to explore in its responsible business education awards, which are designed to showcase and encourage innovation in teaching, research, operations and graduates’ activities. Integrating these qualitative aspects into rankings is not simple and we continue to welcome views on approaches that are quantifiable, comparable, representative and feasible to collect.

As with all the other factors included in the rankings, an aggregated, ordinal list has its limitations. We encourage readers to look at the specific data points most relevant to them, from location to price, and make decisions based on the widest possible sources.

Andrew Jack is the FT’s global learning editor