MBA

How the pandemic may change how MBA programs are taught

Even before COVID, business schools were starting to question an idea that had seemed almost unchallenged until quite recently: the idea of an interconnected global economy

In the novel A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag by the Canadian author Gordon Korman, the protagonist writes a political science report on the governmental structure of an obscure monarchy whose ruler is overthrown and executed on the day the report is due. All the hero can do is add “UNTIL YESTERDAY” to the title.

That’s the kind of uncertainty Canada’s business schools may be facing when they reconvene in the fall. They’re coming back in the middle of a pandemic that is threatening to reset the economy back to an era before globalization, and MBA and EMBA students may find themselves reading information in their textbooks that has nothing to do with the world they now live in. Business students do a lot of learning through case studies, which illustrate principles by showing their application by a real-life business. David Dunne, director of MBA programs for the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria, says that cases might need to be replaced or updated even more than usual now: “If you’re teaching a case that is about the pre-COVID world, the students are going to say, ‘Well, things have changed.’ ”

Recessions are not a bad time for business school enrolment, as more people choose to focus on education rather than enter the job market. Jim Dewald, dean of the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, says that his school’s applications for graduate management programs “are up over 50 per cent for this fall.” But as business school administrators scramble to figure out how to deliver the fall courses, and students wonder whether networking is still possible when they aren’t on campus, the question that hasn’t quite been answered yet is whether the curriculum will change as radically as the delivery methods.

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Of course, in the short term, the pandemic can’t help but influence what people choose to study. Dewald says that faculty “have completely shot the lights out in shifting research to COVID-related studies.” The situation has even created new approaches to entire buildings: when COVID hit, McGill University’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management was opening up a 2,300-sq.-foot Retail Innovation Lab to study the experience of retail businesses. Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean and professor of finance at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill, says that the lab has been retrofitted for the era of physical distancing, allowing students and faculty to simulate “how customers can complete their purchasing journeys without interacting with anyone or touching a single object in-store.” She also notes that the school is launching a Master of Management in Retailing program next year, which is already revising its curriculum to be more pandemic-conscious, including new courses on risk management and turning around troubled companies.

But it’s less clear whether the basic theories or assumptions of business education, like the need to maximize productivity and profits in the most ethical way possible, will change at all. One approach might simply be to go on teaching and learning the same things as before; after all, pandemics eventually end, and when this one is over, the economy could go right back to the way it was before, as it did after the emish flu. In an article published in early July by Indian business newspaper Mint, Rashmi Menon wrote that the country’s top business schools have been mostly “unfazed” by the new reality: “While there will be short-term impact on classes and executive programmes, the economy will recover by 2022, they believe.” Why adjust their approach for what might prove to be merely a short-term change?

A structural reason why MBA and EMBA programs are, as Dewald puts it, “not prone to quick shifts in understanding,” is that a lot of the curriculum is built around principles that are expected to apply for decades or even centuries. Thinking too much in terms of current or recent events is frowned upon. Dunne says that introductory courses are taught “at a level that, ideally, should be able to accommodate pretty much anything that happens. When we teach economic theory, for example, it should be able to handle recessions, depressions, crashes.” Pandemics “were not high on the radar in terms of threats,” he adds, but that may simply mean that professors will use more pandemic-related examples, rather than change anything fundamental.

However, not all disruptions are temporary. While it’s too early to know the long-term effects of COVID-19, the pandemic has often been described as a trial run for the effects of the climate-change crisis—and that’s a threat that actually has changed business school curricula in a lasting way. Dunne says that, in recent years, every business school has added some courses that focus on sustainability, “and that’s partly because faculty have become more aware of it, and partly because students demanded it; they thought the old paradigm no longer applied.” Dewald also points out that ethics, and especially “human behaviours tied to ethical leadership,” have become a more important part of the curriculum since the 2008 financial crash.

And while pandemics mostly bring short-term change, they can exacerbate or speed up changes that were already happening. Dunne says that, even before COVID, business schools were starting to question an idea that had seemed almost unchallenged until quite recently: the idea of an interconnected global economy. “Up to 2016,” he recalls, “it seemed inevitable that economies around the world would become increasingly interconnected as trade barriers fell.” Then came the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, and suddenly borders mattered again. By disrupting global supply chains and causing countries to seal themselves off from one another, the pandemic is emphasizing that trend even further.

READ: Canada’s economy may never return to what it once was

COVID-19 has highlighted other issues, such as income inequality and the effects of sudden economic shutdowns, which may remain a priority for a new crop of business school students. “New students are bringing in a much more nuanced consciousness of what the business world is about,” Dunne says. “They’re much more idealistic than business students 10 or 15 years ago would have been. It’s not all about making a quick buck on Wall Street or Bay Street; it’s very much about changing the world. In time, that will turn into pressure on the curriculum, so the economics of inequality may well become a bigger part of that in the future.” COVID isn’t what got these students concerned about inequality, but it can certainly do its part to convince them they were right to be concerned.

Even at this very early stage, there are already some ideas about what business schools might do differently to respond to these changing demands. Bajeux-Besnainou, for her part, thinks that they’ve been placing too much emphasis on case studies, and that the pandemic should be a wake-up call to place more of an emphasis on skills-based learning, where students learn how to become experts at data analysis and research. “Case studies look to the past,” she says, while students need to prepare for a post-COVID economy where “there is no blueprint to draw information from.”

The dangers of complacency, of thinking we already know what’s coming next, may be the big takeaway from the pandemic. “Certainly COVID caught me by surprise, and it shouldn’t have,” Dunne says. He now sees the increased importance of “challenging the so-called wisdom you’re getting from the hierarchy. I plan to push students to really challenge ideas instead of taking the narrow route.” No matter how much the economy and the global supply chain get back to “normal,” people will know that the definition of what’s normal can change any minute. Dewald says that, because students are currently learning under such unprecedented strain, it “will make them stronger and better equipped to deal with the unexpected when it next comes around.” That could be the mission statement of all business education from now on, even after COVID ends.

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This article appears in print in the September 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Business (school) as usual?” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.