First published forbes.com 5/2016. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) has on its 100th birthday released a vision document fueling a future in which business schools recharge their relevance by positioning themselves as trusted partners with industry in addressing real-world challenges.

Coming at a time when technology is side-swiping classroom delivery models, traditional modes of student qualification and recruitment are eroding, profit-seeking business models are displacing the academy—among many trends shaking graduate and executive education industries—AACSB’s “Collective Vision for Business Education” aims to give Deans a way to regain the initiative.

“This is a vision for a future where business schools are drivers of change. Where business schools change the narrative” the document says, calling on them to “more assertively lay claim to areas for which they have expertise and competitive advantage.”

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(Photo: AACSB)

It suggests there are five domains in which schools may find opportunity to renew their identity and purpose:

• Catalysts for Innovation. Providing knowledge, convening power, and networking to foster new solutions

• Co-Creators of Knowledge. Partnering in knowledge formation at the intersection of academia and industry

• Hubs of Lifelong Learning. Addressing the need for on-going learning and qualification at later stages in the career cycle

• Leaders on Leadership. Advancing research into understanding leadership and creating environments that train leaders

• Enablers of Global Prosperity. Helping address societal goals, including creating ethical and sustainable organizations

These opportunity domains are designed to be applicable across different national, social, and economic contexts, given AACSB’s current global membership of 1,456 members in 92 countries, and President and CEO Tom Robinson is emphatic that the AACSB is not being proscriptive about which of these forward paths schools should take, if any.

Nevertheless, the AACSB has chosen the vision format in future thinking, and visions are by definition if not proscriptive then at least strongly suggestive, best thought of like a trellis a gardener might give a climbing plant: the plant still has to do the growing, but it is being given a framework to grow towards and around. (This in contrast to anticipatory foresight which seeks only to cleverly anticipate what may happen, with no suggestive element.)

AACSB walks a delicate line in offering schools this five-frontier framework, or any future-opportunity framework, not least because it is one of the two million-pound-gorilla accrediting bodies in the world of b-schools, the other being the Europe Foundation for Management Development’s EQUIS.

Accreditation means achieving a rolling 5-year positive quality audit from one or both of these two bodies. It is much-sought after because it is the main way reputable schools separate themselves from the tens of thousands of non-accredited institutions out there also trying to make a buck teaching business and management.

Therefore it is a clear likelihood that schools, particularly those on the cusp of accreditation, may interpret this AACSB-endorsed forward view as something of a blueprint.

Here Robinson, himself a CFA and past Director of the CFA Institute, advises the common investment wisdom of “portfolio effects” as a decision-making strategy that champions diversity in success.

“Schools are in different markets, serving different communities. We want them to continue to have their unique missions and value propositions. The industry needs a diverse ecosystem,” he says.

The Collective Vision represents a collation of inputs from about 6,000 researchers, students, executives, and clients—gathered over three years across AACSB conference sessions, online forums, and user studies. It is therefore seen to be co-owned by the management education community rather than merely the AACSB viewpoint.

The project fell under the auspices of the association’s Committee on Issues in Management Education. Many of its probes were led by staff liaison Juliane Iannarelli, AACSB Vice President and Chief Knowledge Officer, who also did final collation and writing.

According to the vision’s companion trend research site, the process started out wide, seeking to first capture the shifting roles of management in society, addressing trends such as business being called to social problems, aging workforce demographics, talent recruitment through data analytics, etc.

External

Focus then narrowed to how this changing external landscape would affect management education and leadership development, here capturing ideas such as emerging alternatives to degrees, the blend of knowing and doing, student expectations as consumers, and so on.

This was then distilled into the five-pillar opportunity structure which, Iannarelli says, is in part putting a organizing frame around the various initiatives already happening, building on and validating some of the directions schools of management have already successfully pioneered.

This is both to accelerate these initiatives and help others to clarity on possible future success strategies.

Juliane Iannarelli
Juliane Iannarelli, AACSB VP and Chief Knowledge Officer (Photo: AACSB)

Beyond this, the new opportunity areas call for “greater experimentation with different faculty and staffing models, educational and credentialing models, and funding models.

“Operational models will involve deeper collaborations with business practice and non-business disciplines. These models will reflect new strategies for drawing on the diverse strengths of individuals with a range of educational, professional, and cultural experiences,” the report says.

Interpreting this, Robinson uses the term “connectivity” to sum up the new ways of working the five opportunity areas will demand. Each one implies business-school scholarship connecting extensively with industry and with other external bodies, and with other disciplines, throughout learning process.

He says this in the full knowledge that talking up real-world connectivity is hardly a neutral stance in the current era where business schools promote faculty almost exclusively on the ability to write impenetrable articles in journals nobody reads.

But here again Robinson sees strength in diversity. The vision renewal is not about faculty or schools being less “academic” or more “real-world,” but about being both, and being able to continuously connect these different elements that make up the education enterprise, including all of its wider stakeholders.

Astute

The AACSB vision is astute in many respects, not least in tacitly acknowledging how “what gets measured gets managed,” such that if you want new practice you have to reward it.

To take one example, it recognizes how business schools strongly orient themselves to the criteria used in the rankings disseminated annually by the Financial Times or QS TopUniversities.com or the US News and World Report, among others.

Apparently talking directly to these ranking organizations, the AACSB envisions a future where “rankings that prioritize graduates’ salaries will increasingly compete for attention with new platforms that facilitate quality assessments along a range of different dimensions.

“New metrics will emerge to recognize the impact and success of business schools (e.g., number of new businesses started, number of jobs created.)

“A wider range of accepted metrics of success should give schools more freedom to pursue strategies that support achievement of their core missions and purpose,” the document says.

Also, remarkably, the Collective Vision offers pointers to the future that are not mired in the idea that technology itself is “the future,” as so many of these kinds of visions tend to be.

“Technology change is implied in each of the five opportunity dimensions,” says Iannarelli, “but it is not just about adopting new tech to check the check box, without being very deliberate about the intent.”

The vision is about finding renewed purpose and relevance for management education going forward, with technology being a set of capabilities that can advance these purposes.

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