Research Perspectives on the Challenges and Opportunities Facing Education Leaders

Frustrated by bureaucracy at your institution? Perplexed on how to manage the rankings process? If yes, you are not alone.

My former IMD Business School colleague Janet Shaner, now the Founder of a consultancy called Top 10 Learning Solutions, surveyed management education professionals and unearthed some of their common challenges and opportunities. I believe there are insights from this research that are applicable to marketers, professors and management across all higher education levels. On that note, here is a Q and A interview with Janet.

What were the greatest challenges facing the individuals you surveyed?

Respondents’ greatest challenges were in navigating the organization, student support and program innovation. Interestingly, these were similar to the areas where they were most proud, indicating that some face challenges while others have learned how to turn these challenges into opportunities for making a difference in the student learning experience.

The rankings process is a point of frustration among many. What advice would you give on how to best manage the ranking process?

Rankings are frustrating because they generate lots of media attention for the overall result, yet they are based on specific criteria where an institution may or may not do well or even have control, depending on its strategy. Students indicate that they use rankings as one information source to select the pool of schools in their consideration set. After this first cut, they look at the approach of each program and its fits with their learning goals.

Building on this reality, I prefer an approach of defining an institutional strategy and a unique value proposition for each program. Once that is clear, then an institution can look at the rankings and make choices on how to improve its data for each criteria, focusing on areas that align with its strategy and promised learning outcomes.

On a tactical level, it is important to communicate what each ranking measures to key audiences including students, alumni and faculty. It is also important to understand how to respond to each ranking criteria in the best way possible within the guidelines of the ranking.

It was interesting to read about issues raised among your survey respondents related to lack of a strategy and communications gaps. Why do you think this happens and what advice would you give on how to formulate a program communications strategy that creates alignment?

In my experience, many organizations face challenges in having a clear strategy and communication is one of the most common frustrations about organizations. We get so wrapped up in the day to day details, that we forget the overall purpose and forget to tell others what is happening. Management education isn’t unique in this regard.

To formulate a program communications strategy that creates alignment, I suggest using approaches to understand the purpose and personality of a program / institution. Options include design thinking workshops to listen to students, alumni, staff and faculty, branding research to define a unique value proposition, and creating an ideal candidate profile. Having a program aligned with a specific target audience makes program communication simpler and more effective and attracts students motivated by its learning benefits.

Can you summarize what you learned from respondents about the link between mission and engagement?  

Management research suggests that there is a strong link between mission and engagement. Ways to make this possible include a mission statement that helps employees feel they are making a difference, continual reinforcement of this mission in the organization’s activities, and creating a workplace environment where employees feel that their work is meaningful and they are supported.

Respondents indicated that they are proud of the “noble purpose” of education and proud to share the story and history of their institutions. This is a good base on which to build the link between mission and engagement.

What is a good example of an MBA program with an effective mission that resonates with different audiences?

Below is a comparison between three MBA programs with which I have experience based on descriptions from their websites. A quick read suggests differences between them.

IMD: Real World, Real Impact. Four program pillars: Leadership, Digital, Entrepreneurial, Global. Careers in industry, primarily Europe. 1-year program.

Insead: The Business School for the World. “Best International Business School” according to the rankings. Opportunity to study on three campuses in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Careers in consulting, worldwide. 1-year program.

Harvard: Making a Difference. Six institutional pillars: global intelligence, learning in practice, entrepreneurship & innovation, residential learning community, alumni relationships, publications and resources. Careers in financial services and consulting, primarily US. 2-year program.

A student searching for an MBA program should ask him / herself: What do I want to learn? How do I want to learn? Where do I want to learn? What are my career goals? How long do I want to study? Each of the programs above has strengths and weaknesses relative to the student’s criteria. Ideally the student would select the program that aligns best with his / her objectives and in an application essay, would communicate to the school the strength of this alignment.

Did anything surprise you related to respondents’ viewpoints on program innovation?

I was pleasantly surprised to read that overall respondents feel they are delivering on their learning promise, i.e. delivering quality programs with positive student experiences. As this is the raison d’être for educational organizations, it is good to know that respondents feel they are achieving this purpose.

At the same time, program and learning innovation was identified as one of the key challenges. This may be because more often faculty are responsible for innovation in teaching and learning methods, so this element is out of the direct control of management education professionals. They hear the need for innovation from students, but have to influence through a potentially static organization to achieve innovation.

There is interesting research from the Darden School about how they used a Design Thinking approach to redesign their MBA program, building on input from students, faculty, alumni, recruiters and other stakeholders. Management education professionals could learn from this approach to achieve their own program innovation goals.

 It was interesting to read about the “fairy godmother wish” to have a more flat hierarchy with dispersed decision authority. It would seem logical to work in such a way given technological changes and the different research out there showing how organizations should operate. I guess it is difficult for traditional players like those in higher education to make such a transition. What advice would you give on how to achieve this wish?

Technology certainly enables a flat organization, and distributed geographies require it more and more. At the same time, implementing less hierarchy can be challenging for any organization.

Critiques of flat organization structures say that people and societies are hierarchical by nature. In addition, some people love flat organizations because they get to take responsibility and make decisions while others hate them because they have to take responsibility and make decisions. Finally, research dating back to 1962 found that hierarchical organizations with a central decision maker were more efficient for simple tasks while a “star” structure, where there was no single leader, was more efficient for complex tasks and when acceptance of creativity, flexibility in dealing with novel problems, high morale and loyalty were measures of success. So we come back to the classic business school answer of “it depends”.

As advice on how to achieve the wish of a flat organization, I suggest to recognize this contingency approach and find the best structural fit for your organization and environment. Next, understand your people and see if they have a preference for a flat organization and the opportunities and responsibilities it requires. Finally, provide support in making the transition, both in defining clear expectations and providing coaching or guidance to operate in this new environment.

You can download the full research at the following link.