MBA Programs Help Students Lead Through Volatility and Complexity

As we enter a fragile post-COVID world, the high velocity of change strengthens the relevance of an MBA

In a future dominated by uncertainty and change, versatility and adaptability are key. It is likely that we will change careers a number of times in our lives, as technology increasingly permeates and disrupts all industries. What’s more, a significant proportion of the jobs we will be doing in 20 years’ time have not even been invented yet. So how could these changes actually strengthen the relevance of an MBA?

The MBA isn’t about learning the formula to fix a given business problem. It is about building a strategic mindset that understands business problems are not one size fits all – a mindset that is essential to thriving in a VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—environment.

“The real world isn’t black and white, and a good MBA experience helps you be adaptable to new situations and circumstances,” says Deborah McCandless, associate director of MBA admissions at Spain’s IESE Business School. “This means that, aside from helping give your career a boost immediately after graduation, the program can help support you throughout your career by giving you the tools and capabilities needed to face new problems confidently.”

The continued importance of the business case study

How do MBA programs foster these capabilities in students? Every business school has its own strategies, but one universal method is case study analysis. One of the reasons the case study method is so useful is because it challenges participants to face a vast number of different business decisions every day throughout the MBA.

What’s more, MBA candidates do this in an environment made up of peers from various professional backgrounds, cultures and personal experiences. “This trains them to ask good questions, and develops their ability to perform analysis and then make and justify their decisions in a space where there will inevitably be differing opinions,” says McCandless. “In turn, this fosters the curiosity and flexibility that is so important for a VUCA environment.”

As we enter a fragile post-COVID world, MBA students are demanding more flexible and stackable learning experiences that address specific skills that can be continually updated throughout a career, rather than just being front-loaded at the start. This means that MBA programs are having to evolve to accommodate more frequent career changes and longer working lives. That includes a stronger focus on career management, executive education and online learning.

“The MBA career journey is very different today than it was 30 years ago,” McCandless says. “Many alumni move between companies, geographic regions and industries throughout their career. Individual needs change over time, and having a strategic mindset and the ability to manage teams and influence people stands graduates in good stead throughout their career.”

Preparing MBA grads for an uncertain future

This is why post-MBA career support is so essential. “Taking into account the extension of working life, alumni are becoming more and more important in our training plans,” says Laura Reyero, academic director and associate deal at ESCP Business School in Europe. “Our obligation is to help them stay up to date until they retire. Alumni are as important as students. Our commitment to them is until they leave working life.”

She says the MBA curriculum is being updated more frequently to take into account the high velocity of change in business. “We incorporate new approaches such as sustainability, new knowledge such as big data and new soft skills, such as decision making in VUCA environments.”

Professors are a mix of academics and top managers from large companies. “We also have an advisory board made up of leaders of large multinational corporations in various sectors who advise us on the new needs of companies,” says Reyero.

But how can an MBA prepare people for jobs that have not even been invented yet? “What we do is to train them in flexibility, willingness to learn, personal improvement, and to overcome the fear of change,” she says, adding that nobody is trained for a new job. “The key is not specific knowledge, as it does not exist, but the attitude and the speed of learning and adapting to new environments, responsibilities and challenges.”

It is a similar story at IESE, where the curriculum is constantly updated based on the most cutting edge business practices and research. Students can also take concentrations in specific areas that are constantly evolving (such as entrepreneurship and innovation). But it’s the soft skills developed on the MBA that gives students the tools to be able to quickly grasp the essential components of a novel situation and then ask the right questions.

“Change is the only constant in life, and business practices and needs are constantly changing too,” says McCandless.

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