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Business Schools Beware: Gen Y is at the Door

(article published in BusinessWeek, January 2010)

They say every army trains to fight the last war, not the next one. Could it be that business schools are in danger of falling into the same trap, gearing up to train the current generation of corporate leaders rather than the upcoming one?

The bright young things that schools hope will become their MBA students in three or four years’ time might look a lot like the occupants of today’s classrooms, but they differ in one crucial respect. They don’t just use the new technology that has revolutionized business over the past decade—they eat, sleep and breathe it. That means the lessons they will want to learn and the way they will expect those lessons to be delivered could be radically different.

Practically all major schools are addressing this development in various ways: by increasing the use of technology in the classroom; by including its employment in case studies; and by embracing social media such as Facebook, blogs, and Twitter. But all this is fraught with danger. Unless schools really understand the mind-set of the potential Gen Y MBA, they risk looking at best like enthusiastic amateurs and at worst like the embarrassing “cool dad” attempting to engage with their teenage children about the latest release by Jay-Z or Lady Gaga.

So who, if anyone, in the international business school community has woken up and smelled the forthcoming coffee so far?


Warwick Business School (Warwick Full-Time MBA Profile) in England is one of the schools that seems to have grasped the fact that Gen Y really doesn’t understand why its elders insist on working or learning on a face-to-face basis. As a result, it has constructed one of the most effective of the new breed of virtual classrooms. Going under the name of wbsLive, the system allows students to interact not only with their lecturer but also with fellow classmates, trading information and opinions and working together in project teams as if they were sitting side by side rather than on different continents. It’s now being rolled out across the school’s alumni community to encourage closer links between graduates and to bring a more personal element to the international mentoring scheme.

Also in Europe, HEC Paris (HEC Paris Full-Time MBA Profile) has shown much more than a flirtation with technology by working with Apple (AAPL), allowing the school to equip every MBA student with an iPod touch that will be used as a platform for learning materials, FAQs, filmed lectures, and connecting with classmates and academics. The initiative is part of an increasing involvement by schools including Yale (Yale Full-Time MBA Profile), Cambridge (Cambridge Full-Time MBA Profile), and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business (Fuqua Full-Time MBA Profile) in iTunes U, the online learning content available from Apple’ iTunes store. Other schools have joined similar projects such as YouTubeEDU, which hosts content from the University California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile) , and Academic Earth, where business content is generated by Stanford (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile).

Outside the business school community proper, other educational providers have begun to work with Gen Y through the media that fill not just people’s working lives but also their leisure time. The leadership institute Mannaz has recently launched a mini-program with the provocative title “Are you an Orc?” The course examines the leadership tools and techniques used in the world’s most successful online game, World of Warcraft, which currently has more than 11 million players, and applies them to the real-world workplace.


The presumption is that managing and directing international teams means the traditional “face-to-face” model of leadership is no longer possible and, for younger employees in particular, not even relevant. In this context, leaders need to be collaborative, consensual, and inclusive. Ironically, that’s exactly what a role-playing game like World of Warcraft teaches. It also seems to teach interesting ways of disposing of competitors using an eclectic mix of medieval weaponry, but nothing is ever perfect.

Perhaps the most forward-thinking ideas in this area have come out of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, a sister institute of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business (Tepper Full-Time MBA Profile). The Center’s director, Ken Koedinger, argues that to truly engage and excite the next generation of MBAs, technology should not just amend the current business school model, it should shake it up. He points out that we are only a step away from throwing out the idea of a business school as a set of buildings providing formal education and bringing in the concept of school as a knowledge “hub,” perhaps a largely or even entirely virtual one. Traditional history-based case studies, the bedrock of so many MBA programs, would disappear, replaced by real-time, real-life case studies in which organizations work with students and academics to solve problems and meet challenges on a day-to-day basis.

It’s an exciting prospect and, theoretically, one that could eradicate much of the herd mentality and stifled thinking that have led us into so many economic crises, from the South Sea Bubble to subprime mortgages. The question is: Who is going to have the vision and the courage to implement it?


About symondsgsb

Matt is chief editor of MBA50.com, a website dedicated to the world's outstanding business schools. He is an internationally recognised business and graduate school expert, consulting to the world’s top business schools, and has written for many of the world’s leading publications including : Forbes, The Economist, BusinessWeek, BBC, Newsweek, CNBC, America Economia, Washington Post, The Independent, Boston Globe, Handelsblatt, 21st Century Herald, South China Morning Post, Vedomosti, San Francisco Chronicle, Expansion, Beijing Daily. Matt was Co-Founder of the QS World MBA Tour Matt is co-author of Getting the M.B.A. Admissions Edge, a B-school admissions bestseller sponsored by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. His new individual school guides will be available in the fall.


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