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MBA at the Crossroads

There has been some hand-wringing recently over the fate of the MBA. As Fortune magazine reported last summer, former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management Roger Martin is predicting a major shake-up for the top 50 U.S. business schools akin to the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler. These and other warnings about the rise of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC cast further uncertainty about the sustainability of the once-august program. What does the future hold for MBA programs in Oregon? Three experts weigh in.

“I’m not sure that the MBA will be here 10 or 20 years down the road,” admits Robin Anderson, dean of the Pamplin School of Business at the University of Portland, right out of the gate. “There’s a trend toward competency versus a degree. The MBA is becoming less important for employers who don’t care what degree you have as long as you are competent in what you do.”

Anderson sees this volatility as both a threat and an opportunity for his school. UP is responding by offering certifications that businesses want and — importantly — are willing to foot the bill for employees to take. As expected, these certificate programs, which focus on competencies rather than a full suite of skills inherent in an MBA, are less expensive and take less time to complete.

Along with certificates, a growing number of students are also interested in Master of Science degree programs, particularly in technology management. “Any quantitative competency is in big demand right now,” says Anderson.

Tichelle Sorensen, academic director for Portland State University’s MBA program, concurs. “We’re really seeing a rise of the importance of business intelligence and analytics,” she says. Sorensen illustrates the concept by pointing to two hypothetical job descriptions at Amazon, one for an analyst and another for a spot in the marketing department. “They will be [worded] exactly the same,” she says.

Yet the experts insist that an old-school MBA continues to deliver something unique. Along with traditional management freight, “accounting, economics, finance, management, marketing, operations, quantitative methods,” according to Debra Ringold, dean and Jeld-Wen professor of free enterprise at Willamette University, a classic MBA develops the “ability to integrate disciplinary content and apply it strategically when making decisions.”

Ringold feels that this ability to integrate content is best delivered in a face-to-face environment; something that cannot be achieved on the MOOC platform. “Sometimes online teaching is effective in delivering some freight,” she says. “What is clear is that on-line teaching can do less to foster the ability to integrate disciplinary content and make good decisions under uncertainty.  Moreover, on-line programs are at a significant disadvantage in helping managers develop the interpersonal bandwidth central to effective management.”

That “interpersonal bandwidth” is something that local businesses want. “Executives routinely tell me that communication, decision making and relationship management skills are lacking in the ranks of middle management,” Ringold says.

Sorensen goes one step further, insisting that along with competency, presentation and communication skills, an MBA program teaches leadership. “That is the last big change,” she says of the evolution of the degree. She agrees, however, that MOOCs have value to a point. “A MOOC doesn’t hold you accountable, give you a credential or let you test what you learn in the classroom,” she says.  

Of course Sorensen and Ringold have a vested interest in downplaying the viability of MOOCs. Students, however, appear more open to the idea. The platform has grown from 17 million signed up for at least one course in 2014 to 35 million in 2015 according to an article by Jeff Schmitt on Poets and Quants, a website devoted to coverage of business schools. Today over 550 education institutions offer MOOCs. Not exactly educational disrupters, but as acceptance grows, MOOCs may allow an entrepreneurial student to cobble together an MBA equivalent taught by world-class professors at a reduced cost. Improved technology may even one day allow that invaluable face time that only a brick-and-mortar school provides.

There are other threats to the classic MBA. Portland and Oregon are home to a bumper crop of business incubators like Portland Incubator Experiment, Oregon Regional Accelerator & Innovation Network and the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. These organizations tap into the region’s famously collaborative startup culture to cross-pollinate, educate and offer support in the same way an academic cohort would.

For now, Oregon’s MBA programs feel safe. Schools report that enrollment for the classic program that teaches fundamentals, along with leadership and innovation, remains stable. But at the same time, they are hedging their bets by offering an expanded menu that delivers focused information on a faster timeline for less money. Perhaps the academy can disrupt itself.

There has been some hand-wringing recently over the fate of the MBA. As Fortune magazine reported last summer, former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management Roger Martin is predicting a major shake-up for the top 50 U.S. business schools akin to the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler. These and other warnings about the rise of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC cast further uncertainty about the sustainability of the once-august program. What does the future hold for MBA programs in Oregon? Three experts weigh in.

“I’m not sure that the MBA will be here 10 or 20 years down the road,” admits Robin Anderson, dean of the Pamplin School of Business at the University of Portland, right out of the gate. “There’s a trend toward competency versus a degree. The MBA is becoming less important for employers who don’t care what degree you have as long as you are competent in what you do.”

Anderson sees this volatility as both a threat and an opportunity for his school. UP is responding by offering certifications that businesses want and — importantly — are willing to foot the bill for employees to take. As expected, these certificate programs, which focus on competencies rather than a full suite of skills inherent in an MBA, are less expensive and take less time to complete.

Along with certificates, a growing number of students are also interested in Master of Science degree programs, particularly in technology management. “Any quantitative competency is in big demand right now,” says Anderson.

Tichelle Sorensen, academic director for Portland State University’s MBA program, concurs. “We’re really seeing a rise of the importance of business intelligence and analytics,” she says. Sorensen illustrates the concept by pointing to two hypothetical job descriptions at Amazon, one for an analyst and another for a spot in the marketing department. “They will be [worded] exactly the same,” she says.

Yet the experts insist that an old-school MBA continues to deliver something unique. Along with traditional management freight, “accounting, economics, finance, management, marketing, operations, quantitative methods,” according to Debra Ringold, dean and Jeld-Wen professor of free enterprise at Willamette University, a classic MBA develops the “ability to integrate disciplinary content and apply it strategically when making decisions.”

Ringold feels that this ability to integrate content is best delivered in a face-to-face environment; something that cannot be achieved on the MOOC platform. “Sometimes online teaching is effective in delivering some freight,” she says. “What is clear is that on-line teaching can do less to foster the ability to integrate disciplinary content and make good decisions under uncertainty.  Moreover, on-line programs are at a significant disadvantage in helping managers develop the interpersonal bandwidth central to effective management.”

That “interpersonal bandwidth” is something that local businesses want. “Executives routinely tell me that communication, decision making and relationship management skills are lacking in the ranks of middle management,” Ringold says.

Sorensen goes one step further, insisting that along with competency, presentation and communication skills, an MBA program teaches leadership. “That is the last big change,” she says of the evolution of the degree. She agrees, however, that MOOCs have value to a point. “A MOOC doesn’t hold you accountable, give you a credential or let you test what you learn in the classroom,” she says.  

Of course Sorensen and Ringold have a vested interest in downplaying the viability of MOOCs. Students, however, appear more open to the idea. The platform has grown from 17 million signed up for at least one course in 2014 to 35 million in 2015 according to an article by Jeff Schmitt on Poets and Quants, a website devoted to coverage of business schools. Today over 550 education institutions offer MOOCs. Not exactly educational disrupters, but as acceptance grows, MOOCs may allow an entrepreneurial student to cobble together an MBA equivalent taught by world-class professors at a reduced cost. Improved technology may even one day allow that invaluable face time that only a brick-and-mortar school provides.

There are other threats to the classic MBA. Portland and Oregon are home to a bumper crop of business incubators like Portland Incubator Experiment, Oregon Regional Accelerator & Innovation Network and the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. These organizations tap into the region’s famously collaborative startup culture to cross-pollinate, educate and offer support in the same way an academic cohort would.

For now, Oregon’s MBA programs feel safe. Schools report that enrollment for the classic program that teaches fundamentals, along with leadership and innovation, remains stable. But at the same time, they are hedging their bets by offering an expanded menu that delivers focused information on a faster timeline for less money. Perhaps the academy can disrupt itself.

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