The MBA industry

I am in Denver this week for the GMAC Annual Industry conference. This is the get-together for admissions professionals all around the world and it continues to grow year-on-year which is a reflection of the healthy global market for management education.

One indicator of just how large the GMAC conference has become is the number of side events that have sprung up, mostly organised by vendors. This year, I attended the Poets and Quants and Princeton Review Clients’ Conference for the first time.

But because the GMAC conference is so huge, most of your time is spent going from breakout session to breakout session that you never get to really speak to anyone whom you don’t already know. OK, unless you get separated from your coterie during lunch and you’ve got to insert yourself in a table of strangers. In comparison, the P&Q and Princeton Review Conference was a smaller affair of about 50 schools and it took place over a day so I found more time for quality conversations with people from a wide range of schools.

What struck me from my discussions was the sheer scale and breadth of US management education. While everyone knows that there are tonnes of business schools in the US, what isn’t so apparent is that most of the US schools are reasonably sophisticated in their internal processes, whether that be in programme innovation, admissions, marketing, careers etc. I am not saying that every US school is of the same standard or has the same level of resources as the top schools, but that there is a very large group of schools that are what many would consider “good enough” in terms of producing graduates who are reasonably prepared for the workplace or to start their own businesses. Whereas I would say that there is a much smaller group of schools in Europe or Asia with the same level of sophistication, although many schools are catching up very quickly.

The next question should be whether the large number of MBA or business school graduates from US schools confers a certain economic advantage to the US. It is well-documented that the US economy is unrivalled in its ability to produce companies that are industry disrupters, or the more sexy-sounding unicorns (those rare $1billion companies) although again, Europe and Asia are catching up. But I also think that large number of business school graduates gives the US a certain managerial advantage. Now, this advantage is not that apparent for the mainstream MBA recruiters because for the large part, these will be global companies even if they are headquartered in the US and they will hire globally anyway. But the real advantage will come from the non-mainstream recruiters, or the more local companies (which in the US context can still be very large companies).

In comparison, the UK has a number of good business schools that can hold their own globally, and I will say that Cambridge is one of them. A very high percentage of graduates from these schools do get employed in top companies. But there isn’t the same level of depth in recruitment across the UK. Most MBAs will work in London, and to a smaller degree, Manchester, whereas in the US, there are many good regional schools that supply MBA talent to regional US companies.

So I am going to be self-serving and suggest that one thing that could help the UK, and Europe in general, improve its productivity could be to have a broader mix of companies who appreciate the skills and knowledge that MBAs bring. And of course hire MBAs and give them the conditions so that they can contribute across different sectors and more importantly, across different regions.

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