Partnering with a like-minded organisation in order to bring added value to a product or service is as old a practice as doing business itself. But what exactly is it that generates so much extra worth for the partnering institutions, their students and the industry as a whole? Like most things in business, the answer is woven in financial, reputational and managerial complexity. Crucially, no single reason for schools to partner with each other outweighs the others. Rather, business school partnerships are beneficial on multiple levels. Moreover, the regularity of this practice paints a picture of an industry marked by the pursuit of advantageous synergy rather than fierce independence.

Understanding the terms

So what is a business school partnership? 

It is a legally established commitment between two educational institutions to collaborate in their activities. This collaboration can be as small as knowledge exchange between teaching staff, or as far-reaching as the one between Kellogg School of Management and WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management.

“Just like in the business world," reaffirms Sophie Mathiaut, Marketing Manager at Kellogg-WHU's Executive MBA Programme, "a true school partnership, as opposed to an alliance, means that both partners are actively involved in the enterprise; that they share ownership […] of their curricula and stakeholders [such as] prospective and current students, faculties, alumni, staff, the recruiting and admissions’ process, networks, marketing, branding, and so on.”

Indeed, alliances are quite different from partnerships. Instead, partnerships resemble mergers. A good example of one such merger is France-based NEOMA Business School.

“After several years of working together in an equal partnership, the Grandes Écoles [colleges, -ed.] of Rouen Business School and Reims Management School merged to form NEOMA Business School in 2013. The merger created the NEOMA Business School One-year MBA, which is now the only triple-accredited, Financial Times-ranked one-year programme in the heart of Paris”, says William Toussaint, MBA Recruitment Manager at NEOMA Business School. 

Because of the different organisational approach, mergers’ main benefit is that of pooling resources, as opposed to sharing them as in the case of partnerships. 

But more importantly, the advantages that these different types of collaborations present to their students are in fact quite similar and well-understood.

They can be summed up in two broad categories: academia and human capital.

Academic value

Sharing intellectual resources in order to construct better, more elaborate curricula and forge smarter, more innovative teaching methods is the best, most clearly defined achievement of both business school partnerships and mergers. 

Joint research is one of the pillars of academia. Knowledge exchange between teaching staff leads to improved understanding of subject matter that, although similar in both of the partnering institutions’ programmes, is not simple. Think of this as two researchers in China and the US collaborating on a cure for, say, diabetes. The disease has been around for as long as mankind, and we know quite a bit about it, but we still need the joint efforts of academics in order to deal with the challenges in more efficient ways. 

This academic exchange is usually carried out behind closed doors but, once a partnership is established, collaboration between teaching staff becomes almost daily. A hint of this can be found in the many books written by teachers on both sides of a partnership, which have later become recommended or obligatory reading for students. An example of this is the book “Arranger Certification in Project Finance", 2013, by professors from SDA Bocconi, Maastricht University and University of Oklahoma, all of which are partner schools. Such joint works have clear added value because of the enhanced research collaboration behind them. An academic book by several authors will almost always be better than one written by just one. 

Furthermore, a partnership allows for the exchange of on-campus teaching staff. This carries a more direct impact for students, since they are able to benefit from the guest lectures of someone from across the world. “School partnerships also enhance the curriculum through cutting-edge classes taught by global subject-matter experts”, says Sophie Mathiaut from Kellogg-WHU. 

The creation of entirely new modules and programmes represents another example of how school partnerships are able to provide more in-depth knowledge and expertise to students. According to professor Gatti, MBA Director at SDA Bocconi, “information is constantly being exchanged and courses are often co-designed vis-à-vis each other”. A good example of this is the Bocconi-Wharton Executive MBA Luxury Business Management programme aimed at senior brand and marketing managers. The two schools have joined forces in order to make use of traditions and expertise on each side, thus effectively creating a whole new area of knowledge.

People value

Most importantly, however, business school partnerships add new layers to the student’s personal experience. According to SDA Bocconi’s MBA Director, an MBA programme is international by definition. It is thereby crucial for students to be able to experience those other cultures.

“Business school partnerships provide fundamental empowerment value to students", says professor Gatti . "They become more mature, learn about leadership in a multicultural environment, acquire lateral thinking, and connect fields of knowledge by way of drawing intellectual power from differently wired individuals”.  

Typically, students select a partner school and take individual classes or spend a whole semester in a different location, thus effectively tapping into the other country’s culture from day one. But this also allows for a deeper interpersonal and learning experience made possible through contact with classmates and professors with different mind-sets. Such experiences remain for a lifetime, and are often able to change a person’s perspective altogether. 

On a more advanced level, Executive MBA programmes, such as Kellogg-WHU, give the opportunity for students to focus their attention on entire areas of the world; for instance, on doing business in China or Latin America. These are called “global electives” and are aimed at truly senior managers. That in itself represents the strongest argument in favour of soft intercultural skills resulting from partnerships. The fact that C-level managers and the companies behind them are willing to spend small fortunes on training in cross-cultural and localised management means that global business understands that it is people, and the way they connect, that creates organisational value – be it a successful overseas collaboration, or a painless local takeover. 

Finally, there’s also the global network that students are able to build. Ask any international graduate about his connections, and they will tell you that friendships made in other countries can potentially last a lifetime. Now imagine yourself 10 years from now, wanting to expand your business in another country. The name of your classmate from the semester abroad will be the first to come to mind, if you are not business partners already.

Reputation value

For the sake of honesty, it must be said that school partnerships also provide reputational value to institutions, which is important for their own marketing and communication goals. Co-branding is a typical communication strategy, albeit not an easy one to capitalise on.

The fact that business schools across the world are so intertwined and able to gain so much value from partnering with each other, means that they are, quite simply, good at applying what they teach. In the words of professor Gatti, “you must know the other partner very well for a school partnership to generate true value for all stakeholders – institutions, students, alumni”.

This is also the case-in-point proof that business school partnerships are what make the MBA education and the industry as a whole both unique and robust – two qualities that make any investment worthwhile.