Having managed three months of exclusively online course delivery (March to May), the University of St.Gallen MBA is now making plans for the return to physical classroom teaching. Universities in Switzerland can officially open up again as of 8 June, 2020. The programme is working on scenarios that enable the in-person experience to be created for the incoming classes this Fall. However, the sudden shift online due to the pandemic has helped the programme intensify its evolution.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Our mindset is not to return to how things once were. Clearly, our need to follow health and safety guidelines is a must, but we don’t want to merely react to Covid-19 realities. In the months leading up to the pandemic, we had already begun strategising how our MBA experience should evolve in the near- and mid-term. The current situation has proven to be an accelerator to design ideas already in motion. When we talk about returning to the classroom, looking forward, we believe we will end up with a better product: an MBA programme that is even more relevant, delivered even more flexibly, and attracts students that are even more driven. So yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Anyone leading a business school, or an MBA programme, must see the light. Otherwise they are not seeing the wealth of opportunities and the amount of work ahead of us.

So what does the future look like?

“The best way to predict the future is to design it” (R.B. Fuller). This is an excellent quote to bring up today. Nobody knows what the future looks like. Most of us struggle with this, because suddenly there are no ready-made recipes. Instead we have to innovate new solutions. This is not a time for risk-management; this is a time for risk-taking and innovation, for defining what MBA programmes stand for and what value they bring and to whom.

At the University of St.Gallen MBA, we intend to innovate not through the “where” and “what”, but through the “how”. We want to focus on 1) improved course design, and, 2) integration of corporate partners in our design process, so that, 3) we start and finish with alignment to the employment market regarding which skills are most relevant to develop in our MBA talent. 

Specifically for us, we want to reinforce our relevance as a talent pipeline to the companies and industries we already serve in the ‘DACH’ region (Germany, Austria and Switzerland). The future is therefore more “targeted” and “tailored” in terms of how we interface with this employment market and the prospective MBA applicants who seek careers within it. None of this is new, but the need to be clearer in our communication and positioning, with both companies and candidates, is now all the more pressing. The fact that existing ways of doing things have come under increasing scrutiny due to Covid-19 is a good thing. The MBA value proposition was already in need of being refocused amongst the workforce, and this is the perfect moment to do that.

Concretely, this year we will 1) redesign our employability assessment, 2) strengthen our teaching of key skills with more interactive teaching in smaller groups, and, 3) launch an Advisory Board comprised of a group of senior corporate partners with whom we can spar to move our programme forward.

What will be the challenges?

The primary challenges are always the same: they are people challenges. We are all prone to avoid change. In times of Covid-19, the differentiator will be those who leap forward versus those who stubbornly resist. This goes for our team, faculty and trainers, and also for our students. At some point, it is no use waiting anymore; we have to continue to find solutions, overcome difficulties, and move on. More concretely, our team will have to become more tech savvy, data driven, and creative in finding quick solutions without reverting to old processes. We will need to think both short- and long-term at the same time. Our faculty and trainers will need to revisit their teaching methods, build up new digital content, and learn to make the best of the contact time with students. Finally, our students will need to manoeuvre between online and offline teaching, finding their own way to keep focus and make the best of the learning and the best of the social experience that they will still have with their colleagues.

What opportunities will present themselves?

Thinking along the scale of “fully offline”, “blended” and “fully online”, MBA programmes will need to decide what they want to be. For us, the focus will still be on delivering a classroom-based experience. Especially being a so-called boutique programme, meaning small class sizes with an emphasis on personal communication, it would be strange to go in any other direction. Our opportunities relate to figuring out how we unite our improved design and sharpened positioning with the use of technology, with the aim of making our in-person experience even better. For instance, professional-grade audio and video production values haven’t found their way into educational content development at scale. Furthermore, mastery of technology tools is imperative to the world of work going forward, so we cannot divorce ourselves completely from this reality.

Will the MBA degree hold its value?

Research we have conducted shows three common motivations to do an MBA: 1) to help facilitate a change in industry, function, country or company, 2) to build key skills, and, 3) to challenge oneself in a stimulating, high performance environment surrounded by other similarly driven peers. The initiatives outlined in this article will strengthen our ability to deliver these outcomes. So yes, for our students, the degree will hold its value. From our employers’ side, it will hold value too, for as long as we continue to collaborate with them on the evolution of our programme, and for as long as they see us as a useful talent sourcing partner.