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Special Columns
Arindam Chaudhuri, Editor-in-Chief, 4Ps B&M Chief Consulting Editor's Desk
Rajita Chaudhuri
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Keeping the ‘B-school identity crisis’ at bay
The recent years have seen a phenomenal rise of cookie cutter B-schools globally that are deploying the latest marketing and communication strategies. However, if they really want to build brand equity for the long term, they have to refocus on where they stand with respect to the essentials
There are undoubtedly quite a few upsides to reporting to Jack Welch, the Professor, as opposed to Jack Welch, the CEO. At the Jack Welch Management Institute (JWMI), he gives a good 15-16 hours of his time weekly towards two-way video conferencing sessions as well as generating seminal videos; giving students his expert analysis on contemporary business events. You get to pick up some invaluable gems from a huge treasure chest of experience that comes with being one of the most successful CEOs in corporate history. More importantly, your chances of exposure to the dreaded ‘Neutron Jack’ effect are comfortably low!

However, the former GE Chairman & CEO is certainly applying some tricks from his GE playbook to implement a brisk-paced growth strategy for his institute. Last year in November, the Jack Welch Management Institute brought itself under Strayer Education Inc. Welch, who is targeting an intake of 5000 students by 2016 and is betting big time on short certification programs and online MBAs, wants to make his the #1 online business school in the world. The question is, how?

While JWMI has the going quite easy on the positioning front – applicants know exactly what (or who) the school stands for – the corresponding challenge, obviously, is that the institute’s brand equity is too dependent on the 76-year old Jack Welch staying on and being able to fulfil his commitments for a very long time to come. What Welch might be betting on could be that due to the online structure of the programme, lesser questions might be asked on infrastructure or even employment support that management programs generically have been expected to provide. But the focus on course contents might be more intensive – especially as some of the courses are named symbolically after his books, philosophies and writings rather than as per traditional B-school nomenclature.

Now compare that to Harvard. A few years ago, you could have bet your King Edward shilling that the ivy legacy of the university would never allow it to offer its pristine management programme through an online mode. Perish both the thought and your shilling – Harvard’s management graduate degree now can be taken up through both an online and offline mode, from its extension school. Would not such a move dilute the elite aura around the Harvard brand? How would the university practise what it preaches in its shift from niche marketing to mass marketing, as a matter of speaking? These are questions that the global leader in management education would have considered quite deeply before entering the online space. In fact, in its 104 year-old history, it was only in 2008 that Harvard Business School got its first Chief Marketing Officer (Brian Kenny).

What these two examples exemplify is the fact that in the cluttered B-school landscape today, building and sustaining a brand is no longer as simple as before, or as niche-oriented as would have been in the past. Target markets have changed, delivery models have been re-engineered, even the course structure has undergone an intense overhaul; issues which had been extremely important earlier – infrastructure, accreditation et al – seem to have been relegated to the lower end of the brand positioning equation.

Of course, some of the most intense debates on the structure and future of management education took place post the Lehman era. As is now well documented, B-schools in US have faced an alarming decline in applications since that time. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) estimates that applications to full time MBA programmes in US dropped by a fifth from 48,515 in the academic year 2009-10 to 38,630 in 2010-11. As per the Graduate Management Admission Council 2011 Prospective Student Survey, the percentage of respondents opting for two year full time MBA programs dropped from 47% in 2009 to 42% in 2011. More than two thirds of the schools surveyed recorded a drop in two year full time MBA volumes in 2011 as opposed to 2010.

Even schools that have thrived on specialist courses have started facing challenging times. For instance Leonard A. Schlesinger, President, Babson College (known globally for its world class entrepreneurship programmes), tells 4Ps B&M, “For us, it (the tough economic scenario) is the recognition that we have reached some of the natural limitations of the analytical methods and approaches that we have been using. So, what we are doing is to build the capacity for people to be able to take smart action in the face of tough times, to understand what they want, to figure out the first step, read the feedback of their action in order to improve and get accomplished in the process of taking action by actually making mistakes.”

There are a number of things B-schools are doing to address the post slowdown perception issues, especially by engaging youth audiences on the web, a medium which is being treated as a threat as well as an opportunity. Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting (dedicated to MBA students), commented to 4Ps B&M, “Business schools can combat this (online anonymous posts, rumours, et al) and also help applicants to really get to know them by leveraging the internet to communicate directly. Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, blogs and webinars are all ways to let the applicant population really get to know the school and the admissions committee, and to be transparent.” Brian Kenny, CMO, HBS, mentioned last year in an interview to Mashable.com, “I chose to embrace Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn early on, because we wanted to be in those conversations rather than have them happen outside our sphere of influence. We want to know what they are saying, and we want to be able to engage in the conversation.”

Taking a more macro view, the current situation is also a great opportunity for business schools to do a soul search and try and understand where they stand and what they stand for in terms of branding. It can’t be said less that before these legacy B-schools look at engaging their audiences, they have to understand the new expectations of their target markets – especially taking into consideration the mammoth transformation that the net era has brought in globally – and fulfil them proactively. Gabriel Hawawini, the Henry Grunfeld Chaired Professor of Investment Banking and Dean, INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France, in his 2005 research paper The future of B-schools ruthlessly criticizes established B-schools for following a model that’s over 100 years old. He elaborates, “The process can in fact be likened to a production-based model whereby a selected input (qualified students) arrives at a manufacturing plant (called a school), where it is “processed” by knowledge professionals (called the faculty) to deliver an output (the knowledge-certified graduates), who are then distributed (through placement services) to jobs around the world...” He argues that a school should rather be treated as a lifelong “knowledge & learning network” delivering “life changing experiences.”

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