The Search For a World-Class M.B.A.

International business schools are now held in the same regard as their elite American counterparts.

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When my clients ask for guidance on school selection, I first try to get a sense of their personal and professional needs in order to direct their search more effectively. One thing that has changed dramatically since I got into the M.B.A. consulting business a decade ago is the fact that America, inventor of the M.B.A., no longer dominates global rankings like those produced by the Financial Times. More and more business schools in Europe and Asia have attained a firm foothold in the top 20.

For now, the bulk of my clients are still focused on stateside B-schools, but I predict that will soon shift as business becomes ever more global and interconnected. With so many top-tier programs at home and abroad, what should applicants look for as they choose their target schools?

Richard Barker, visiting professor at University of Oxford's Said Business School and a former director of the Cambridge M.B.A., examines several factors that make up a world-class M.B.A. program in the latest issue of Global Focus, published by the European Foundation for Management Development.

This "checklist" of characteristics, culled from interviews with current and former deans at Europe's top business schools, is extremely relevant to potential applicants who want to research beyond the rankings, school websites, and chat forums, and need to know which areas of evaluation should influence their selection process. 

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Business Schools.]

Future M.B.A.s can jumpstart their homework by looking at how well a program performs in five areas: reputation, resources, research, class diversity, and innovation. A business school's reputation is by far its greatest asset. The best programs attract top-notch faculty and students, and an M.B.A. from one of the elite b-schools offers degree holders quantifiable advantages in salary and job placement.

Recruiting quality students is the top priority for prestigious programs. Unlike most degrees, an M.B.A. is a mutual learning experience dependent on other students, faculty, alumni and other stakeholders—not an individualistic journey, Barker points out. In fact, "The entire case study system is actually based on the quality of the contributions of participants in class," explains Santiago Iniguez, dean of IE Business School in Spain.

Diversity of opinion maximizes classroom interactions, which is something I stress to clients from non-quantitative backgrounds—the so-called "poets" of business school. Programs need to create a pool of players from different walks of life in order to foster the most enriching, productive case study analysis possible.

Innovation is something all top schools claim they strive for, but applicants should fact-check to make sure the program is actually walking the walk. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, Yale School of Management and other elite schools have either moderately or significantly enhanced their curricula in the past 18 months as a way to keep pace with the global economic, environmental, and policy challenges of the future.

[See how some business schools are reinventing the M.B.A.]

Karl Ulrich, appointed the vice-dean for innovation at the Wharton School last fall, sums it up when he tells Bloomberg Businessweek, "Innovation is not simply the creation of that one brilliant new idea. It is also the process of achieving that innovation again and again."

A world-class M.B.A. program, Barker writes, is not defined by adherence to a homogenous set of standards or norms but rather by a relentless quest for improvement. Meanwhile, London Business School's dean of programs, Julian Birkinshaw, says a business school "can manage for innovation…you can create the right ingredients out of which it will surface…we do this by first of all making it clear that teaching really matters and teaching innovation really matters" and then evaluating criteria such as innovation in course design, building global capabilities into core structure and the mentoring of colleagues.

There's only one M.B.A. degree, but no two M.B.A. programs are the same. Choosing the business school that's right for you isn't easy, but knowing what criteria to examine should make the process less daunting.