The future of the MBA, according to senior and C-suite executives

BY Jordan FriedmanJuly 19, 2021, 2:00 AM
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In a data-driven world powered by digital technology, companies are constantly evolving. Because the MBA degree aims to prepare business leaders of tomorrow, the programs offering this credential need to align their curriculums with the ever-changing demands of the workplace.

Senior and C-suite executives at four Fortune 500 companies shared their predictions for how MBA programs will adapt to the needs of today’s corporations. So what’s in store? They expect more students to pursue online MBAs in the future and a world in which big data is crucial for making business decisions. Here’s what they’ll be watching for in the years to come, as the MBA continues to evolve.

Ronald Schellekens

Executive vice president and chief human resources officer, PepsiCo

Future business leaders will require skills that will help them tackle current and future business challenges, including a digital mindset, a focus on continuous learning, the ability to make data-driven decisions, and critical thinking, says Schellekens, who has a master’s degree in management and organization and completed a management development program at Harvard Business School.

“With the increasing focus on digital transformation and the use of data to drive critical business insights, we are starting to see a shift in the business skill sets we are targeting for the future,” Schellekens says via email. PepsiCo partners with some prominent MBA programs to ensure that business education stays up to date with what’s happening in the corporate sector, he adds.

Future business leaders, Schellekens says, need to be able to lead through change with “speed and agility,” as well as “connect people with technology to solve business problems.” Other skills for MBA programs to emphasize include emotional intelligence and empathetic, authentic leadership, according to Schellekens.

Judy Edge

Corporate vice president of human resources, FedEx

Today, MBA programs should provide students with the development skills needed to manage digital businesses, says Edge, who earned an MBA online about two decades ago, when this learning format was first emerging. In a diverse workforce, business leaders also need to be able to interact with people of many different backgrounds and cultures, she says.

“I hope the MBAs really start to maybe focus more on the areas of digital life and the way organizational structures are changing,” says Edge. And MBA programs must also teach students about leading through times of tragedy and crisis—during a pandemic, after a mass shooting, and amid social injustices, for example, she adds.

What else is in store for the MBA? More students, from a wider variety of professional backgrounds, are pursuing the degree in the online format, especially as more affordable options are developed, according to Edge.

“With Zoom and everything else that we’ve adopted during the pandemic, I think people really have come to accept it more,” Edge says, noting that many universities now offer high-quality online MBAs.

Bryony Winn

Chief strategy officer, Anthem

Hiring talent with diverse perspectives and experiences is becoming more and more important, says Winn, who once worked at McKinsey & Company as a consultant and partner. Many MBA programs now focus on creating a student culture that explores how to better understand business challenges from different viewpoints.

“I suspect that what we’ll see going forward is MBA programs really promoting the diversity of their intake class, the diversity of the experiences that they can learn while in the program,” says Winn, who earned a master’s of philosophy in international development. Winn expects that in the future, schools will more heavily weigh MBA applicants’ life and multicultural experiences alongside more traditional admissions requirements, like test scores.

In addition, Winn says, a greater acceptance of distance learning because of the pandemic may draw more women to MBA programs.

“I think being able to work in this more flexible, hybrid way is probably easier, certainly for moms,” she says.

Angela Santone

Senior executive vice president of human resources, AT&T

If the pandemic has taught us anything about higher education, it’s that you can be as effective online as you are in person, says Santone, who has a master’s degree in counseling. She says that because of the prevalence of virtual communication during the past year, it’s now “more attainable and bearable to imagine” completing an entire education online.

“I think it’s sometimes impossible for individuals to imagine sitting through online classes or doing everything online. But now that’s just the norm,” Santone says.

This learning format has made possible (and will continue to make possible) more opportunities for employees to continue their education while on the job, she says—not only in the form of MBAs and other degrees but also smaller programs like nanodegrees, a skills-based credential offered in different tech fields, and other certifications.

“With the way the world is changing, the skills that are important today aren’t going to be as important maybe a year from now or two years from now,” she says. “Technology has changed so much.”