The MBA - still the best way to the top

Professor Walter Baets, UCT Graduate School of Business.  (Supplied)

Professor Walter Baets, UCT Graduate School of Business. (Supplied)

The flagship course of most business schools — the Master of Business Administration (MBA) —continues to be a coveted and sought-after business qualification. In fact, it is showing signs of becoming even more popular especially when delivered in flexible formats. New research reveals that there has been an increase in the number of students seeking online and modular MBA study options. 

The data by QS shows that, for the second consecutive year, students from all over the world are beginning to prefer more flexible study options, picking distance learning over full-time courses.

Interest in online learning rose to a high of 18.3%, compared to 16.2% last year. Interest in distance learning through correspondence, which includes modular offerings, has also increased to 8.7%. 

In addition to a rising interest in how the degree is obtained, the research also shows that today’s MBAs are asking for a difference in what is being taught. A study by the Association of MBA (AMBA) found that MBA graduates now believe sustainable or responsible management insights are among the top five things that they want from their MBA.

The 2010 Accenture and United Nations Global Compact survey of 766 chief executives from around the world reported that 93% of chief executives saw sustainability issues as important to their companies’ future success. Alongside this, 81% of the chief execuives surveyed stated that sustainability issues were “fully embedded” into their companies’ strategy and operations, with many extending this focus to their subsidiaries and supply chains.

In reacting to this data, it is crucial that business schools are able to adapt and change what they offer. Accordingly, most of the world’s top business schools now offer online or fexible MBA programmes or components. However not all online courses are successful or effective. 

The partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity’s online learning portal to deliver low-cost, high quality courses such as elementary statistics, introduction to programming and general psychology, flopped dramatically in 2013, prompting many to wonder whether this spelled the end for online learning. 

While not business courses per se, it would be good for business schools to know that the fatal flaw in this initiative was the lack of the human touch. 

The level of human interaction and the role of online learning was also one of the key topics of discussion at the recent Association of MBAs (AMBA) international conference for deans and directors in France.  


AMBA chief executive Andrew Main Wilson told delegates: “Despite the rise of online learning, the face-to-face element still remains the strongest part of the MBA learning experience.”

He suggested that business schools be more flexible and find ways to incorporate human interaction into their online courses. Nick Leeder, managing director of Google France, agreed, saying that even Google prefers face-to-face interaction, using video-conferencing and other technology as a communication tool only when physical contact is not possible.

“Google’s corporate culture relies on the concept ‘Food, fun, data’, and we encourage the idea of our employees eating together and enjoying one another’s company, as that allows ideas to spread easily”, said Leeder. 

He added that business schools and other educational institutions need to strive to create the right conditions for stimulating creativity and innovation.

It is worth taking a moment here to explore why interaction with a professor or lecturer would impact positively on the learning experience. German researchers from the Institute of Neurosciences and Medicine at Jϋlich, studied the effect people’s facial expressions had on other people while communicating. They stated that a key aspect of social interaction depended on inferring the other person’s emotional state by evaluating their facial expression. The effect of face-to-face interaction on our feelings and responses is so big, that different responses are triggered by people averting their face or showing only part of their face when talking to them.   

Communication is vital to the learning process. It is the vehicle for knowledge transfer. Students watch a lecturer deliver a message and pick up on his or her body language, read facial expressions, which all help to bring the message home. There are also obvious benefits to real-time classrooms, where students are able to ask questions and receive instant answers. There is another benefit in being part of the student community, surrounded by peers as opposed to sitting alone in front of your computer, trying to concentrate without a support network.

Business value

But in the business world as well, there is still value attached to human interaction. A Harvard Business Review study in 2013 revealed that business leaders still value doing business in person and linked it to the bottom line. The study showed that 87% of professionals thought face-to-face meetings were essential for sealing the deal and 95% said they were key to successful long-lasting business relationships.

So while email, texting and video-conferencing are powerful communication tools, they cannot take the place of the people who are communicating face-to-face. This is because communication is not only about the words people use but also their body language, tone and facial expressions. We respond to how we think our ideas or thoughts have been perceived.

Good communication skills are vital for business as well as learning success. This is why online learning courses coupled with face-to-face tutoring or additional group work create a powerful combination that enhances the learning experience and will probably form the basis of future online learning options.

The MBA, whether obtained online or through traditional means, continues to be a coveted and prestigious degree, able to advance careers and increase earning potential. AMBA research conducted among 1 000 graduates from AMBA-accredited business schools in 75 countries in 2012, demonstrated that the average salary of MBA graduates from AMBA-accredited business schools stood at more than R1 120 000 annually, a 7% increase on the reported salaries in 2010. 

But the report stated that for MBAs to continue to be relevant and sought-after, they need to keep up with the times, changing and responding to market needs and requirements.

At Africa’s top business school, the UCT’s Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), online learning is an important element, but it is never separated from human interaction. For real learning to take place, the participant must feel and truly experience the knowledge that is being gained. Learning really only comes alive when it is given personal meaning, when participants take universal concepts and apply them to their own company, organisation or country structure.

Technology has changed every aspect of our modern lives and it follows that learning and education should change as well. Online learning can cross borders and bring people from different time zones together in a lecture room or for a video chat, highly conducive tools for all levels of education, including business education. Online learning enables more people to access and afford tertiary education and MBAs. 

This is crucial for Africa and emerging market economies where a lack of skills and qualified professionals continue to hamper development. 

Business schools that are willing to be flexible with the structures of their courses and MBA offerings will find that including some human interaction will make a huge difference to the quality of their courses and the number of applicants they receive. 

Online education has revolutionised business schools around the world and there is every indication that this trend will only continue in future. Combined with face-to-face interaction and quality communication, this will be the way of the future for business schools — not only in Africa — but the rest of the world as well. 

Professor Walter Baets is the director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.

This feature has been made possible by the M&G’s advertisers. The content was sourced independently by the M&G’s supplements editorial team.