SBL Reimagined: Trends Affecting Business Education in 2018

BY Millard Arnold, May 3 2022


SBL Reimagined:

Trends Affecting Business Education in 2018



Millard Arnold

Chief Executive

South African Business Schools Association



Trends, and how they are interpreted, seems relatively straightforward and innocuous.  But trend analysis is far more complicated then it appears. On the surface, it seemed simple enough: globally, what are people thinking or doing that will prove influential over time?  However, for the interpretation to have meaning, it is necessary to understand the purpose for which trends are being investigated.  Is it to ascertain what others are doing so that we might emulate them?  Is it to determine how to benchmark ourselves against standards established by those perceived to be more advanced than we are?  Is it to figure out how far behind we might be and what do we need to do to catch up?  What do these trends mean to us?  What should they mean?

It is clear that trends have to be contextualized.  What are the drivers behind the trends?  What is going on in the world that precipitates these movements, developments, tendencies and inclinations?  Moreover, whose trends count more than others?  Do we really care what the University of Podunk thinks of trends in business education?  Or is it a consensus of acceptable schools or institutions to whom we should be paying attention?  Shouldn’t we really be looking at what are the trends driving business, given that our mandate is to prepare business leaders of the future?  Isn’t it essentially the case that trends are like opinions, everyone has one or can identify or argue what they believe to be important or relevant?

So, an examination of trends and their movement is not as innocent as it might seem.I It is cloaked in nuance and complexity.  In the end, the question to be answered is what do we want to take away from the exercise?  Critical insights that will provide us with a more competitive edge or the comfort in knowing that we are keeping up with the Jones?

What I thought was important was to try and contextualize the trends initially, in a big picture sort of way, and then to explore what is happening across the business front before diving into specific trends aimed at business education.  I thought thereafter, I would try and summarize what it all means, and offer some insights or observations about the trends and how they relate to us here at the southernmost point of the African continent.

Contextually, perhaps the most consequential development confronting us wherever we may find ourselves, is the rise of jingoism and a political wave of nationalism.  It is not just the rise of Trump and “America First”, but it is Brexit, reactionary movements across Europe, the provocations of North Korea, and the surge of xenophobic tendencies almost everywhere. These trends are likely to continue and perhaps even intensify throughout the remainder of 2018.   In such a political environment, business schools will be understandable impacted.  Trump’s visa restrictions on Muslim countries, racial outburst such as those at the University of Virginia last year, and an unwelcoming if not hostile atmosphere in the United States has seen the number of international students decline for the first time in decades.

The uncertainties regarding Brexit, will have profound impacts on students from the European Union wishing to study in the United Kingdom, and nationalist tendencies will be increasingly a factor in many parts of Europe.  It is therefore no surprise that for 2018, the Financial Times flags the rise of Asian business schools as a significant and continuing trend.  Canadian business schools have also benefitted from the burgeoning inhospitable climate in the United States and Europe and points to one possibility that we here in South Africa need to explore and that is marketing our schools, programmes and courses in the international arena.  There may well be an Africa Rising scenario which we can play out in a generally hostile global environment.

Although there is a certain euphoria in many parts of South Africa regarding the idea of free education, it is worth noting that throughout most of the world, higher education is plagued with financial difficulties and funding declines are likely to be a persistent feature facing business schools as well.

If the international political environment seems foreboding, in the workplace, things are turbulent if not downright disruptive.  So I want to share a sampling of trend perspectives from both the United Kingdom and the United States.  They are not dipositive, scientific or exhaustive, but rather an informed view on what are the directions towards which business seems to be gravitating.

With regard to Britain, late last year, the London Business School published a report outlining what developments can be expect in the business landscape over the next 12 months.  Their six big trends were the following:

  1. Aggressive activist approach in tackling companies with dominate positions.
  2. Organizations draw closer to true inclusivity.
  3. Lifelong learning becomes a priority;
  4. Customers give way to consumers
  5. Leaders work to regain our trust
  6. Happiness takes centre stage

As for the American perspective, Dan Schawbel, who each year produces for Forbes magazine, a forecast of trends affecting business has listed his top ten developments for 2018 which are:

  1. Leaders encourage more human interaction
  2. More employees will be accepting different types of credentials as they seek to build diverse talent pools and expand their reach
  3. Companies focus on upskilling and retraining current workers
  4. Artificial intelligence becomes embedded in the workplace
  5. Financial and mental wellness get prioritized
  6. Employee burnout causes more turnover
  7. Workforce decisions sway consumer behavior
  8. Companies take diversity more seriously
  9. The deregulation of labour laws
  10. The Aging workforce


While not definitive, the London Business School and Forbes could well be considered reasonably authoritative when it comes to business.  That said, what insights can we draw from their projections, and how do they feed into trends affecting business schools?

What comes across for me, is the central role of employees in the greater scheme of things.  Businesses in both Britain and America seem deeply concerned over what could be considered human capital issues:  In the UK, greater inclusivity which is echoed in the states in terms of diversity being taken more seriously.  Happiness to take center stage in England whilst financial and mental wellness, together with employee burnout are to be prioritized in the States.  Lifelong learning a priority in Britain while American companies will focus on upskilling and retraining current workers.  Additionally on both sides of the Atlantic, companies are valuing how workforce decisions will dictate consumer behavior.  Surprisingly, while hot ticket items like artificial intelligence and big data are noted, they appear relatively mooted as major drivers in 2018.

Although it would be disingenuous to submit that these findings would apply to future business school graduates, the challenge this suggests, however, is that future employees will certainly need to demonstrate social competence in goal setting and delivery.  These trends seem to encourage meaningful relationships; information sharing, deep communication skills and greater adaptability and flexibility.  Social competencies imply that employees learn how to learn, work together in teams, get things done and have emotional intelligence.

So that provides an interesting segue to the trends that will drive business education in 2018.   Perhaps a good starting point would be the findings of the European Foundation for Management Development which in its annual conference in July of last year, outlined ten global trends which will impact management education in the future.  The big 10 for EFMD were:

  1. Globalisation
  2. Immigration
  3. Income inequity and diversity
  4. Climate change
  5. Digital disruption
  6. Digital learning
  7. The future of jobs and work
  8. Uncertainty in predictions
  9. Responsible leadership
  10. Creativity, innovation and Entrepreneurship

The EFMD view is a more globular approach looking at issues such as shifts in society and the global economy, rising automation, social impact and inclusive growth.  Less blue sky but equally broad in scope is the perspective of the Financial Times which this year published the five business education trends to watch before they publish their annual MBA rankings. The ranking came out at the end of January, but the trends the FT identified were interesting:

  1. Two-year MBAs lose their allure
  2. US Business schools hit by the Trump effect
  3. Asian business schools on the rise
  4. MBA graduates cool on entrepreneurship
  5. An MBA is still a great boost for salaries.

BusinessBecause, a publication I follow with some interest, reports that according to top deans of business schools from around the globe, what we need to be paying attention to are the following:

  1. The closing of the gender gap/Inclusiveness
  2. Machines will march
  3. Digital disruption
  4. Education will become virtual
  5. Courses will focus on ambiguity
  6. Impact on society
  7. Greater collaboration with business

To some degree, echoes the views of BusinessBecause, suggesting that the key trends of 2018 will be:

  1. Greater diversity
  2. Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  3. Liberal arts meets business
  4. Alternatives to the MBA
  5. More schools will invest in student businesses

Poets and Quants is absolutely in the Artificial Intelligence/Big Data camp, arguing that the rise of business analytics is the biggest trend to watch as it touches on both innovation and high tech, and that students without it are at a severe disadvantage going forward in their careers.  At odds with the Financial Times, Poets and Quants believes that entrepreneurship and innovation are still big trends as is real world learning through student-run investment fund initiatives. And they too, highlight the importance of social impact.

On a more practical level behind the scenes, I think we’re beginning to see a number of business schools that marry a rigorous business education with other disciplines as a wave of the future.  Although no longer a trend, experiential learning whether it be internships, mentorships, incubators or co-operative ventures with business, schools are beginning to focus on providing students with hands on experiences.  This in turn has meant that schools are looking to bring outside business professionals into the classroom.  This is giving rise to specialized co-operative programmes in areas like supply-chain management or international trade.  These marketplace stimulations, are mutually beneficial partnerships whereby students grow through experiential learning, the co-operative business firm benefits from the student’s skills and abilities and the school stays connected to current workforce needs and trends.  In the vortex of expanding educational offerings, online, blended or hybrid programs designed to meet student needs will become increasingly common.

Quite possibly, the single biggest trend might well be the explosion of “MicroMasters” as MOOCs go from education to qualification.  The commitment of schools like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkley is not only expanding educational access, but is a harbinger of radical disruption in the way business will be taught.  Online, one year graduate-level courses that are examined and graded with recognized qualifications, could be the wave of the future.  “MicroMasters” certificate programs on edX have seen 1.7 million student register within a year. This is a trend worth watching.

It seems to support the notion advanced by David Ulrich, Professor at Michigan’s Ross Business School, who points out that “traditionally, business schools have 95% of their learning impact during the one or two year degree.  In the future, the largest impact will occur in the 30-year post-business school career of the alum.”  That may well be because MicoMasters will alter the way business is taught, as individuals begin to learn highly specialized skills on the basis of what is needed, when it is needed.

In summary, then, it would seem that the global climate of uncertainty, will clearly have an impact on northern hemisphere business schools, but at the same time, it may well provide us here in Africa a new window of opportunity to market our offerings on the global stage.

With regard to how the workplace will shape out in 2018, the focus seemingly is on people rather than processes, technologies or digital innovation.

As to the business education, surprisingly, it would appear as if business schools are not far out of line in understanding the environment in which they will be placing their graduates.  It does appear, however, that serious inroads will be made into the continued viability and desirability of the MBA.  And while the immediate future would suggest that Al/Big Data and Business Analytics are not front and center at the moment, it is inevitable that they will be the focus of developments in years to come, as digital citizenship, augmented reality, and intelligent digital mesh become the norm across the board and at all levels educationally.  Ironically, the true challenge will be the interface between human and artificial intelligence.

It will have profound implications on the criteria for student enrollment at business school, as it will seemingly favor STEM graduates over liberal arts grads and that may come at some expense for a broader, more comprehensive understanding of what business can become and the role business schools can play in designing the future.