Meeting learning outcomes for students and employers

Dr Olin Oedekoven outlines some highlights of the AMBA / Peregrine Academic Services Roundtable, discussing MBA learning outcomes

With the world of employment demanding more from MBAs, there is growing pressure on Business Schools to ensure their graduates are taking the learning and skills they develop during their MBA courses and applying them to ‘real-world’ situations.

Each individual taking an MBA programme will have goals when they start their course and Business Schools develop learning outcomes to ensure they are being met. These comprise intellectual capabilities; analytical skills; entrepreneurial and innovative qualities; business knowledge; employability; leadership; value creation and employability.

Peregrine Academic Services joined forces with AMBA this year to bring together influential thinkers and practitioners in the field of MBA provision and business education, to debate the challenges around goal-centred learning outcomes and consider how the world’s leading Business Schools are at the forefront of delivering these.

I believe that the number one issue that’s not coming forward in this arena is the importance of ‘human skills’. Listening to the Business School community, we’re seeing that there needs to be more of a focus on soft skills. Businesses need students that can inspire change and have adaptability and agility, alongside honesty and integrity. From a learning outcomes standpoint, we need to know how to measure this.

Our panel debated this issue and agreed Business Schools have to work with businesses rather than drive change unilaterally. Business Schools are open to criticism and have to be sensitive to this.

To ensure they evolve in the right direction, Schools must reflect on current practice and future needs. Institutions need to really take a good snapshot and be honest with themselves before they can move forward, without assumptions.

Are learning outcomes different for students and employers? 

Students have expectations, but Schools have to get them employed and have to be led by the expectations of the business community.

Employers are looking for more specialised skills and then these skills have to be measurable. We need to help students to be agile and equip them to deal with complexity and these are elements that are fundamental in MBA programmes.

And, in terms of measuring soft skills, the key is thinking about students learning to learn. Technical skills are relatively easy to measure but in terms of soft skills and learning to learn, Schools are integrating more self-evaluation and this has a real space within MBA programmes.

Last year, I visited India and learned about programmes in which employers were asked to fill in a report on internships. The report had 10 measures, but only one was about technical skills, while the others looked at team work, communications and leadership – as well as other soft skills.

They had a rubric with each of these areas with supervisors filling these forms out based on specific and defined criteria. I don’t think you can standardise the testing of soft skills, but you can standardise the process by which you measure them.

Considering programme outcomes for learning, we need to assess where we are when we begin the MBA course and also have something that doesn’t just re-assess at exit, but accompanies students throughout the journey.

In higher education, the word “failure” is a bad thing, but we’re going to have to learn from failures and I think this is something we have to give ourselves permission to do and to readjust. We’re exploring this in our service called “Exploring Your Potential” which walks the student through self-evaluation, goal setting and action planning to help them become career ready.

What's exciting is that these students are creating their own opportunities. The basic construct needs to be expanded, but the idea of engaging the student in their own learning with a sense of ownership is strong. If we have the right tools the students will do this; they want this. Business Schools are just hard pressed to get their heads around how to apply this.

We need to move to a level of equality in which all opinions carry weight between students, Schools and corporate employers. And, in terms of working out how to measure learning outcomes in a changing world, where can Business School leaders start to plan ahead?

Business Schools can teach students how to be agile so they can anticipate what’s going to be in vogue in 10 years’ time – but we have to measure that. Knowledge-based exams lend themselves to self-assessment. But when you get into evaluating soft skills, it is a different construct.

I learnt agility through experience. I went through a military programme in which they put us in case problems where you had to solve challenges. You work together as a team to try and figure out solutions. In business education we put students into internships. I’m not sure we’re capturing the data and getting the feedback. That’s probably where it falls short – even just sitting around a table as an after-action review asking what did you do? What went well? What didn’t go well?

Defining excellence

Towards the end of the discussion, we asked panellists to define excellence in terms of learning outcomes.

The School needs to ask what its mission is. They throw around words like “excellence”, “good”, “world class”, but those are often meaningless. Why are you different to other Schools?’

We need to think about what kind of impact we want our graduates to be able to have in their personal lives, in their professional lives, but also as citizens of the world.

We all feel the responsibility to have learning goals and learning outcomes that are framed in a way that are supported in terms of the mission, relevant to the mission, and are constant with the mission. We need to take this as a given otherwise there is a mismatch between what we say we are doing and what we say we are about.

When I think of values, I’m not talking about excellence. I am getting back to the roots. What do employers want? I’m an employer and most of us probably have team members who are employers. So what do you look for when you hire somebody? I’m not necessarily looking for people who are only strong in terms of a technical qualification; we want people that have heart, passion, and a desire to make a difference in the world. Graduates can have a base knowledge, but respect, trust, and passion are the characteristics that employers want.

Summing up

At Peregrine Academic Services, we pride ourselves on being thought partners and our discussion helps improve our understanding and awareness of the needs and challenges of higher education.

My first takeaway is that we’ve been dabbling over the soft skills assessment process. I think this is an educational thing and the challenge is how we get that message through and how it looks. We’ve got some initiatives underway along these lines.

Another takeaway is the promotion of the idea of the soft skills assessment. It is really a process, to address the learning outcomes as defined by the mission and vision of the organisation.

My third takeaway is about the future of education. It is scary to think that a cell phone will know what my decision will be before me. It’s an over simplification, but the idea of this is going to be massive. It’ll change the traditional classroom and traditional modules.

It’s an interesting world in which we live.

Dr Olin Oedekoven, President and CEO of Peregrine Academic Services

Attendees at the AMBA / Peregrine Academic Services Roundtable comprised:

  • Andrea Sianesi, Dean of MIP Politecnico Milano Graduate School of Business
  • Chris Wert, Director of Accreditations and Quality, at Pole Leonardo Di Vinci
  • Julie Perrin-Halot, Associate Dean, Grenoble Ecole de Management
  • Olin Oedekoven, President and CEO, Peregrine Academic Services
  • Wim Naude, Dean of Maastricht School of Management and Professor at the United Nations University
  • Angus Laing, Dean of Lancaster University Management School
  • Sue Boyd, Programme Director for the Online MBA, Durham University Business School
  • Bill Parrott, Director of Strategic Alliances, Peregrine Academic Services
  • Isabelle Fagnot, Director of Quality, Accreditations and Rankings, Audencia Business School
  • Simon Mercado, Dean, ESPC Europe London Campus
  • David Woods-Hale, Head of Communications, Association of MBAs and panel chair

 Read more about the AMBA / Peregrine Academic Roundtable in Ambition