The Relevance of an MBA Education During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Business school hopefuls who are wondering whether MBA courses will address the coronavirus pandemic should know that this topic will be routinely discussed in classes at many B-schools.

Even when the world isn’t in a state of crisis, MBA courses frequently incorporate current events, and that will be even more true now that the world is facing unprecedented challenges, MBA deans and faculty say. They note that it is essential for business school students to grapple with the financial and economic problems posed by the pandemic. They say their goal will be the same as always: to give students salient examples of business problems that are being dealt with in real time and to provide students with timeless ideas that they can apply any time anywhere under a variety of circumstances.

Business schools are constantly updating their courses to ensure that they are timely, a practice that has continued throughout the ongoing pandemic, B-school faculty say.

[Read: What to Know About Getting an MBA During the Coronavirus Pandemic.]

James Bailey, a professor of management at George Washington University School of Business in the District of Columbia, says that although the names of most MBA courses won’t include the word “coronavirus,” the subject will inevitably come up in class lectures and discussions.

Bailey observes that B-schools have long focused on the concept of “disruption” in the marketplace, and he says that this idea is particularly pertinent now — albeit in a different way than in the past, since the COVID-19 outbreak has caused enormous damage to domestic and foreign economies. Previously, he says, this idea was mostly brought up in regards to the ways in which a revolutionary and innovative technology product such as the Uber ride-hailing service or the Airbnb vacation rental platform could “fill a void,” reshape the economy and transform society.

[Read: Is an MBA Worth It? How to Decide.]

“That’s been a big story in business schools for the last 10 to 20 years,” Bailey says. “And hey, the world is changing, and this is how the world is changing, and if you want — if your business wants — to stay relevant, then you need to constantly think about disruptive forces out there in the economy.”

Since the COVID-19 disaster came by surprise, it was a wake-up call in many ways, making business professionals and business school faculty appreciate the importance of preparing for the possibility of worst-case scenarios such as “infectious diseases, political instability and monetary instability,” Bailey says.

“This is going to open people’s minds to other forces of disruption and get us thinking more broadly about it. So that’s one of, I think, the big curricular changes that is going to find its way just naturally and organically into people’s classes.”

Bailey says he has begun incorporating COVID-related content into his business leadership class by discussing what strong leadership in a pandemic looks like, what leaders’ highest priorities ought to be during one and whether conventional leadership approaches work during such unusual circumstances. Bailey says he poses the following question to his students: “What should leaders be doing and paying attention to right now?”

[Read: What an MBA Degree Is and What You Need to Know.]

Crisis management principles are already embedded in standard MBA curriculums, Bailey suggests, so content about the trauma wrought by COVID-19 would fit in well alongside those fundamental concepts.

The current crisis also provides a great illustration of the dangers of complacency among business people during a time of economic expansion, since periods of economic growth can be followed by steep declines in the economy as has happened recently — a painful lesson likely to be explored in a solid MBA program, Bailey says.

He adds that the coronavirus pandemic also provides an excellent example of the ways in which a major economic disruption can create winners — companies that profit from present circumstances such as the Amazon and Zoom technology companies — and losers, companies devastated by the current situation such as those involved with commercial real estate, transportation or tourism.

Rebecca Krysiak, program director for the MBA program at Walden University — a distance learning school that allows students to learn remotely — notes that the pandemic has huge ramifications. “The impact of COVID has been so significant that the lessons learned are just beginning to become evident and will likely evolve for years to come,” Krysiak explained in an email.

Krysiak, who has a Ph.D. in engineering, advises prospective MBA students to choose a program that teaches them how to manage all types of changes, not just catastrophes.

“We don’t want to produce MBA graduates that are only good at crisis management or only good at it within one context,” she says. “Prospective MBA students should consider schools that can help them develop broader skills such as innovation, looking at business from a systems perspective, and managing change and helping employees through it — while change may occur much more quickly in times of crisis, it is constant in business.”

Kimberly Hollister, dean of the Montclair State University Feliciano School of Business in New Jersey, suggests that engaging with real-world, real-time examples in MBA school is especially essential nowadays.

Hollister describes it as “so much more critical now” to provide meaningful examples of present-day issues and to ensure “that the corporate partners who we bring in to talk to students talk about the real challenges that they’re facing” while offering their perspectives on the direction business is going at the moment, she says.

Hollister notes that because the pandemic-related economic turmoil has forced business executives to make tough calls about cost-cutting measures, prospective MBA students would be wise to look for B-schools with a solid curriculum in data science and business analytics. Those kinds of math skills — along with communication and ethics skills — can help business professionals make evidence-based choices in difficult situations and aid them in making predictions.

Because of the economic trouble and the challenging job market post-COVID, Hollister adds that now could be an opportune moment for prospective MBA students to develop or fine-tune marketable skills so that they are ready to find a great job when the crisis has blown over.

“There are also people that are realizing that there is so much disruption in the market that they want to retool” by making a career pivot or transition to a new field like project management or human resources, she suggests. “Those technical areas are where we are seeing the greatest interest from students.”

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