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Staying ahead of the curve

Staying ahead of the curve

As businesses face the gargantuan challenge of keeping up with exponential change, how are business schools adjusting? How can MBA programmes keep up with the shifting demands of a market that is increasingly defined by disruption? We put a few hard questions to Rotterdam School of Management full-time MBA programme director, Ann Van Dam. And debunked a few myths in the process.

Have the challenges facing MBA grads today changed much over the last 10 years?

I think so. The world is changing considerably and it’s happening fast. The horizons for change are much closer. Tech disruption is reconfiguring business and it’s happening at a much faster pace – only two years ago, we saw WhatsApp changing the way businesses communicated with clients. Ten years ago, we had innovation and change as well, but it was happening at a much slower pace.

So given that, how are MBA programmes like yours preparing graduates to deal with such rapid change?

Well, there are two things here. First off, you need a really solid business foundation to even understand what these changes mean for your business, your bottom line and your operations. And that will not change. Your core business doesn’t fundamentally change. What does change is the context.

So, the second thing is making students aware of this. And in the last few years, we’ve made a big shift in our MBA to build a personal leadership development trajectory into the core of the programme. If you, as a person, are more aware of how you lead – and how you lead in an ever-changing environment – you are much better equipped to deal with change itself. You’re better able to pivot.

What about your curriculum? Doesn’t it have to change to keep pace?

Yes and no. The fundamentals don’t change, as I said. You still need to understand a balance sheet and that hasn’t changed in 20 years. What does change is how businesses approach things like accounting, for instance, and what that means. To manage this, we ensure that our faculty are using case studies and content that reflect the current environment. We review our core curriculum every year to ensure it’s up to date.

Put it like this: the way you multiply and add numbers in mathematics doesn’t change. What changes are your reasons for doing it and the practicalities involved.

You mention the case method. What is the value of preparing business cases?

"An MBA teaches you integrative thinking and to see how interconnected a business is"

It’s about building your capacity to ask questions. Any business challenge is multi-layered. In real life, you have to ask the right questions to unpeel these layers to identify what the real problem is.

And it’s never just one thing – operations will tie into people management, to finance, to strategy. This is where an MBA is so important. It teaches you integrative thinking and to see how interconnected a business is.

With the case method, you have to adopt this integrative mindset – and you need to respond fast. You have to be nimble and adaptive in your thinking, just like in real life. So, some things don’t change. But some do.

What about big data, fintech, blockchain – how does the RSM MBA programme accommodate big innovations in business?

While we ensure that our core content is up to speed, there are new and emerging topics that we also address in our elective course offerings. We have a large spread of electives that we update every year – things like cryptocurrency, bitcoin and big data are addressed specifically. But we also address innovation in our study tours. We offer tours to eight different locations around the world, each featuring different themes.

For instance, we take students to Ivy in Canada to explore fintech disruption, or to UCLA in Los Angeles to talk about behavioural marketing and economics. We take students right to the place where change is happening and where the expertise is.

During the week, we’ll visit two or more innovative businesses and combine that with lectures from our own local faculty to set the context and give students insight into the background of these changes. So, they experience innovation in situ. And they have access to this programme all over the world, from China to Portugal, from French Guiana to Germany.

Another change is the increasing globalisation of business. Are study tours how you build a “global mindset?”

It’s part of it. But really, building this international mindset begins the second they start their RSM MBA in the classroom. We put together our cohorts to optimise diversity. A full 98 percent of the class is international, so, in essence, you have the world in your classroom.

Learning to work with people who have different nationalities and backgrounds and overcoming things like different language skills is a huge learning curve.

We address cross-cultural management in the curriculum, but they get the real-life exposure right in the class with their peers. We build diverse teams – we know it’s tough and it’s challenging. But then you really learn by doing. At the end of the day, people do an MBA to accelerate their career.

How are you helping RSM MBA students find a job in this challenging landscape?

We’ve integrated a personal leadership development (PLD) programme into the RSM MBA that builds leadership from the word go, so that our students can move up a gear in their careers when they graduate. We challenge them to think about how they come across, how they connect, what their values are and what they need to work on if they are going to lead people in the future.

We build coaching into this, so students really work on how to become a better leader and how to project this in interviews. We equip them with the skills and the self-knowledge to convince an employer that they are the right person to lead others. And to lead change.

If you are thinking of pursuing an MBA, why not join the MBA Open Day on 15 September and meet with admissions staff, alumni and students to talk about your expectations, ambitions and personal goals. Get the chance to talk through your questions and doubts and let RSM help you to make the right decision for your future.

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