Surviving the Competition

Do online M.B.A. degree programs have the potential to eliminate business schools, especially lower-ranked business schools? It does, according to the article “Half of U.S. Business Schools might Be Gone by 2020” (Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 14 March 2014). The driver for this potential future outcome is the entry into online MBA programs by top-tier business schools. But another factor is in play here. The plain-vanilla nature of most M.B.A. programs. A product or service that lacks uniqueness is eventually commoditized. Big brand names usually survive commodification, while non-name brands struggle and eventually wither away.

For the last 10 years, the School of Engineering and Technology at my university has offered a unique M.S. degree program in Technology Management. The program is basically an M.S. degree in Lean management. It is popular among students, most of which work full-time for a living, for one of two reasons:

  • Their employer requires knowledge of Lean principles and practices
  • Their work processes are cumbersome and in dire need of improvement

Also, many students do not want an M.B.A. because they do not need it, or because they dislike what M.B.A-holders in executive positions have done to U.S. business – which is to make it all about the numbers (money and investors) and ignore other important people: employees, suppliers, and customers.

Our MS degree contains most MBA courses, except for marketing and advanced finance and courses. It consists of 33 credits out of the 45 or so credits one finds in a typical M.B.A. degree program. Yet, all eleven courses have a direct link to Lean principles and practices. So, unlike plain-vanilla M.B.A. programs, our M.S. degree program is unique because it teaches Lean. It is also more difficult to commodify because teachers must have direct, hands-on experience with the application of Lean principles and practices (in the real world) in order to know it and therefore teach it. Book knowledge of Lean is not enough to teach Lean well.

So what’s unique about our M.S. degree program? According to our students, it includes:

  • The focus on Lean management and six sigma
  • The program is current with the times
  • Courses have a real-world focus, both study and application
  • Professors have deep industry work experience and bring that experience and knowledge into the classroom
  • Professors do what they teach and are passionate about it.
  • Unique perspectives of the professors regarding their own work and education experiences.
  • Courses are connected and are related to one another, rather than each course being a separate topic, which allows me to interrelate concepts I learn in each course.
  • Study real-world problems.
  • Balanced view of business vs. shareholder-first view.
  • Classes and professors are stimulating.
  • Acquire new ways of thinking, new behaviors, and new skills such as communication and critical thinking.
  • Good mix of face-to-face, hybrid, and online classes.
  • Collaboration and teamwork among classmates.

These comments reflect that the faculty, whether career academic, former industry leader, or adjunct still working in industry, have had direct experience with continuous improvement and apply Lean principles and practices to the program and courses contained therein. This is critical in forming perceptions among students of good quality teaching. In addition to teaching Lean management, our M.S. degree program is unique because of Lean teaching.

Plain-vanilla M.B.A. (and M.S.) degree programs at lower-ranked business schools are likely at risk. We have purposefully sought to reduce risks of commodification to our M.S. Technology Management degree program by focusing on Lean management and ensuring that our instructors do things that students associate with good quality teaching. Our challenge will be to avoid complacency, maintain commitment to continuous improvement, and improve teaching.

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