Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thoughts on the Kenan-Flagler $89,000 online MBA (and the MBA degree in general)

 I saw the news this morning that the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill is starting a new online MBA and charging the same as for its in-class MBA, $\$89,000$.

Online MBAs have so far been mostly consigned to the low end of the MBA spectrum; Kenan-Flagler is a serious school with serious quality, so this is a game-changer. Which raises the important question:

Can a online MBA be worth the same as a regular, in-class MBA?

Futurology is a field fraught with error, so let's do what smart managers do at the beginning of a category lifecycle: think carefully about the likely path of the value proposition and the revenue models. The revenue model here is tuition plus alumni donations, same as for a in-class MBA; let's analyze the four components of the value proposition:

1. Technical business material. Things like how to value a put option; how to measure consumer preferences; how to brief an advertising agency; how to organize a value chain; how to analyze the potential of a market. These technical materials are learned the same way every other technical material is (math, science, engineering): mostly by practice. Practice comes from preparing for in-class discussions or homework. So, this part of the MBA value proposition is easily transferred to a online (or even textbook-based) education.

We may like to think that students are learning the technical material in class – because we are so good at explaining it, of course – but the students only learn the material for real when they put it into practice. More often than not, when they are gearing up to solve problems or analyze cases they have to review their notes or read the textbook. All this can work in a self-guided study, be it from the textbook or from online materials. It all depends on how the motivation (aka the assessment) is executed.

2. Managerial skills. Things like leadership, decision-making on-the-fly, presentation, consensus-building, teamwork. These are essential parts of Participant-Centered Learning, and very hard to do online. There's a point in a manager's training where she has to stop analyzing, raise her hand and – in front of a group of people who are trying to find fault with it – present her view of the case. The ability to convince others and get them to execute your decisions is fundamental to the job of manager and this type of experience does require the presence in a classroom.

In fact many critics of the MBA degree as preparation for management jobs state that the in-class experience is not enough to develop these skills and should be complemented with specific soft-skill development exercises, which – needless to say – have to be done in-class.

This might sound trivial, but many students have told me that, before doing it, they had no idea what it felt like to be called upon to defend a decision that they were 51.5% sure of and make it sound convincing (otherwise it would be dead on arrival). These are the kind of skills that make the difference between a back-office analyst and a line manager.

3. Networking and the broader community. Some non-MBAs, who tend to believe in conspiracies to explain their personal shortcomings, dismiss the MBA degree as just a network-building exercise. That is incorrect, but the network one creates as part of one's MBA is a valuable part of the program. A consultant might look good "on paper," but you save your firm a lot of grief (and money) because your old Strategy teammate told you that the guy can't tell a experience effect from a sound effect. This kind of networking will only develop with continued physical proximity.

But the community doesn't end there: there are the other cohorts (older and younger) and even the contacts with faculty (which in a business school may be more useful than, say, in a humanities school). There's also the broader campus community; some MBA students at a school that shall remain nameless, located close to the Longfellow Bridge on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, MA, use their affiliation with the larger Institute to contact faculty in areas that they might find useful; engineering comes to mind. This broader community might be available to online students, especially in this age of email, instant messaging, and videoconferencing.

4. Screening and signaling. Getting accepted into the program, completing the coursework, and paying a high tuition on the expectation that future earnings will more than make up for it are all signals a student sends to the market. The more selective the school is with its incoming class, the more informative that signal is. Since the same criteria can be applied to online and in-class students, the signal should be the same. (Whether the market accepts that the criteria are the same, that's a different story.)

At first I was flabbergasted that K-F was going to charge the same for the online as for the in-class MBA, but now I think that's actually smart on two levels: one, by having the same price for both, K-F signals that both programs are in fact two variants of the same degree; two, by keeping it expensive, they feed the third component of the signal, that those enrolling expect to make a lot of money, which means work hard.

So, what is the verdict?

On one hand, there are a few serious impediments to delivering the full value proposition of an MBA through a online environment. On the other hand, some of those issues can be mitigated with short "in campus" events. And, some people point out, many MBA students never really get the "soft-skill" parts that would be missing from an online MBA; even at K-F. (Even at Halberd, come to think of it.)

The market will decide, but a-priori there's no reason why, at least for technical jobs in business (including most of the consulting and finance jobs that MBAs crave) this wouldn't be a useful program.