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Delivering MBA courses – the case of Warwick Business School

Photo: Professor Howard Thomas.Howard Thomas is internationally recognized as a leading expert in the field of strategic management, with over 30 books and 200 articles to his name. He is also dean of Warwick Business School (WBS), recently nominated as one of the top ten European Business Schools. He talks to Margaret Adolphus about WBS, management education, the responsibility of business schools in the current financial crisis, and his role as consulting editor of Emerald's recently launched Journal of Strategy and Management.


When Howard Thomas arrived as dean of Warwick Business School in 2000, it was a very different environment; the magnificent facility seen in the photograph (Figure 1. Warwick Business School) did not exist and is a result over UK£20 million worth of investment. Warwick Business School has earned an impressive international reputation despite the fact that it was only founded in 1967, just a year after the University of Warwick, the extensive campus which is situated west of Coventry in the heart of England. Now, in 2008, it is housed in an impressive structure of glass, brick and concrete that manages to appear both functional and welcoming. There are also a number of pieces of artwork on loan from the University’s art collection, including one striking image of a deconstructed Britain, where familiar places are re-sited resulting in an unsettling version of the familiar (is this a metaphor for business post credit crunch)?

Photo: Figure 1. Warwick Business School.

Figure 1. Warwick Business School

It is clearly a building designed around the user, with a number of different learning and social spaces. Lecture theatres are all equipped with data projectors and large projection screens, a PC, DVD, visualizers and white boards, and fitted with chairlifts for disabled access and hearing loops (see Figure 2). There are a number of smaller break-out rooms close by, following the teaching style which is based on periods of lecture followed by discussion and project work, as well as an information technology (IT) suite and student lounge area with banks of PCs, plasma TVs and meeting spaces. The latter area acts as a social space and also a space for group work outside of normal classroom activities (see Figure 3).

Photo: Figure 2. A WBS lecture theatre.

Figure 2. A WBS lecture theatre


Photo: Figure 3. The IT suite at WBS.

Figure 3. The IT suite at WBS

At the moment, the School houses only graduate students (Master of Business Administration (MBA) students have their own discrete area, where there are refreshments and they can interact, discuss projects or simply relax), but in the next phase of the building, due to be completed in 2011 which represents a further £20 million investment, undergraduates will have their own learning grid (an environment equipped with a variety of information and communications technology (ICT), reference information and study spaces), tutorial rooms and social spaces. Although there are no plans to augment the large lecture theatres provided by the University to accommodate this group, there will be smaller, flatter lecture rooms for postgraduates, where people sit around circular tables, and so can alternate between lecture and group work.

The Warwick brand

Warwick Business School was recently ranked 10th in Europe for its MBA and is in the top 1 per cent globally. Howard has trebled its turnover, which has risen from 15 million pounds in 2000 to around £40 million in 2008; the building programme is largely being funded from reinvestment of surpluses.

To what can this success be attributed and what is the Warwick brand?

Howard believes that WBS is:

"...highly entrepreneurial, with top quality students and faculty, a great place to study, one of the best campuses with excellent facilities at both the Business School and the University as a whole".

In fact the University of Warwick, in the UK's top ten and just behind Oxford, Cambridge and some of the London colleges, adds great value to the WBS brand. There are strong links with the rest of the campus, with a number of joint programmes: you can combine business studies with German, law, physics, chemistry, computer science, engineering or mathematics. Warwick boasts one of the largest sociology departments in the UK, and the approach to management is very social science oriented.

WBS offers programmes at all levels: as of December 2008, the website quotes current student registration as: "1,410 undergraduates, 170 research students, 957 taught postgraduates, and 2,603 MBA and MPA participants", coming from a total of 143 countries. Howard believes the undergraduate programme to be the best in the country (it is ranked in the top five by The Times Good University Guide).

He also talks enthusiastically about the fact that the WBS doctoral programme is one of the largest in Europe; the profession needs more doctorates if it is to address the threatened shortage of business school faculty. The MBA can be taken full time over 12 months, or executive and modular over two years, or by distance learning. There are also a number of specialist master's degrees.

The School clearly has a strong theoretical foundation and excellent research credentials. But what about the ability to link theory to practice and tackle applied research questions? Howard points to the executive programme which has been developed from a relatively small programme to 10 per cent of the School's turnover, and whose clients have included blue chip companies such as McKinsey, IBM, TNT, Prudential and Network Rail.

"If you are teaching executive programmes on strategic change, you need to be able to understand the problems of the marketplace. I see it as absolutely essential that people are out there, at least for part of their time, confronting the environment they are teaching about," says Howard. Howard also encourages faculty to write, for every academic article, one that has a practical relevance.

The School also boasts very strong advisory, alumni and corporate foundation boards, not to mention the opinions of 25,000 alumni:

"...all of which feed back into the fibre of the School, so we can claim not only to be academically rigorous, but also practically relevant, through our executive education and consulting".

Flexible learning

One of the most appealing features of the MBA is its flexibility. The programme and the syllabus remain the same whether you take the full-time, executive or distance learning version. Students are not confined to one route, but are positively encouraged to mix and match, which "reflects the flexibility that our management audience have asked of us".

The teaching quality and reputation of the distance learning variant of the MBA is high (it has been ranked 3rd in the world by the influential Economist magazine): so much so that some of the content has been turned into textbooks, with the ones for operations strategy, strategic management and marketing becoming some of the leading textbooks in Europe.

Howard believes the success of the distance learning MBA (he prefers the term "blended") lies in the fact that the students have as much face-to-face attention as possible. (They normally spend about one month of every year on campus.)

"We're using technology to the best advantage, but we also put great emphasis on face-to-face. When the 'distance learners' come to the first dinner they've all been assigned a study group, they've all had e-mail addresses, and they know everything about each other: children, background, it's like an extended Facebook. They probably know each other better than the full-time MBA students do in the first week of the course.

"I happen to think that ours is by far the best because these distance learners do exactly the same programme as their full-time and modular colleagues and we put as much effort into the tutoring: we've mimicked the best of face-to-face learning. We have tutors who work with them outside the School who monitor the quality process, and we have 24-hour chat rooms if they have difficulties, for example, with an assignment."

Are business schools responsible for the credit crunch?

Howard takes issue with the analysis of Dr Stefano Harney, reader in strategy and director of global learning at the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary, University of London (reported in Times Higher Education, September 25 2008), that poor teaching on the part of business schools played a part in the current global financial crisis.

Harney believes that business school academics tend to focus on small, technical issues – for example product placement and supply chains – at the expense of wider moral ones, such as wealth distribution, the environment, war, workers' rights and equality issues. They also fail to challenge the culture of greed and produce ethical graduates.

But Howard believes that WBS students get plenty of ethical input,

"In our undergraduate programme we have a one-year course called 'critical issues in management'. We look at management problems from a whole range of perspectives, including ethical ones. Another year-long course on the MBA programme looks at how you handle people and what constitutes ethical relationships. So I don't think we overemphasize technical issues, and we do try to embed principles of sound ethical management in everything we do."

However, ethical issues are not just the province of universities,

"I think it's also a societal problem. What happened to the family as a unit, to church going, and to moral sense in learning? Indeed, a number of students don't see anything wrong in copying homework or plagiarizing articles they download from search engines. As a consequence we increasingly monitor plagiarism using software such as Turnitin."

And you cannot look at the current financial crisis simply through the disciplinary lens of management:

"I've no doubt that there have been instances of complete fraud, complete greed on the part of mortgage brokers in the US, people packaging together worthless financial instruments in order to get huge commissions. But you need to look at the financial system as a whole, at the behaviour of institutions and individuals as well as the design of financial instruments.

"What really went wrong in the first place? Just to blame the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US is over-simplistic, it's just a convenient hook. Look at Northern Rock in the UK, which was also loaning a lot of money on mortgages but didn't have enough deposits to justify those loans. It went to the wholesale market for funds which dried up, and then Northern Rock was nationalized. So it's not easy to find a simple solution and you need to look at problems from a broader behavioural and economic perspective."

The fact that management is studied at a major university along with other disciplines is a plus. Warwick has an excellent industrial relations faculty which looks at equality and workers' rights, while wealth and distribution issues are dealt with by organizational behaviour faculty, and sustainability and environment issues are examined across the University. Again the social science orientation provides a broad perspective.

He does agree, however, that MBA students do have high financial aspirations, and investment banking or consulting has been a traditional goal, but that too may be changing: Warwick's MBA students have an average age of 29, and and already have significant experience of business and management. They may now have wider aspirations in social entrepreneurship and the voluntary sector and WBS is meeting these new challenges. One example he gives is the fact that the current credit crisis has overshadowed, only temporarily, the need for greater expertise in the energy industry and WBS is the first leading business school to offer a global energy MBA.

A global concern for management education

Howard is also very proactive in the field of management education: he has been vice president of the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), chair of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), is the current chair of the Association of Business Schools (ABS) and chair elect of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). His wide teaching experience has given him a unique perspective on the difference between management education in North America and Europe. He recently published an article entitled, "The competitive (dis)advantage of European business schools" based on research in the literature and the rankings.

How do European schools differ from their cousins across the pond?

European schools are smaller, more international; they are less well endowed and more likely to be supported by public money. Their educational methods are based on a learning style rather than a teaching style: problem-centred, project-based learning with plenty of opportunity for action learning and reflection as opposed to transmission of discipline-based knowledge. They are also more likely to offer flexible, innovative delivery, by distance learning. And there is no such thing as an overall global brand: national and regional considerations play a strong part in driving individual philosophies, hardly surprising given the unique identities of the diverse nation states within the European Union.

He also believes that in America, the rapid acceptance by the market of the MBA led to a standardized model based on MBA delivery, which in turn led to the mass production of business education.

"From the 1970s to the early 1990s we followed that model slavishly, but since then we've adapted it quite heavily. So European schools have become quite diverse: for example, the Imperial College Business School is more analytical; the University of Leicester School of Management has an orientation towards 'critical management studies'; some schools emphasize the arts and humanities, others such as WBS emphasize social sciences.

"And a lot of European Business Schools are up there in the top 30 Financial Times and MBA rankings, including ourselves. But why do the Americans dominate? The old story, mountains of money. The position of the top 15 schools has hardly altered in six years. Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, MIT, North West, all built brands and endowments, which enabled them to build first class resources and get the top students – and stay on top. The endowments of these schools just dwarfs anything that even the top, standalone European schools such as London Business School and INSEAD could achieve."

Howard's concern that management education should be a global phenomenon, and not just one confined to North America and Europe, has led to his association with the Global Foundation for Management Education (GFME), of which he is chair. Set up by AACSB and EFMD, the GFME's mission is to develop quality management education worldwide.

An early task was to do an inventory of what was going on in management education globally, which was published in the Global Guide to Management Education. The next task was to look at economic and business trends, as well as developments in management education, and see how these would affect business schools in particular regions: this study was published in 2008 in Global Management Education Landscape: Shaping the Future of Business Schools.

The report made five recommendations:

  1. global quality assurance,
  2. mechanisms for dialogue with business and political leaders (perhaps through regional and global associations of business schools),
  3. investment in doctoral education in order to grow the next generation of business school faculty,
  4. creation of a global clearing house for data about business schools as there are still some important countries where information is scarce,
  5. information on models of international collaboration among business schools.

"GFME is concerned with raising awareness and ensuring that management education has a genuinely global reach, not just within the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, but also in places such as Africa and South America. We are concerned to encourage participants in the western or largely western economies to build bridges and alliances."

Howard and Emerald

The Journal of Strategy and Management

Howard's work with GFME (and EFMD) brought him into contact with Emerald, which published both reports. He is consulting editor of the recently launched Journal of Strategy and Management (JSM), a role which involves having a watching brief and helping the editors, Abby Ghobadian and Nicholas O'Regan, shape the journal.

He believes that JSM will provide an important outlet for people who want to publish behavioural, qualitative or conceptual research that does not fit into the conventional economic and analytical paradigm of other journals. Especially as strategy has been, over the last ten years, one of the largest growth areas in management.

Academic adviser

Howard also acts as an academic adviser to Emerald, and he indicates his support for John Peters' (Emerald's former chief executive) view that download statistics should be seen as an alternative to citations.

"I suspect we are going to see much more use of downloads, including pre-publication ones, as the publishing world goes more online. The Social Science Research Network already uses download statistics and puts papers online six to 12 months before publication."

But alongside his keenness to launch an alternative journal on strategy is his passion for management education, which he wants to continue publishing in "quite heavily". With organizations like WBS, AACSB and GFME to keep an eye on, he should be kept busy. And it's a comforting thought to think that, just maybe, his philosophy will permeate through to the rest of the management education world.


Antunes, D. and Thomas, H. (2007), "The competitive (dis)advantages of European business schools", Long Range Planning, Vol. 40, pp. 382-404.