During the past few years, a number of leading European business schools have been celebrating significant milestones in their histories: in some cases, their 50th anniversaries or, in other cases, the 50th anniversary of their signature programme, the full-time MBA.
Looking at, for instance, Insead in France, London Business School in the UK or IESE Business School in Spain, it is clear that each of them had a profound impact on their immediate surroundings and local economies, many of which were only beginning to recover from the human and economic disaster that was the Second World War. Business schools founded in the late 1950s and early 1960s were key players in building a new and more prosperous Europe.
In the late 1950s, the economy in the US was thriving and thanks, to economic programmes such as the Marshall Plan, economic prosperity expanded into Europe. But it was not just financial support that helped to accelerate the European economies. The introduction of new ideas on policies about deregulation or fiscal stimulus and the emphasis in management on production techniques and productivity changed the way business was being done.
Many in Europe felt that businesses management was still amateurish and believed there was a need to professionalise it, seeing a need for training and education and thus raising the professional level in business to be comparable with graduates in accountancy or law. This process was already under way in the US and so, in the late 1950s, groups of European academics and businessmen travelled to the US to learn about best practices in business education. Faculty members from my school, IESE, for example, reached out to Harvard Business School and asked professors there to help shape what was to become Europe’s first two-year MBA programme, which started in 1964.
Since the early 1960s, thousands of graduates of European business schools have helped Europe to prosper. The knowledge, skills and ideas that business schools introduced changed the business mentality and how things were done at the time. Many businesses started contemplating international growth or collaborating with firms abroad, much like business schools collaborating across the Atlantic. Business managers believed that there was business to be made outside their national borders. This international approach was later to become one of the most important traits of European business schools, which have surpassed US schools in this regard, with more than 80 per cent of their students coming from outside their home countries. Schools such as Insead, for instance, were the first to venture into Asian economies when they established their Singapore campus in the year 2000.
Business schools were also crucial in propelling a new mindset: the can-do attitude. Business schools started teaching entrepreneurship at a time when many European industries were still highly regulated or publicly subsidised. Some business leaders were not used to competition or setting prizes. But business schools helped to challenge this. For instance, in 1974, IESE developed the first course on entrepreneurship. This meant that the next generation of business leaders would not only be more aware of how firms are set up in a more competitive environment; they would also learn how to survive without government intervention but also open their minds to the possibility of starting new ventures and opening doors to new possibilities. This was an important mind shift that has grown even stronger since then.
However, to some, the influence of business education has not always been positive. The 1970s recession and the “Great Recession” of 2008 have led critics to establish a parallel between the growing influence of business education and the different world crises. And they have a point. Not all ideas that business schools have advanced have led to good results. While business schools are central to the business community at a local and global level, their powerful and deep impact must be infused with an ethical view of business and a constant consideration of the common good. Otherwise, the management techniques they promote can lead to a dehumanised economy where unrestrained search for profits and short-termism lead to poor results.
We all know that “with great power comes great responsibility”, and this also applies to the role of business schools in both economic prosperity and possible recessions. Business schools do have a strong responsibility in their immediate surroundings, their local economies and the global economy.
Now that Europe again needs to sort itself out and to recover growth and prosperity, European business schools must be key players in the future of the region. Those business schools that have acknowledged their crucial role – training leaders to be competent, responsible and accountable – can contribute to this important goal.
Franz Heukamp is associate dean of MBA programmes at IESE Business School at the University of Navarra, which is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of its MBA programme.