BEI Survey: Engaging Business School Stakeholders: Is There a Crisis of Engagement?

Perhaps no other organizational topic has garnered as much attention in recent years as that of “engagement.” Organizations of all types have become increasingly concerned with levels of engagement among their key stakeholders, such as employees, customers, shareholders and the community. Like most contemporary organizations, business schools, too, have become interested in the idea of engagement among their core stakeholder groups. Yet, despite this increased interest in business schools, there exists very little information that speaks to issues of engagement in business schools in general and MBA programs in particular.

Ask any dean, program director or faculty member whether engagement matters to a program’s success and the answer is sure to be a resounding, “Of course it does!” But what precisely is engagement in the business school environment, why does it matter and how can it be most effectively influenced? These key concerns were the impetus for the second annual BEI survey series, which includes input from more than 120 North American business school policymakers. In short, the primary goals of this survey series are to more fully understand the nature of engagement in business schools, including its drivers, constraining influences and the various tactics used to enhance engagement.

Defining Engagement and Its Impact

An essential step toward understanding engagement is to first define what it means in the contexts of educational institutions. Dan Feldman, a professor at the University of Georgia, recently authored a chapter on the topic of student engagement in GMAC’s book, “Disrupt or be Disrupted.” We modified his definition to more broadly encompass the wide variety of business school stakeholders beyond just students. This included, but was not limited to, students, faculty, deans, alumni, business community leaders, adjunct faculty, company recruiters, advisory boards and student-led groups. With these stakeholders in mind, we conceptualized engagement as:

The amount of time, energy, resources, commitment and enthusiasm business school stakeholders devote to participating in graduate management education.

Over the years, strong evidence has accumulated showing that stakeholders’ high commitment to and involvement (i.e., engagement) with an organization is positively associated with loyalty, satisfaction and work performance. In addition, such commitment is associated with lower stress and work-family conflict. Thus, the research literature suggests that organizations ought to be quite concerned about the degree to which their primary stakeholders are immersed in the core activities of their institution.

With this mind, the focus of this first installment of our survey series is to explore the extent to which business school policymakers truly see engagement as a critical success factor of their MBA programs. We were particularly interested in the degree to which respondents believe that different stakeholders’ levels of engagement are more (or less) important to their programs’ overall success.

Current Engagement ChartAs can be seen in the figure, only four of the 10 unique stakeholder groups were viewed as critically important to engage (i.e., rated as important or very important to progam success) by the business school policymakers we surveyed. Full-time faculty and students were endorsed by 95 percent of the respondents as critically important, while 86 percent and 71 percent endorsed associate deans/program directors and the school dean, respectively, as critically important. Less than 50 percent of the respondents said the remaining six stakeholder groups were critically important to engage for their program’s overall success.

To gain further insight into engagement levels of these stakeholder groups, we also asked respondents to indicate how currently engaged each stakeholder is in their programs. Plotting these data next to the importance ratings, two patterns emerge rather clearly.

First, policymakers tended to rate the importance of engagement for a given stakeholder group slightly higher than the same group’s actual current engagement level. Indeed, the mean across all “importance” ratings was 64 (SD = 14), whereas the mean for “currently engage” was 58 (SD = 15). This finding suggests opportunities for increasing engagement to align more fully with each stakeholder’s importance. The largest of these gaps are seen in ratings of alumni and business community leaders. However, even for those stakeholder groups seen as the most important to engage (i.e., full-time faculty and students), there was still room for improvement.

A second pattern is that stakeholder groups rated as most important to engage are also the same groups that are reported as being highly engaged, and those rated less critical to engage are similarly seen as being less engaged. Of course it is not clear whether one causes the other; it’s quite possible that policymakers are simply interpreting current levels of engagement as a sign of a group’s overall importance to program success. At the same time, these findings may point to the need to take a hard look at the true levels of engagement across these groups as well as assess the impact of those levels on a program’s overall effectiveness.

Does Everyone Need to be Highly Engaged?

Taken as a whole, it appears that policymakers do differentiate among the various business school stakeholder groups with respect to engagement. This suggests that not all stakeholders are of equal importance. At the broadest level, policymakers seem to see distinctions between internal stakeholders versus external ones, giving much more weight to their internal constituents (including themselves—deans/associate deans). Such differentiation seems inevitable and practical, given the limited resources policymakers have at their disposal to enhance their programs’ success. Broader trends in graduate business education also may serve to further exacerbate the need for heightened engagement across key stakeholders. For example, recent GMAC surveys asking prospective students their “most preferred” program type show that MBA programs requiring less than two years to complete are now highly desirable—leaving even less time to fully engage internal stakeholders.

Yet some of the stark differences in importance beliefs are also somewhat surprising. For instance, at the heart of student engagement in the educational process is the crucial synergy between in-class and co-curricular activities. Student-led groups, however, were only endorsed as important by less than one-third of the respondents. Similarly, it’s surprising that only 20 percent of the respondents report alumni being actively engaged with the program, given the substantial virtuous cycles created through alumni participation (e.g., referrals, donations, job placements). Finally, a clear contrast emerges in the ratings for full-time versus adjunct faculty. As reported over the years by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business-International, roughly 20 percent of faculty are employed as adjunct/part-time. As broader trends regarding non-traditional faculty in higher education suggest, low levels of engagement in this stakeholder group are likely to have deleterious effects on a school’s culture, reputation and learning environment.

All of this is to say that issues surrounding engagement are not so cut-and-dried. As we begin to more fully unpack the results of our second annual BEI survey, we hope to bring some clarity to the opportunities and challenges business schools face and perhaps what can be done to improve our collective efforts toward enhancing engagement.

Click below to read this survey report as a PDF.

Business Education Insider Survey 1 – Engagement

By Erich C. Dierdorff and Robert S. Rubin, DePaul University Driehaus College of Business

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  2. […] as well as how successful these different tactics are at enhancing engagement. Recall from the first installment of survey results, we conceptualized engagement as the amount of time, energy, resources, commitment and enthusiasm […]

  3. […] of respondents believe that success of their program is tied to adjunct engagement, yet as we previously reported, 95 percent believe that an engaged faculty body is critical to their success. It is clear that for […]

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