The DBA: The missing link?

Gaël Fouillard, Director of Executive Education

In this post, Grenoble Ecole de Management Director of Executive Education Gaël FOUILLARD discusses the benefits of collaboration between researchers and corporate partners and points out the advantages of efficiently connecting both parties in order to bring relevant research, knowledge, and added value to the partners and customers.

The DBA community is an essential valuable resource that can be tapped by employing a more systematic approach and cultivating better communication between the DBA community and Executive Education, and this could help identify future strategic opportunities.

How can business schools contribute more efficiently to corporate learning? Can research developed at business schools be of any use to our corporate partners? Will executive education departments in business schools disappear as corporate universities develop? How can business schools offer more value than “vendors” or consultants?

These questions have been debated for years by academics and professionals. For many business schools, the missing link between research and executive education is still a hot topic, as research-based executive education is the “holy grail” in the eyes of international accreditations. Some schools have chosen to ignore this challenge and consider research and executive education as different activities with very little or no interaction. Therefore, they recruit faculty who carry on academic research and publish in academic journals, while executive education contracts are staffed with a second set of professors and consultants who are not involved at all in the research activities. Consequently, very few institutions have traditionally managed to efficiently connect both activities because it requires at least two key assets:

  • Star faculty (gurus) who not only are good researchers but also have sufficient interactions with the business world to identify research topics of interest to corporations in order to produce rigorous academic knowledge that is potentially useful in the real world; and
  • An organization that effectively supports these individuals to create and disseminate this knowledge, often by constituting teams of experts who work closely with the faculty (including PhD students) and who have the legitimacy to design and deliver content based on the concepts and research produced by the faculty.

While this model works for a few elite institutions in the world (Harvard, IESE, LBS) that have both the notoriety and financial resources to maintain it, it seems out of reach for most business schools, even those accredited and well ranked internationally, like GEM. As a result, even the best schools find it harder and harder to sustain this model because many of their corporate clients are not convinced of the actual ROI and question the stratospheric rates that these schools are charging. So what will come next? Will business schools or will they let corporations develop their own alternatives and thereby take the risk of being excluded from this activity?

After a couple of years of experience managing the Grenoble Ecole de Management Executive Education Programs, I have acquired the conviction that GEM could have part of the answer with its DBA community. This belief is the result of many observations and discussions with GEM colleagues, DBA candidates, and alumni and also corporate clients and experts in executive education.

Source: Google Images

I should acknowledge one of these experts because his ideas have directly shaped my belief. The fact that Jim Pulcrano is a DBA graduate only comes as a bonus. When I met him for the first time two years ago, I had just taken over the responsibility of Executive Education at GEM, and he was preparing a study on the relationships between corporate universities and business schools. From this paper commissioned by an association of leading business schools that he coauthored with three other experts, I have selected two key ideas:

  • Top business school executive education is seen by many corporations as too expensive and often not always relevant enough; and
  • Corporations expect business schools and their faculty to provide more value than other providers if they are going to charge premium rates.

Based on recommendations from the paper, some have suggested that deans of business schools should revise their financial expectations when it comes to executive education activity (Loïck, if you’re reading this newsletter, this is the important part!), but others have insisted business schools and corporations could find avenues for better cooperation beyond financial gains. This is where I think the DBA community can become an extraordinary source of value for all. Here I offer some initial ideas, but there are certainly many other ways to design and build this bridge.

First, the nature of the DBA program and the experience of the DBA candidates is a fantastic asset for developing cooperation beyond the traditional ground of executive education. Obviously, GEM already leverages some of this asset in various ways, as several of you are or have been involved in the design or delivery of programs. Most recently,  Franck Rouault (DBA 2015) has joined the GEM team that delivers a national program for FNAC, which aims at training all store directors and managers (over 600 participants in all regions of France) over the next 18 months. Many other DBA candidates or alumni have been working with us, but in the case of Franck’s contribution, it is interesting to see that the output of his DBA research is directly used in this program—back to the “holy grail” of research-based executive education! Some of the models and methodologies he’s developed to teach strategic management are being implemented in this program.

Source: Pixabay

Getting more DBAs to contribute to executive education programs is certainly interesting and could be developed, but we should go beyond this first level of interaction. As you may know, GEM delivers programs for a number of large French companies (Orange, Michelin, Safran, Renault, Groupama, FNAC, ST Micro, and others) and sometimes for international clients. At the moment, these contracts are often limited to the design and delivery of a custom executive education program. Sometimes, these programs generate a lot of knowledge or bring to light new questions or challenges; however, despite the proximity and level of trust built with the corporate leaders, it is very unlikely that GEM will valorize or capitalize on these. An excellent example of this is the largest program that we are currently running with Orange. Three years ago, GEM was selected to accompany Orange on the transformation of its managerial culture with a focus on customer centricity and managerial agility. After three years of deployment, the program has trained over 2,000 managers at Orange, and they have conducted several hundred projects, each of which was completed by a team of four or five managers who identified an issue and worked together to fix it. Although some of the projects have created great value for Orange, nothing has been done to valorize the knowledge contained in these projects, and retrospectively, one thinks some DBA candidate could have followed this program and wrote a thesis on a topic related to it. GEM should definitely use its executive education privileged contacts to develop richer relations with corporations for not only research but also development of pedagogical material (cases, articles, etc.).

Source: Google Image

We can imagine further opportunities to reinforce the existing collaborations between GEM and its DBA community. When I think about it, a lot has happened already. Just last week, I was working on a request for a large international program with Jalal Alex Jalalian, a DBA candidate who introduced GEM to a potential partner in Iran. I can also mention a new joint degree that GEM will be launching soon with a partner in Hong Kong and in which one of our DBA graduates, Cédric Chaffois, will be teaching. There are probably many more. But a more systematic approach and better communication between the DBA community and executive education at GEM could help identify additional opportunities, and this is why Valérie Sabatier and I will arrange opportunities to exchange more information between the DBA community and the executive education programs. This communication in the newsletter is a first call for action; so, I welcome any comments, ideas, or projects you may have. We will also try to meet all current DBA cohorts during future workshops and to keep the community informed of our projects in the future.


One thought on “The DBA: The missing link?

  1. Can a DBA offer more than training but also new perspectives for a school’s corporate ecosystem? Not just an training that some find “expensive” but a better way to address problems, strategic or operational, than what top consulting firms would do? Some consultants can draw a curve through 2 points. The DBA can bring academic rigor to data analysis, with business savvy recommendations, grounded in practitioner’s experience.


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