In 2009, when Captain Sullenberger stunned the world by safely landing a packed Airbus A320 on the Hudson River, Mr Nitish Jain, President of the S P Jain School of Global Management, was one of the millions watching in awe. And when the Captain credited his training in simulators as teaching him the skills to achieve such a feat, it struck a powerful cord with the businessman: “Pilots get trained for all conditions, including cyclonic weather for example. So do they wait for a cyclone to appear then go into the sky and learn how to fly the plane? No, else we would have no pilots, they would all be dead! Business is no different. It has an equal factor of cyclonic conditions and there’s a lot of unpredictability. People need to know how to weather the storms.”
This simulation-led, practice-makes-perfect approach is behind the blended, real-life skills training being offered to MBA students at S P Jain. Barely 12 years old, in the last five years the school has picked up a string of accolades that have seen it appear on the top rankings from Forbes, The Economist and the Financial Times, putting it firmly on the same prestigious ground as legacy heavy-weights such as Harvard, Stanford and the London Business School. This is no small accomplishment—the competition is more than 10,000 strong, meaning the most influential listings only recognize the top 1% at most. Nitish credits the rapid success of his brainchild to methods built on analysis and innovation, making its graduates some of the most sought after in the world, and making the school something of an anomaly.
“We have achieved something that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been done before, which is to become a global top ten business school in 11 years. Other well-reputed schools have been around for over a hundred years—to see a school born in the 21st century listed in the top rankings is something completely unusual.”
Since opening its doors in Dubai in 2004, the school has implemented a global learning approach for an international and rapidly-evolving business environment. A key part of this model is to source the most talented students from emerging countries and help them to acquire first-world jobs. The stellar results speak for themselves. Of the thousands of hopeful applicants for the one-year MBA course, only the top 9% are accepted. Once graduated around 97% find employment within 3 months, and they can expect to demand significantly higher salaries within five years—according to figures from Forbes the average pre-MBA salary of the class of 2010 was $12,000; by 2014 it was $57,000.
Nitish found his inspiration while climbing the career ladder himself. The President spent his formative years building up a successful business before selling it on to a large international corporation. The experience opened his eyes to the changing needs of multi-national corporates and the resulting gaps in traditional curriculums.
“In 2004 a lot of businesses were becoming global, and when you looked around and saw what business schools were doing, they were local. The philosophy under which S P Jain was set up is that if business is global, business schools too should be global. So in rapid succession we opened four campuses—and if you come back in two years’ time we’ll have another two.”
These campuses—so far in Dubai, Singapore, Sydney and Mumbai—each offer students a unique experience. By following a tri-city model and working in no less than three cities, with cultures that epitomize widely varying western, eastern and Arabic working practices, graduates are taught to think flexibly and make quick, effective decisions while considering differing international values and social issues.
Safiyah Alli, Regional Operations Director for Manpower in the Middle East, agrees that an international angle is becoming vital in the current job market: “Employers now increasingly want their employees to acquire a global outlook in business. Given the importance of global markets, organizations understand that knowledge of international markets, as well as the cultural practices pertaining to them, is closely tied to a company’s success overseas. Someone already possessing international awareness and working experience will be attractive to many employers.”
And it’s not just employers that recognize the benefits of combining travel with further study. According to a 2015 survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), across the world 52% of prospective students look to go abroad to pursue their education. And this is rising most sharply among those from the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions, with 72% of candidates from the Middle East preferring to study abroad in 2014 compared to 58% in 2010.
Providing students with this opportunity is at the core of Nitish’s approach: “Many of the top schools do a good job when it comes to the classroom learning and technical skills, but how you do business in Dubai can be very different to how you do business in another country. You may be a great success in Dubai, and you may be a miserable failure in Singapore if you have not understood that business practices, political systems and consumer preferences can differ. If you do not understand this then you will fail. I think this is something that we do uniquely.”
“When you look under the surface there are many things we do that other schools don’t, and that is what creates a pool of talented students who get jobs with the top companies. They do extremely well, their salaries go up, and that gets measured. So we get the rankings because we get the results. And when you think about how you make your students more employable, it’s firstly about finding out what traits 21st century recruiters look for.”
This isn’t done randomly. Nitish has brought together a number of industry kingpins to form advisory boards for each of the school’s campuses, and works with them to share insights so that new programmes and ideas fulfil the recruitment needs of world-class organisations. Some of the names on these boards include CEOs and directors from Facebook, Google, Hewlett Packard, Bayt, McKinsey, Microsoft, Landmark and Rolls Royce, to name a few—representing an unrivalled wealth of experience and opportunity.
This should be music to the ears of applicants. GMAC figures show that 65% pursue graduate management education to increase the job opportunities available to them, including those seeking to enhance their current career (34%), switch careers (38%), or aspiring entrepreneurs (28%). Suresh Kumar, Chairman of Values Group, believes that future employers will hunt out applicants with a strong sense of “team work and the adaptability to change”, particularly valuing “the innate sense to seek solutions in ‘problems’ as well as opportunities in every challenge.”
Safiyah can see that what employers are looking for is changing: “As organisations continue to evolve with the pace of technology and demographic diversity, employers’ requirements for graduate hiring will alter. Employers may look for candidates that have advanced technological experience, leadership qualities that can relate and align with the new demographical generation of the business, networking and stronger interpersonal skills, as well as an understanding of alternative working methodologies and change management. For example virtual offices and smart offices may be the future for organisations and the new generation of employees.”
Its focus on producing the savviest graduates for the best jobs is one of the qualities that make S P Jain stand out. The school aims to produce business-ready employees capable of tackling whatever may face them from the outset. Nitish is critical of courses that focus on simply passing on information to students and then testing them on how much they remember: “Most business schools follow an MBA curriculum that was designed 40 or 50 years ago and they haven’t changed it much, but I don’t go to school for knowledge anymore; I go to school for who I am, not what I know. You don’t need to go to business school to get information; you need to go to learn to think in a certain way.”
He makes a good point. In today’s world the abundance of information at our fingertips is staggering. Many of us access more information before breakfast than you could have found in a library 50 years ago. In 2012 it was estimated that between eight to ten billion devices in the world were connected to the internet, by 2015 this had risen to 15 billion and by 2020 there could be up to 40 billion. So to shift focus away from testing how much a student knows at a certain point in time and onto overseeing how they find and use data to develop solutions is a common-sense approach for a digitally-minded society. Nitish believes that the graduate of tomorrow needs most of all to be able to “find information, analyze it, synthesize, create, innovate and use technology.”
And it’s not enough for students to just learn these skills; they must be able to work independently and with minimal direction so they grow in confidence as well as ability. To teach this, S P Jain embraces the concept of blended learning. By marrying online resources with face-to-face interaction, students are given the power to control their own progress at the same time as learning from their peers and teachers.
Nitish is a firm believer in this method, which he describes as a “recipe” for balance. “If you cannot learn by yourself you will be out of date two years after you graduate. We have never been taught this because we are spoon-fed, but how good are you in the workplace after that? Do you stand out? Do you come up with new ideas?
“In the old days we created hard-wired people, but today you need a programmable CPU, because it’s changing all the time. All the different parts of your brain need to be sparked up and activated. It’s called learning agility. When you go to Google or Facebook they want to know whether you’re an agile learner, because the technology is changing by the second. You cannot stop progress. When you look at education, you need different graduates for a new world. You need people that can operate on their own without supervision because they are self-driven.”
Other techniques designed to replicate real-life challenges and encourage independent thinking include intense classroom simulations and student boardrooms, so students learn in carefully designed group scenarios how to make the groundbreaking decisions that top executives face daily.
As part of its one-year MBA, S P Jain uses no less than 14 computer simulations to train students in how to deal with different significant events, pitting them against each other to find the best way of handling the risk. Nitish explains that once they have faced the issue, explored how other people have dealt with it and looked at it again, it becomes one more problem that shouldn’t faze them in future: “Every time you see something new, you develop a new cell in your brain. This is about broad thinking— every day your knowledge becomes deeper and deeper. And how you grow in a company is because of your intellectual capabilities and your ability to effectively implement your strategic plans. It comes down to decision-making.”
Professor Christopher Abraham, Head of S P Jain’s Dubai Campus and Senior Vice President of Institutional Development, describes it to me as a type of brain-training: “This is the neuroscience behind learning. You only become a better decision maker by practicing. The more you practice the stronger your neuro-processors become and you become better at making judgments.”
And learning to make judgments is also the main aim of the student boardrooms, where students are given a problem to solve, as well as the tools and techniques to help them make their decisions: “They do this every day, so their mind gets trained to think in this way, and when they go join the workforce they are much more capable and are contributing to the company straight away, as opposed to somebody who’s just been taught to learn and sit for exams.”
Considering the demonstrable results, why have these approaches not been used to such a degree by other schools? Nitish puts it down to the nimbleness of being a new player: “Many other schools are very big and bureaucratic. Every industry needs a disruptor. It’s like the floppy disc industry— one day we’re all using floppy discs, then one day it magically stopped. And the disruption is going to come from a private player like us, not from a government-funded university. Some of them will get there, but some of them will just plain die because they can’t change. There’s a tidal wave coming at you and it will spare no-one.
“If you ask me what’s in store for the next five or ten years I think more innovation at a faster pace. That means understanding deeply what companies look for when they hire people and being ahead of the game in creating the kind of talent that they need.”
Safiyah agrees that the right MBA can go far when it comes to finding the right role: “As companies are increasingly looking to create efficiencies, hiring the right people becomes more important. An MBA from a reputable business school can boost employability by providing employers with diverse strategic skills and business principles to succeed in the business world. It’s a distinct differentiator in a saturated marketplace, and an attractive one for employers who need people with high business and commercial acumen.”
As Nitish continues to hunt out the right location for his next campus, and the one after that, the international reach of this rankings-winner is set to keep expanding. Good news for employers, students and global business.