Why we should see education as a platform business

How can higher education institutions take inspiration from companies like Facebook and Airbnb? We spoke to Ewa Maciejewski, Vice Director at the University of St.Gallen MBA program, to learn more about the fast pace of change in the industry today, why we should consider education as a platform business, and why students should take this into account when selecting an MBA program.

In short

What does it mean to be a “platform” business?

Facebook. Uber. Airbnb. These are all companies that run on a platform business model, creating value by facilitating interaction between two groups (i.e. the consumer and the producer). For Ewa, the ultimate goal is “to start to see what we do [at the University of St.Gallen] as a platform business.” (03:55)

She explains, “No one uses that expression in relation to education. We’re used to hearing this in the digital world. Facebook is a platform business, right? Airbnb is a platform business. No one talks about education as a platform business, but if you want to be relevant, effectively that’s what you’re doing. You’re creating a platform onto which people can come, contribute, and leave…Everybody has the option to participate and engage in this platform, to take what they want out of it, and then move on. This is how I see ourselves going forward.” (04:04)

So, why should education be run as a platform business?

Reason #1: Learning by doing is queen

Business education is no longer just something that happens in the classroom. It is no longer delivered through traditional formats, with a professor standing at the front of the classroom explaining a model or framework. Today, business education is all about project-based, learning by doing. This allows MBA students to constantly negotiate between theory and practice, to develop skills through the application of theory and out in the real world.

By operating as a platform business, the University of St.Gallen’s MBA students are fully flexible to source projects externally and individually, so this learning-by-doing element is congruent with their unique career goals – it gets them closer to where they are heading career-wise. As a program, the university is open to experimentation with a very diverse range of hands-on learning experiences.

Reason #2: MBA students bring their experience to the classroom

MBA students already enter their programs with a wealth of industry experience, which means MBA faculty must meet a higher standard of credibility. At the University of St.Gallen, this credibility comes from having both academic and practical experience, in which faculty have applied and practiced important research themselves. Very few faculty at St.Gallen are pure academics, and they continue to engage in consulting projects outside of their teaching duties.

The University of St.Gallen’s platform business mindset influences the type of faculty profile delivering MBA course content. They are able to select faculty who can effectively jump between academic insights and stories from the frontlines of business. Working with faculty who are active practitioners, enables MBA students to establish a sense of common ground that they also understand the real world.

Reason #3: The fast pace of change

With the world of work experiencing constant change and increasing complexity, business education faces an equally high pressure to change with it. To adapt to this fast pace of change, the University of St.Gallen places a great emphasis on recruiting faculty directly from industries outside of the university. In any given year, in the full-time MBA program alone, the school hires a total of 86 individual lecturers. Of that 86, only 17 are pure academics (i.e. professors). Forty-nine of those 86 are industry experts, while the rest serve as executive coaches, communication trainers, and others. 

By operating as a platform business, the University of St.Gallen’s default position is that change is inevitable, change is good, and change happens fast. By design, the school can rapidly source new faculty experts and develop new offerings, providing value to its MBA students via the speed at which they can implement updates.

Reason #4: The impact of change - what will the future look like?

It’s crucial to think about what industries will look like when MBA students graduate. Today, it’s all about data science and digital transformation – but what skills will be in demand tomorrow? Unsurprisingly, the answer is digital.

Ewa tells us, over the next 10 years, the biggest value students can bring to employers is in these two sets of skills: the first set is managerial skills (hard and soft skills like strategy and communication) and the second set of skills is digital skills (in the future, it’s going to be very hard to be a manager without being able to analyze your own data). 

The university’s platform business mindset allows them to think broadly and freely about how to best equip their students with the in-demand skillsets that employers are prioritizing in new hires. 

Choreographing the ultimate MBA experience

Traditionally, schools have functioned as “ivory towers,” where knowledge is sacred and kept within the confines of the school. St.Gallen has shifted the paradigm towards being a platform business, which means curricula can more easily change and adapt with the times. By building partnerships with other universities, business schools, and specialist academic institutions, St.Gallen is democratizing education and allowing its students to master relevant, future-proof skills, so they are well-equipped to enter the modern workforce. This year, for example, St.Gallen has worked with Propulsion Academy in Zürich, which specializes in teaching digital skills, and EPFL Innovation Park in Lausanne, whose strength is corporate and startup partnering.

Ultimately, the job of anyone running an MBA program is to choreograph a cohesive learning and development experience. “Too often in education, we talk about courses. We talk about learning…and learning difficulties and teaching. But we don’t talk about the experience,” Ewa says. “What we need to do is really focus on that experience [and the] design of it so that it somehow makes sense.” (02:44)

Shifting the paradigm

By thinking of themselves as a “platform business,” the University of St.Gallen has shifted the paradigm of what it means to be a business school in the 21st century. They are creating an ecosystem; a space and infrastructure where students can come to learn and practice, and do so by creating their own, highly personalized learning experiences. Their job is not to teach, but to facilitate learning and development by allowing numerous stakeholders to interact together. 

To conclude, a “platform business school” is a model that facilitates interactions at scale. These interactions can be short- or long-term. The aim is to achieve a shared outcome of accelerated, hands-on, and highly relevant learning – that is where the value add is.

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