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Repositioning the MBA Northeastern University takes a product development approach to education, revamping its curriculum around the needs of partner corporations. This approach allows the school to differentiate its program and turn out graduates its market really needs. by Thomas E. Moore With over 120,000 MBA degrees awarded in the U.S. each year, business schools are scrambling to differentiate themselves from the pack. Unfortunately, most business schools end up being pale imitations of top-tier schools, set apart only by their marketing hype and slight cosmetic differences. Few of them attempt fundamental shifts in focus to wrench themselves away from the same old routines. At Northeastern University's College of Business Administration, we believe true differentiation requires administrators to take a cold, hard look at their core competencies and the market demand for their students so they can turn out gradu- ates who truly serve their markets. We have revamped our entire MBA program after analyzing which companies hire most of our graduates for which positions, determining what skills these companies prize most highly in their new MBA hires, and structuring our curriculum around those skill sets and career paths. Our strategy was to approach business education as if it were any marketable commodity and apply common business analysis to the question of improving our product. We treated key employers as our customers, made ourselves intimately familiar with their requirements, and enlisted their support in identifying what they look for in the graduates they hire. This strategy helped us develop a systematic program of skill development workshops and exercises for our students. It also led us to limit the number of career paths for which we would prepare graduates. To launch our product development methodology, we used the five-part Stage- Gate process developed by Robert G. Cooper, a world expert in the field of new product management. While the process is widely used by firms driving new prod- ucts to market, we chose a simplified version as we retooled our MBA program in our quest for true market differentiation. STAGE ONE: Identifying the Customer and the Market We began our market analysis in late 2004 with a preliminary investigation that helped us identify both the customers we serve and the products we offer. All the research work was handled internally by three faculty and three senior administrators. Traditionally, business schools have perceived their students as their customers, and programs have been focused almost exclusively on student needs. At Northeastern, we decided to consider the hiring companies as our customers. We looked at our stu- dents as both our products and our partners in creating value for those customers. In our preliminary investigation, we examined our market space and tried to determine where our MBAs were headed with their career choices. First, our team reviewed the competitive landscape to better understand how other MBA programs were differentiating themselves. We also took a hard look at our successful graduate placements of the last few years and at those companies with which we enjoyed the best relationships. Then we conducted literature reviews of the skill sets and char- acteristics that companies said they needed from MBAs today. We were surprised when the picture that emerged did not suit the comfortable concept we all had of the product that an MBA program should deliver. Companies 50 BizEd JULY/AUGUST 2007

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