With the emergence of 'corporate universities', the dominance of the internet in learning and the current review of business schools by the newly DfEE-created Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership, business schools and their relationship with businesses are now, more than ever, being put under the microscope.
True, the relationship between business and business schools is always evolving - but now the changes are more fundamental. Behind this metamorphosis are two main drivers - technology and ownership. It's obvious that business schools - like any other service providers - are subject to the transformational effects of B2B e-commerce. If they can't 'enable' their service provision via the internet, they will wither.
Those that enthusiastically adapt to this e-business world will thrive and will retain their traditional high-touch attendance courses at campuses and country retreats. Attendance at such courses will increasingly be a privilege for a few managers, in terms of taking a few days out from the workplace. Equally, the retention of such activities and their related resources will be the privilege of only a few business schools.
This style of management development activity will probably become the educational equivalent of live pop concerts, theatre and sport. Most people will get their main diet by sitting in front of a screen, but will still value the opportunity of occasional interaction with the live event. So it will be for managers and management education, and the consequence for business schools is clear.
To add to the instability, another, related, change is occurring. It is to do with power and ownership. No longer is there a simple supplier/consumer relationship between business schools and business. For the 30 years since business schools proved their relevance and overcame the scepticism of some industrialists, the power has remained with the supplier. Star faculty, business school gurus and attractive facilities, coupled with the inexperience or lack of confidence of business as buyers of management education, have preserved this relationship.
Now it is changing. Businesses no longer accept a passive role in what is finally recognised as an activity critical to business success. They demand services to suit their needs, at times and places that suit them.
They demand clear relevance, an applications orientation, high and consistent quality and value for money. They wish to attach their name to the activity, to have ownership of it - they seek control. The evidence is there for all business schools - through the continuing decline of long, open, senior management courses at schools and the rapid growth of customised courses.
This change in relationship has been sped along by developments in technology, but it is not just a consequence of them. It is the most evident aspect of a broader change - the higher education world becomes more market dependent and thus eventually more market orientated. Business education is at the frontier of such change.
The most dramatic evidence is the growth of corporate universities. There are now - allegedly - more than 1,500 in the US and a few hundred in the UK. As we found in our own research, 'Corporate Universities - Learning Partnerships for the Future', some are no more than re-labelled company training departments. Few have the characteristics of traditional universities and many have avoided the university title, preferring less ambitious names such as 'academy'. Many focus specifically on one area, such as business and management. However, there are major trends: the manifestation of internationalisation, recovery of control, and the self-branding of education and training.
In the face of such changes, UK universities and business schools can plead special circumstances that will restrict their ability to respond.
They would be right to point to increased external regulation and control from, or on behalf of, government, shortages of good faculty, funding difficulties, increased overseas competition and so on. But nothing will be gained from such pleas. Large and influential businesses can simply take their business elsewhere to more flexible providers in more open, less regulated countries. Indeed, with operations in many countries, they are unlikely to be dependent on one or even a few suppliers only.
So the power is now with the consumer. It must be hoped therefore that it will be used responsibly. We should hope also that business schools realise they have one powerful factor in their favour - their reputation.
'Internationalised' management education, provided by businesses for their people, must also be influenced by those people. They, mindful of their future careers, will prefer their development - particularly their qualifications - to have a respected label. That reputation - the brand - is the schools' major remaining weapon. Used appropriately, it should ensure for some, at least, an influential role in a changed relationship.
Alternatively, some major schools may prefer to adopt different, more specialist, roles and conduct their work with business via new and less cumbersome suppliers in which they have taken an interest - through, for example, an equity stake.