Nick Barniville is Associate Dean at ESMT, the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin. ESMT is a business school founded and supported by 25 leading German corporations and is positioned as Germany's most international business school. We caught up with Nick recently to discuss ESMT's journey to date and how it plans to evolve moving forward. We also wanted to quiz him on prescient issues such as what the future holds for business education and how technology is going to shape pedagogy in higher education. Here's what we discovered...
ESMT was founded in 2002 by 25 leading German companies who wanted to develop management talent in Germany. Do you think that being founded by business makes you different from other business schools?
Yes. First of all from the teaching side, given that faculty are heavily influenced by what's going on in executive education and are very industry-oriented. All our faculty have experience in teaching executives and can bring this into the classroom.
Secondly, we have a great sounding board from companies when developing programmes so we can immediately what is going to resonate with the market. Overall, the fact that we are a top academic research school but highly industry-driven makes a difference in terms of relevance.
ESMT is the fastest in history to be triple accredited and is ranked as 24th top European business school according to the FT rankings. What do you think were the main aspects that positively contributed to that?
The fact that we are the "most German" international business school really helps, since Germans are generally good at the establishment of processes, and processes are important for accreditors. It's a really professional environment here with a very coherent structure and logic in the style of Germany. We don't cut corners, and established the key processes that help with accreditation very early on.
We also combine entrepreneurial attitude with commitment to top level research which also helps.
I believe ESMT had the foresight to be in the right place at the right time. When we entered the German business school industry there was huge opportunity in terms of the attractiveness for international candidates, corporates and executive education. We became the most international German business school while being the 'most German' international business school.
We also have an excellent, experienced team at ESMT. Most of us have previous experience in the sector. In our small degrees team, we've got people who have worked in IMD, Columbia, LBS, HEC Paris, Rotterdam, Hult and Insead. We have experience of "big school" life, and can use this experience to shape a more collaborative culture.
You highlight the culture of intimacy and the non-bureaucracy environment at ESMT. Do you think students nowadays value these more in comparison with business school rankings?
Applicants should definitely value culture, but is probably the hardest thing for students to understand before they get to campus and actually experience it. When evaluating ESMT, students can speak with alumni and get an overall feeling but it’s only when people have a physical touchpoint that they understand our culture, as well as the importance of student collaboration.
Although the school’s culture should be taken into account, rankings still play an important role in the applicant's decision making. However, there's a big problem here. Many rankings are based on average salaries. But the average salary after graduation is a metric that is utterly irrelevant at the level of the individual. It doesn't take into account the background of the individual. Nor the range. But at least it can be measured. I would really encourage people to get in touch with the school that they’re applying for and get a feeling for the softer factors.
This is really important for our yield. The number of people who accept our offer is probably higher than the average because people get to know us and get this intangible culture input.
" The average salary after graduation is a metric that is utterly irrelevant at the level of the individual... but at least it can be measured."
In your opinion, how important is the admissions experience in the student's decision making process when choosing a business school?
I think the admissions process is extremely important. Students want a seamless and comprehensive admissions experience.
From a process and system perspective, everything needs to appear very professional while maintaining a human side that conveys empathy, transparency and authenticity. At ESMT we are extremely honest with our candidates and give feedback even to those candidates who don’t receive an offer. Ultimately, we need to have a customer focus. It's a very competitive market. Applicants have choices. We need to put our best foot forward from the very first interaction.
"Students want a seamless and comprehensive admissions experience."
We invest time with candidates even before the application to advice prospects on wether to investing time in their application. These conversations for me are more important than our selectivity rate. Admitting only 10% of applicants means that we have encouraged 90% of applicants to waste their time. Yet many prospects consider this a positive number. It baffles me somewhat.
ESMT is still a relatively young school compared with other business schools. What are the future plans and goals for ESMT?
So we’re effectively still a teenager. We'll be 18 in 2020, so officially an adult. Our main target now is faculty growth. We want to double our faculty over the next five years . We also want to introduce new programmes with a blended format and invest more in technology.
The market for full-time MBAs is stable, but not growing. We will probably keep our face-to-face MBA and EMBA relatively small, aiming to keep attracting the best possible talent that want to study in Germany. But there is huge growth on the pre-experience masters level. We see great potential for expansion here. We also want to innovate a lot in Executive Education, offering new programmes and new formats with blended content.
"We see great potential for expansion in our Masters programmes "
ESMT is one of the founding members of FOME (Future of Management Education) alliance. Can you talk us more about FOME?
The Future of Management Education (FOME) is a consortium of business schools who have agreed to work together and create the world’s best blended or online learning platform for management education. We are competing directly with Cousera and EDX, 2U and GetSmarter.
We have created our own platform, which actually started as spin-off from Imperial College London. ESMT took equity in the spin off company. We’ve been joined by seven other business schools and we’re all co-developing this platform together.
It’s an open innovation platform that will provide a common standard enabling new technologies and pedagogies to be shared across the alliance.
You’re currently also leading ESMT’s EdTech Lab. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, this is actually linked with our participation in FOME. We had a discussion at our executive management team about how to structure our blended learning development and I was excited to be given the opportunity.
I believe blended learning is the future and I now lead the Edtech lab here at ESMT. The Edtech Lab is a new team composed by learning designers, product managers and media production team members. The team is growing rapidly.
"I believe blended learning is the future"
We started our platform agreement with the FOME alliance about 12 months ago and launched our first blended MBA full-degree programme last month. From hiring the first person in the edtech team to launching this programme, it took 11 months.
How would you describe your current role as Associate Dean at ESMT?
I am a translator and filler. I translate school strategy for our team, and then I fill in gaps. I run marketing, admissions, programme operations, career services and our edtech team. I lead a team of about 30 people, from 15 countries. I am fortunate to work with colleagues who are extremely competent, self-driven, independent and experienced. My job is to enable the team to perform at its best by removing obstacles to their progress.
As long as I can perform on day-to-day targets, I am relatively autonomous in the rest of my job. This allows me to focus on social impact initiatives, mainly in Africa, as well as developing international partnerships and and experiment in other new business areas.
In your opinion, how is technology helping to shape higher education from a pedagogical perspective?
I think transaction knowledge is going online and transformational knowledge will continue to be best served in a classroom environment.
Online adaptive learning allows everybody to work at their own pace at different times. I believe the challenge will be in understanding how much face-to-face should be kept in the programmes. At the moment we’re not planning in going fully online and I believe the future for business education is blended learning.
What do you think will be the future of business education and the key challenges that business schools will face in the next five to ten years?
I don’t think the university experience is going away anytime soon. University days provide a fantastic opportunity for personal growth. When I look back at my own college days, those were some of the best days of my life, and I don’t think those experiences should be taken away from anybody.
I think the nature of business education is already changing radically, particularly in full-time MBA programmes. Our programme is 90% international and more than 90% of our graduates take their first job in Germany so for us, the MBA is more a career transition programme into a market. If I look at the German market, companies are not looking at General Management skills alone. They value sector or functional experience, and we have adapted our programme to reflect this.
"I think transaction knowledge is going online and transformational knowledge will continue to be best served in a classroom environment."
In executive education, our ability to succeed will rely on our ability to meet the client where they want to be met which I think will be a combination of face-to-face and online learning spaces. People are not going to be as interested in participating in an educational experience on a full-time basis as before.
The challenge is for business schools to continue to innovate, be relevant and to be demand and market driven.
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