Companies aim to build businesses rivalling long established academic institutions © Getty Images

Asha Haji earned her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2011. But, now, she is building a business aiming to compete with it and other traditional academic institutions.

In 2021, she co-founded Framework — one of several “alt MBA” companies deploying technology to deliver cost-effective business education to time-poor professionals. And, so far, her London-based operation has raised $2mn to build an “on-demand business school” targeted at start-ups.

“People at start-ups often say ‘I wish I had an MBA,’ but they don’t have the money or time,” explains Haji. “We’re democratising access to business school. We don’t think it’s fit for purpose for the market we are serving.”

Students learn classic MBA principles, such as Michael Porter’s “five forces” that determine the state of competition in a given sector. But they do so in bite-sized form, via digital cards that can be read in 10 minutes. There are also live discussions with tech leaders, and peer networking.

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The company uses a subscription model, whereby start-ups pay an annual £240 fee for each employee to access Framework. In comparison, Harvard charges $73,440 in annual MBA tuition.

While traditional MBAs are still desired for many leadership roles, digital alternatives are gaining momentum, as demand for flexible and affordable learning increases.

“We’re experiencing explosive growth,” says Bjorn Billhardt, chief executive of Abilitie in Texas, which provides a 12-week virtual mini-MBA priced at $1,850 that teaches through team-based business simulations.

Overall, applications rose 51 per cent last year, even as other online providers have suffered a post-Covid slowdown. Billhardt puts the growth down to companies using learning programmes to attract and retain talent at a time when labour markets are tight. “There’s still a hunger for talent within companies,” he says. “Training is seen as a top employee benefit.” 

Quantic School of Business and Technology in Washington, DC, describes itself as a “mobile-first business school”, as it offers a 14-month online MBA that students complete mostly on their smartphones. Tuition fees are $950 per month.

The course attracts many people who would not even think about a classic MBA, says Quantic’s co-founder and president, Tom Adams. “They’re not considering spending $170,000 to go to Wharton, they’re considering a hodgepodge of courses to cover all bases.”  

Adams, himself, has a conventional MBA from Insead business school in France but he says you do not need one to get ahead in business. “The MBA is very glamorised. It’s not necessary, but it’s helpful.” 

However, Anne Trumbore, chief digital learning officer at the Sands Institute for Lifelong Learning, part of University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, sees one clear advantage with a conventional course: consistent quality standards, ensured through globally recognised accreditations. “We’re placing a bet that the brand name still means something to people,” she says.

Trumbore believes many learners also want the type of high-quality in-person experience that is provided by campus-taught MBA programmes. Even in a digital era, she notes that, “people still pay to go to Disneyland”.

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