First, let’s start with disclaimers. I know that it is very easy to make judgments on past decisions, particularly when they look wrong and that the same people who criticize the strategic choices made by a business school, would be the same ones applauding them if they had been successful. Criticizing is easy, doing is difficult. Second disclaimer, I rely only on secondary information and some of the points could be a misinterpretation on my side and some of the suggestions could have been already implemented.
As part of the recent movement of mergers in the world of French business schools, France Business School was created last year by the merger of 4 French business schools: Brest business school, Amiens, Clermont-Ferrand and ESCEM (itself the merger of the business school of Poitiers and Tours a few years ago) on the idea of being different from the crowd, particularly by having a very radically different recruitment system. Without entering into the details, students are currently selected through highly competitive entrance exams based on their basic scholarly skills in mathematics, languages, writing, and on an interview. France Business School decided to break this system by putting in place what it called “Talent Days”, based on group activities, logic and verbal tests (some sort of mini GMAT), and an interview. The idea was that different types of profiles could have access to these Talent Days, outside of the traditional paths. This so far failed, with the number of students applying dropping drastically, the financial situation becoming very bad (in the press, a 40 million Euros deficit is mentioned). The first Dean of France Business School has been fired last week and the School indicated that it would stop the Talent Days recruitment scheme and go back to the traditional mainstream one.
What went wrong?
. this merger is done between schools that were in the second and third tiers in all the rankings (the best one, Clermont, was ranked around 15th to 20th and the worst one, Brest, was ranked around 35th before the merger, out of around 40 business schools in France) some being internationally accredited, others not, raising questions on the overall quality assurance and on the equivalence of studying in one campus or another in terms of learning. In terms of branding, a highly subjective factor, it appears that the lower ranked schools part of consortium have pulled the better ranked ones to end up with a diluted brand image.
. the schools which merged are scattered in France, making the coordination difficult and raising obviously their costs. To make a comparison with the US, it’s like merging schools located in Oregon, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Tennessee. On top of that, it was chosen to have a main office in Paris, with some services and managers decentralized in the different schools.
. the positioning on differentiating pedagogies: more links with the professionals (meaning less academics in the classroom), the extensive use of elearning and other technology lead pedagogies were some of the differentiators announced at the start. The experience shows that, in the French business schools world, there is a certain level of conservatism among the students. It could be counterintuitive, but the Y/Z generation in France still values mainstream pedagogies.
. the loss of one important accreditation. French business schools are accredited also by their own organization, called the Conference des Grandes Ecoles. As FBS was considered as a new entity, it had to reapply for the accreditation, which among others, is highly regarded by the students when they choose a school. And FBS did not get its accreditation for different reasons which are outside of the scope of this blog.
. the choice of recruiting outside of the normal way, already discussed. It deterred students from applying to the school.
. it also had to handle employees under different types of employment contracts, some private, some semi-public and very strong unions in some of the schools.
On overall, FBS did not take sufficiently into account the existing situation of its constituting schools. Putting several third tier schools together, if it can help for the rankings based on absolute numbers, does not raise the intrinsic quality of the new entity. It also did not consider enough the level of conservatism in the French educational system, particularly the business schools’ one, made of many 100 years old institutions, with well-established rules and habits. The French business school system in some ways resembles an English Gentlemen’s Club. You cannot be in and out of at the same time. Either you follow the rules, or you are excluded from the Club.
What could FBS do?
The recent decisions were to have the founding director replaced. Whatever the soundness of this decision, it gives a signal of change, which is always good, if it is not handled in a confused way. A new director has for example to be nominated very soon. It also decided to enter again into the Club, by taking again students based on the mainstream competitive entrance exam.
Being different requires patience and for a large entity, it means money. That’s why radical innovations often come from small organisations, which have the possibility to wait patiently, let the idea diffuse and grow steadily, or from organisations with lots of cash in reserve (think Google Cars), which can afford to invest without any clear returns for many years, which is not the case of the French business schools, often operating near breakeven. If the French market was not receptive to the innovation, it could have tried (and can still try) to get more foreign students, who will be sensitive to the diversity of profiles, to the links with companies, to the possibilities of doing internships and of lending a job. But this requires a specific organization to handle them correctly.
If the focus is on skills, companionnage/guild approach, then it could look at getting all the necessary professional accreditations, which are also valued by employees and students.
The specialization of each campus could also be reinforced. Outside of linking the campus directly to the specificities of the local economies (if there are any of course), it would also favour the creation of research clusters inside the school, instead of having academics of the same disciplines scattered on different campuses.
It could finally go further in its governance autonomy, by becoming for profit, not for the sake of making money, but to give room for investors to come in. Investors are not against putting money into a promising entity, which needs restructuration, but can generate an acceptable ROI after 5 years. It would give some fresh air to develop the specificities.
Revolutionising an old established system requires many factors and the French history has shown that several trials are needed, which failed, before something significant can happen.
“If you try often, you fail often. If you never try, you always fail”
Update 01/09/2014: France Business School will no longer exists and the 4 schools will de-merge and be autonomous again… End of the story…