Branding and Accreditations of Business schools

branding and accreditations

Many university and B-school boards, deans and their staff, spend much attention on costly accreditations. Are accreditations worth the effort and money? Are there other ways of branding Quality? Yes!

Accreditations have value but are overvalued. Their value will diminish as their limitations become more well-known, and more B-schools get them. More versatile, transparent, and efficient ways of assessing quality and branding need to be developed and made widely available. I have a few suggestions.

The value of accreditations depends on your perspective. Are you a potential donor, a company, a professor, a student, a local community, a board, or any other constituent in this context? I will present some facts and aspects on accreditations, and discuss branding. It is not an academic paper, but may be developed into one, or may become an article in e.g. The Conversation
As this project develops, some topics will get an extended read-more page.

Accreditations from the most well-known 'accreditation companiesꜜ' like AACSB, AMBA, and EFMD are set up to produce relatively few winners and many also runners, and non-starters. A better goal would be a concept that produced many winners and perhaps alerted "us" to the sour apples.

Many Business schools do not desire to engage in the costly and cumbersome process of getting an accreditation stamp. Yet they have plans to upgrade their Quality and increase their relevance, as measured by several parameters.

My key advice - Increase your Transparency

Transparency and authenticity are, and will increasingly be critical competitive factors. One relevant example is B-schools, and especially those that have decided not to apply for accreditation by the big three accreditation companies.

branding and accreditations

I assume that almost all Business schools have what I call 'Quality intentions' (Qi), meaning that they have an agenda to provide better education and services. They may, however, not yet, have a formal Quality Assessment (QA) process. These organisations need alternative ways of improving. One model would be to offer a more transparent QA-profile and their Quality Intentions on their website than most accredited B-schools. QI is not just a slick list with grand missions and values. The QI presentation should provide credible plans, stories, lessons learned, and more.

01 Branding of Business schools and their stories

Universities and Business schools need to market their presence, educations, programs, and activities. Internet and social media are two of the transformative channels of how this is done today, and even more in the future.

Before the arrival of the Internet (read the web) companies and organisations pretty much controlled their marketing stories. This has, as most of us know, changed radically. What can a B-school or university "control" and what is more or less dominated by others?

The universities are in a very challenging battle with the large publishing companies about the ecosystem for academic publishing. Companies like Elsevier and Springer are extraordinarily profitable, and university boycotts of their services have at best been moderately successful. Universities have yet to design and carry out a strategy to gain more control of their research publications.

The argument, which will be further developed here, that accreditations add value by strengthening an organisation has some value. However, it can also be viewed as partly surrendering control of a change process to outsiders.

Rankings are a branding tool that the universities and B-schools, in principle, have surrendered to a few large media companies. Read my analysis of ranking of B-schools. I suggest a new model based on Group rankings.

Accreditations are another branding tool, the design of which the B-schools, to a large extent, has surrendered to a few dominating accreditation companies

02 Severe research problems at Business schools

Return to Meaning and Management studies in crisis

It is something of a paradox, to put it mildly, that on the one hand B-schools engage in accreditations and ranking competitions, and on the other hand, increasingly more reports say that management research is in a severe crisis.

'Return to Meaning', Alvesson et al. (2017), ref. and 'Management studies in crisis' Tourish D. (2019), ref. are recent books describing, as they see it, the deplorable state in management and social studies. See also 'Everything that's wrong with management research - in 5 minutes' by Tourish, ref. in 'Management Today', Oct. 2019.

The authors of these books are highly cited and respected professors.

Responsible Research in Business & Management

Another sign of the crisis in management research is the newly started network RRBM - Responsible Research in Business & Management. It is a community (not an EFMD) project with the goal to transform the research culture toward meaningful scholarship for the business and management research field. The founders and a growing number of supporters and endorsers share a vision about the betterment of society through research ...

I have written more about RRBM here.

Increasingly many companies are neutralizing factors like gender, age and place of study. This means that the recruiters in the first - often computerized screening - will not see whether an MBA is from a university of a high-ranked and accredited B-school or a lesser known B-school with a lower rank.

In the Financial Times report on "Responsible business education", one article is titled "Jobseekers want employers to commit to meaningful social impact"

During interviews with jobb candidates at Novozymes, a Danish biotechnology company, Anne Sophie Bisbjerg Lee finds two questions being asked far more frequently than in the past: how is the company making a positive impact on society and how can individual employees make their own social impact at the company?

Ongoing: Contacts and interviews with HR-people and recruiters.

04 Interviews with non accredited Business schools

A large majority of B-schools have chosen not to apply for accreditation by the leading accreditation companies. Do they plan to? Is it a matter of cost? How do they see accreditations?

Ongoing: Contacts and interviews. I would like to hear from you.

05 The Academic Research on Business schools

As the number of B-schools has mushroomed, some say 13-15 000 - one recent reportꜜ says 16.000, it was apparent that this presented a growing opportunity for research. The field can now be said to be a niche of its own. As the subject is of great interest to many influential persons at the universities, it will very likely attract even more attention.

Key question
What is the impact of academic research on accreditations and branding? Have B-schools changed their agendas or processes?

The publishing industry is always searching for markets large enough to sustain a new journal. Many scholars in this field have published articles in journals like 'The Journal of higher education', and 'Higher education', and others. However, I will not be surprised by the appearance of a 'Journal of Branding and Accreditation' or something like that.

'The Academic Arms Race' is a chapter by Enders J. in Pettigrew and al. (2014).

Ongoing: A review of some academic research on branding and accreditations.

06 Accreditation organisations are accreditation companies

There are several international acronym organisations such as AACSB, AMBA, and EFMD (EQUIS) that offer accreditation for the world's approximately 13-15.000 Business schools.

The accreditation organisations present themselves as being non-profit. However, they operate and market their services, which often are referred to as "products", like commercial companies. They have business plans and want to grow like most commercial companies. A more accurate description would be to call them companies, Accreditation companies. Wikipedia Resourcesꜜ

The market for accreditations is and needs in a way to be an oligopoly. How many acronyms brands are there room for "on the shelves" - to use a retail analogy? Their services and implementation processes are costly, which, paradoxically, is attractive to an oligopolist and their clients. What would happen to the status and value of accreditations if their number increased by a factor of say ten?

The accreditation companies have websites that are well worth reading and learn from. Besides some marketing they publish insights and facts which are a close to a "must read" even if your B-school is not in the process of making an accreditation investment.

Introduction to AACSB
"The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business" | AACSB enW

AACSB has 1,700+ member organisations and more than 800 accredited business schools (Oct 2019).

Introduction to AMBA
"The Association of MBAs" | AMBA enW

AMBA "accredit(s) MBA, DBA and Master’s Degree programmes at more than 260 Business schools in over 75 countries"

Introduction to EFMD
"The European Foundation for Management Development" | EFMD enW↗ enW

"With the support of our 900+ members across 91 countries, we act as a catalyst to promote and enhance excellence in management development globally...EFMD is a network for schools and companies that aim to develop socially responsible leaders and managers looking for opportunities to connect with each other."

Other accreditation companies:

There are other accreditation companies, but they will, except one, not be referred to here. ACBSP>, Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, is a US-focused accreditation company. They have a "unique" feature in that their accreditations are valid for 10 years, which significantly reduces the value of the ACBSP brand. This introduces the subject of relevant periods for accreditations. Some of the earlier presented accreditation companies award three and five years periods.

Oversight of accreditation companies:

For "outsiders", it takes a lot of work to understand the, often evolving, accreditation criteria. One answer to this has been the arrival of organisations like CHIA, Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

New bill on US Higher Education Act, source: CHIA website post Oct. 16 2019. The post highlights the dual trends of national oversight and increased transparency, as seen in the quote below

The bill, if its provisions become law, would be a major expansion of federal authority in relation to academic decision-making, setting requirements for the content of some accreditation standards as well as expectations of levels of institutional and program performance. The bill also calls for greater transparency from accreditors.

07 The Accreditation benefits and costs

Network value

If you become a member of a select group the value of your inclusion increases as you forge partnerships with others in the same group. It is a form of an Additional recognition.

Quality improvement value

Accreditations can be viewed as a way for universities and B-schools to improve their organisations, and that they "need" external pressure to achieve this. That is one way, but certainly not the only way.

My view is that accreditations should be viewed as part of a B-schools marketing.

Accrediation costs

Each accreditation is a substantial investment in money, time, and organisational alignment to accreditation criteria. Annual fees and yearly internal compliance reviews, and data gathering are added costs.

The business model of the accreditation companies very likely drives bureaucratic behavior at universities and B-schools.

Ongoing: A general description of the work needed to get an accreditation, and the cost structure.

08 Accreditation processes

Accreditations are a subset of Evaluation and they are both closely related to branding.

What changes in the school have been required to get the accreditations? Do the accreditation associations have very different assessment criteria? Are three accreditations three times better than one? What is the significance of ranking in national and international comparisons? More about the signal value of the accreditations for different constituents in an upcoming post. Also, more will follow about Transparency and the lack of it.

Accreditation as a driving force for internal quality work. The internal quality process will likely be improved by working with the accreditation companies. One example is this article in the journal 'Civilekonomen', 2018 Swedish flag, about the quality work at Jönköping International Business School. Business schools that for various reasons have chosen not to try to be accredited are also likely to conduct internal quality work but differently.

The fact that an organisation increases its accreditation work is not the same as the actual quality perceived by users - in this case, the students and the researchers.

In some countries, a continuous evaluation of higher education is conducted by public authorities, in Sweden by The Swedish Higher Education Authority. They publish criticism and can revoke a business degree.

09 An alternative and more transparent model

Transparency is a powerful alternative to accreditations. However, it will require a lot of work, and internal discussions about the meaning and design of transparency.

Looking at B-schools websites and websites of the 'accreditation associations' you quickly note how great everything is. After a while, you begin to wonder: what is marketing speak and what is the real picture? Many have commented that authenticity will be a central marketing currency in the future.

10 A Swedish perspective

Accreditation is one of the marketing methods used by Lund University School of Economics and Management (LUSEM),   Handelshögskolan in Stockholm, and some other universities and business schools in Sweden. Accreditation can be compared to the Nordic Swan Ecolabel - which by the way is administered by a government-owned company. The Ecolabel can probably today be said to by many be something of an "expected basic requirement", while accreditation is intended to signify that you belong to an elite of the world, in this case, Business schools.

11 A Swedish case - Lund School of Economics and Management (LUSEM)


This picture was taken in the entrance hall at Lund School of Economics and Management (LUSEM) in September 2019. It signals that the accreditations are important for the school's management. It is something of a paradox that the more successful the Accreditation companies are, the higher will the percentage figure get. Thus in five years, maybe LUSEM belongs to the top 4% of all B-schools.

How much information about accreditations should you find at a B-school website? The only information I have found so far, about the accreditation process at LUSEM you can read here.

LUM Lund University Magazine. In addition to the monetary cost to the accreditation companies, there is extensive internal work. In issue 2019:4 of LUM is an interview with Kristina Eneroth Swedish flag, Vice-Dean at LUSEM, about LUSEM's accreditations. Question: "How many pages have you written on behalf of LUSEM to the accreditation institutes?" Reply by Kristina Eneroth: "It has become thousands over the years. I dare not count." Many other employees' time can be added to this. All this accreditation work has a significant alternative cost.

Ongoing: I plan to request copies of "a fair amount" of the documents, and information about the costs, involved in the accreditations LUSEM have applied for. A summary of my findings wil be published here.

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23 References and Resources

  1. Alvesson M., Gabriel Y. och Paulsen R. (2017). 'Return to meaning - a social science with something to say'. Oxford University Press.
  2. Huzzard T., Benner M., Kärreman M. editors (2017). 'The Corporatization of the Business School: Minerva meets the Market'. Taylor & Francis |
  3. Judson K. M. (2009). 'Building a University Brand from Within: University Administrators' Perspectives of Internal Branding'. Services Marketing Vol. 30 2009:1 pp. 54-68. | Online
  4. Peters K, Smith R.R., Thomas H. (2018). 'Rethinking the business models of business schools: A critical review and change agenda för the future'. Emerald Publishing Ltd.
  5. Pettigrew A. M., Cornuel E., Hommel U. editors (2014). 'The Institutional Development of Business Schools'. Oxford University Press. | download for free, Pdf 353 pages.
  6. Pitt-Watson D., Quigley E. (2019). 'Business School Rankings for the 21st Century'. United Nations Global Compact report | Online | Pdf 26 pp.
  7. Tourish D. (2019). 'Everything that's wrong with management research - in 5 minutes'. Management today Oct 2019 | Online
  8. Tourish D. (2019) 'Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research'.

enW = English Wikipedia

  1. AACSB, The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business | AACSB↗ enW
  2. AMBA, The Association of MBAs | AMBA↗ enW
  3. CEO World list of 131 best B-schools 2019. Heavy US focus.
  4. CHEA, Council for Higher Education Accreditation. US organisation.
  5. EFMD, European Foundation for Management Development | EFMD↗ enW
  6. Financial Times report on responsible business education. Published Oct 21, 2019.
  7. Poets & Quants, US. Large site for information and stories about Business education.
  8. United Nations Global Compact. 'The world's largest corporate sustainability initiative'. | Website

Published: Sep 2019.   Last updated: Nov 15, 2019

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