Study Explores Student Views on the Future of Business

Business Education

Since 2004, IBM has surveyed business leaders from around the world every two years to take the temperature of the global business climate through the eyes of its executives. This year, the company decided to supplement their insights into 'now' with projections for the future by performing a similar online survey with postsecondary students. Sometimes called the 'Millennial Generation', today's students are expected to make up half of the world's workforce in just a few years. Although, as IBM acknowledges, their attitudes are likely to be 'tempered' with time and experience, the company hoped to contribute to a growing body of research that suggests that tomorrow's business leaders - and therefore business itself - will be distinctly different than today's.

IBM performed the study between October 2009 and January 2010. Reaching out to college administrators and faculty at institutions worldwide, the company recruited 3,619 responses from students in 40 different countries. Twenty-five percent came from North America, 21% from Europe, 4% from Japan and 50% from 'growth markets' such as Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific (excluding Japan). Of those students, 52% are undergraduates, 27% come from non-MBA graduate programs, 13% are MBA students, 3% are PhD students and 4% are classified as 'other.'

Participants' ages ranged from under 19 to over 31, but the majority (68%) were between 20 and 25 years old. This means that most of them were born after 1980 and came of age in the digital world, where information is 'hyperconnected' and globalization is a given. IBM points out that these students intuitively understand networks the interconnected nature of government, society, organizations and the economy, which affects their perception of national and international business.

Nevertheless, the survey found many similarities between the opinions of students and CEOs, particularly on issues related to the new economic environment and how businesses should respond. But they also found a number of important differences regarding the roles of public and private organizations, as well as beliefs about globalization and sustainability. The results from IBM's comparative analysis of the CEO and student surveys are summarized below.



Students (69%) and CEOs (60%) agree that the new business environment is more complex than before. This perception was strongest among Japanese students, who recognized their country's need to 'step out in the global marketplace.' The strongest differences in this area came from the 'mature markets' of the Western world, where one-third more North American students and one-quarter more European students saw a 'major impact from growing interconnectedness' than their CEO counterparts.


Although students tend to perceive the new business world as more complex, they're less likely to feel that it's uncertain or volatile. This may be due to their increased confidence in the strength of information and analysis to parse any situation - the students who expected the fastest growth in complexity also put more faith in the predictive and analytic capabilities of information. The report refers to the modern 'information explosion,' and a general sentiment among students that it could be put to better use to understand patterns and garner predictive insights into market behavior.


Business leaders have traditionally prided themselves on their gut instincts, but intuition and personal experience have become devalued in response to the growth of both complexity and available information. Both students and CEOs expressed preference for a hybrid approach to decision making that incorporates both facts for accuracy and intuition for seed. As one student put it, 'You need facts, but instinct and gut take the paralysis out of analysis.' However, students were more likely to have a preference for fact-based decision making over relying on gut or experience. When asked a similar question, CEOs tended toward the 'faster' approach of instinct, although most still preferred to incorporate factual analysis.

International Students


The report points out that the Millennials have a natural understanding of globalization because they became consumers as businesses were offering higher levels of transparency. This generation grew up with ingredient labels, product safety warnings and a visible global supply chain. This has instilled the Millennials with a strong ethical stance on globalization and its effects on consumers, suppliers and the environment.

It's therefore no surprise that students consistently selected globalization and the environment out of a list of nine factors that are the most likely to impact business within the next five years. In fact, students were twice as likely to select globalization or the environment than CEOs. They were also more likely to see globalization as essential to successful business: 48% of students, as compared with 31% of CEOs, felt that businesses could improve their operations by globalizing, rather than localizing or doing both. In general, students saw the globalizing offered opportunities to create new value.


Students also tended to link global market changes to sustainability. Those who expected to see major shifts between mature and developing markets were also 20% more likely to expect impact from scarcity issues, and 35% more likely to expect impact from sustainability issues. Overall, students were twice as likely as CEOs to anticipate major consequences from the scarcity of resources such as energy, water and metals. Many felt that depleting resources should affect national policy, across several different nations.

Students also expressed strong ethical opinions about environmental impact. Most felt that businesses should be expected to create value by taking on responsibility for local community and global issues. In general, there was a strong sense that the biggest challenge for tomorrow's leaders will be building successful businesses among unmet social needs in emerging markets and with scarce natural resources.


The survey also explored the qualities that students value in leaders. They found that there was one characteristic on which students and CEOs both placed a high premium: creativity. Both groups emphasized the importance of taking bold steps and disrupting the status quo.

Otherwise, students and CEOs tended to diverge. The only other leadership traits (out of nine options) that students consistently rated as important were global thinking and a focus on sustainability - not a big surprise considering the value they placed on globalization and sustainability in business. Students were 46% more likely than CEOs to select global thinking, and 35% more likely to select a focus on sustainability.

Suggestions for Change

The survey concluded by offering respondents an open-ended chance to answer the question 'What will you do differently in your career compared to previous generations?' The vast majority expressed a commitment to 'the responsibilities of global citizenship,' including the need to understand and respect diverse cultures and local needs.

Students also had a few suggestions for their professors. When asked how well their education has prepared them in a range of areas, how to address sustainability and how to benefit from emerging markets were the lowest on the list. (Collaboration and the use of the technology to benefit from information topped the list.) The report points to academia's tendency to be very slow to change for the deficit, since sustainability and globalization are relatively new and rapidly changing fields. Given how important these issues were to most students, it seems likely that there will be a push for better education in these areas in the near future.

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