How recent changes and strategic initiatives at Rennes School of Business have put it on the path to resilience in the testing times of Covid-19
Are you building, or already working in, a resilient Business School or organisation? This article aims to identify a series of questions that might help you reflect on this question and is based on two years of actions taken at Rennes School of Business in pursuit of this goal.
Much is being written about what can be learned from the Covid-19 crisis, or how organisations – and Business Schools in particular – can adapt and move forward in a way that is better prepared for the future. Similarly, there’s an abundance of articles, news, and ‘expert’ opinion on what the world will look like tomorrow. This crisis has taken thousands of lives, ravaged the world economy, and brought about an enormous social cost in the form of lost livelihoods, changed lifestyles and broken families, so we must try to learn lessons about how we can evolve from this experience.
However, despite being an avid reader, I have not seen anything written on the subject of how educational organisations or businesses prepared to build resilience before the unexpected catastrophe of Covid-19 erupted.
January 2018 was a pivotal time for Rennes School of Business. At the early age of 27, the School had a consolidated position as the youngest triple-accredited business institution in France and was ready to make a significant qualitative and quantitative jump to position itself solidly among the best Schools in France and Europe. In doing so, the School aimed to look to the future by building a solid strategy for the coming years that would harden its foundations and leave it prepared for a world that was changing faster than ever. Those were measures that, in retrospect, have allowed the School to be in a very robust position to face the Covid-19 crisis. The subsequent pages show how Rennes School of Business did it.
1. Change and strengthen top leadership
Doing the same thing over and over will not yield different results. With this in mind, the management of the School was renovated, bringing in a new Dean, Thomas Froehlicher, as well as Santiago Garcia, as Dean of the Global School, to help from the right seat of the cockpit, particularly in all matters related to global business at a time when this was a fundamental dimension of the School – 95% of the faculty and 55% of the students were international across a programme offering comprising 17 different master’s programmes delivered in English.
Organisations often change leadership within or after a crisis but, by then, it’s too late. Fresh ideas, new energy, an outsider perspective, or a renovated view can help organisations to wake up from habits that, while comfortable in the day-to-day routine, might not help when circumstances change radically. This begets the first question: has your organisation reviewed its leadership, board, or advisory panels in such a manner that routine is ousted?
2. Launch or review your strategic plan
Fresh energies brought to the helm need to be channelled properly through the articulation of a clear strategy. In the case of Rennes School of Business, the strategic plan was conceived in collaboration with all stakeholders of the School, paying particular attention to the development of an analysis that would allow us to accommodate the modern world’s unheard of threats, unexplored opportunities, and innovative ideas. From this reflection, the 2025 Rennes School of Business Strategic Plan was created. Encompassed within the School’s strategic plan was the further development of four areas of excellence, around which scientific production and expertise is organised at Rennes School of Business. In light of the Covid-19 crisis, these four areas seem critical for all of society and business:
• Agribusiness and agrifinance. At the crucial time we are facing, the supply of the most essential good for survival is food (despite those who still think it’s toilet paper). Understanding the production of food, as well as its commercialisation and business-related aspects is of paramount importance.
• Demand-driven and green supply chain. The intertwining of supply networks and their complexity are now well established. In times of crisis, it’s even more important for goods to flow to where they are needed. Developing knowledge in this field is fundamental to preparations for the future.
• AI and digital business.With a large part of functions in most organisations now being deployed through technical means, the ability to use data and digital tools, and to understand the implications and possibilities of these tools for business is crucial for the survival of any organisation and to deliver our day-to-day work.
• Mind. Understanding how the human factor interacts with the external world, particularly within organisations facing crises, is more than relevant than ever today. The question for Business Schools and organisations to ask themselves here is whether they have looked internally enough to identify the key topics and strengths that will allow them to remain relevant in the event of an unknown threat taking place in the future.
3. Diversify risks/income
From April 2018, an active strategy for the diversification of students’ origin was set in motion at Rennes School of Business. Under the plan, specific actions were put in place to increase the body of international students by 2,000, adding a further 20 nationalities within five years. In addition, a revamping of executive education activities with an enhanced portfolio was launched.
Similarly, to become more attractive in the French market, the School’s French National Programme (Programme Grande Ecole) was overhauled radically to make sure we remained ahead of the competition and potential challenges.
The question to pose is: ‘How is our company making sure we don’t rest too heavily on one single market that might be obliterated tomorrow?’ This is exactly what has now happened to some organisations.
4. Organise internally by building strong managerial and operational teams
The challenges facing any organisation dealing with this crisis are multi-faceted: financial stability, deployment of operations, communicating with stakeholders, and so on. To make sure its new strategic plan was attainable, Rennes School of Business organised internally along three main business units reinforced by a range of general support services.
The business units and transversal support services were designed along the dimensions identified as critical in the strategic plan, thereby aligning strategy and operations in a unique manner that allows for immediate and coordinated actions. The pertinent reflection here is to analyse whether an organisation has built the internal teams, both managerial and operational, along its conceived strategy.
Often, a strategy is not achievable because teams are not organised accordingly at the implementation level. As the strategy evolves, teams have to be modified according to an action plan that is designed to put resources where they are needed, and that has chains of command with the flexibility to adapt to new circumstances, and coordinated to act as
part of a larger team while remaining independent to infuse speed in implementation. How does your organisation fare in this regard?
5. Design for speed and anticipate
One primary aim of the organisational chart at Rennes School of Business is to build speed and efficiency. A structure along business units with freedom of action and small, but reactive, teams that can count on bigger support services for the deployment of specific actions at short notice has been key
during this crisis.
For example, it allowed the School to implement online delivery modes across all programmes before it became mandatory for educational institutions to shut their doors. Our students had instructions to continue their studies remotely and our professors and staff were trained in the new methods and tools within one week.
The question here is whether an organisation has the structure, processes, teams, and philosophy to anticipate and adapt to change swiftly. Is the decision-making process centralised, or is it possible for teams to take coordinated, but independent actions, so that they are faster and can adapt to the unique challenges they face? The answers to these questions, at a time when speed in decision making is key, can be the difference between success and failure.
6. Embrace change and unframe your thinking
It’s important not to be afraid to do things differently, or to think differently. That’s why the Rennes School of Business slogan is ‘Unframed Thinking’ – summarising the School’s philosophy in two words.
The creation of the School’s Global Campus may represent a telling example of how the School is willing to challenge old models. Creating an international ecosystem within its walls, the Global Campus allows educational institutions from across the globe, and with unique expertise in their fields, to get together in research labs, create and deploy new educational programmes, and foster a network of professors, researchers, staff and students.
Whereas other Schools might embark on multi-campus international operations with ruinous financial viability, dreadful logistic deployment and huge opportunity costs for the comparatively pyrrhic benefit of building an international image, the Global Campus model means international Schools have no need for their own new location to join different partners with diverse areas of expertise: they are all hosted under the same roof, at Rennes School of Business, saving time, improving financial performance, and building on their international dimension.
Here, it merits asking whether a Business School or organisation is in the ‘safe’ business of following the herd or is prepared to become a trailblazer. In the current climate, nothing is safe. Being bold enough to challenge the status quo and to free oneself from established frames can be critical for survival in such changing and challenging times.
Santiago Garcia is Dean of the Global School at Rennes School of Business, France, and Distinguished Professor, at EICEA, Universidad de La Sabana, Colombia.
Thomas Froehlicher is Dean at Rennes School of Business, France. His previous roles include deanships at Kedge Business School, France, and HEC Liège, Belgium.
This article is taken from Business Impact’s sixth edition in print.