How to create a culture of kindness in the workplace

Business Impact: How to create a culture of kindness in the workplace

Using pro-social language, listening and praising are all included under behaviours for leaders to show and model in this guide from the author of Healthy Leadership, Anna Eliatamby

Organisational culture comprises attitudes that are linked to values, beliefs and associated cognitions, related emotions and behaviours. Creating a culture of kindness therefore requires that we clarify what we mean by ‘kindness’ and ensure that we support people to consider building their values, emotions and behaviours in a way that allows them to create and then maintain a culture of kindness.

What do we mean by kindness?

Collins’ English Dictionary defines it as “the quality of being gentle, caring and helpful” and this includes being kind to yourself as well as others.

Kindness helps us with social cohesion and can be very beneficial for mental and physical health. When it is present in an organisation, you are also likely to find openness, high levels of trust and a sense of feeling safe. These conditions then lead to greater productivity and effectiveness, alongside collective accountability with consideration. In addition, it creates an environment where people feel they can praise and be praised and can address any negativity and errors without retribution. That is when you will see kindness in their faces.

Values and beliefs for kindness

Being gentle, caring and helpful is something most people understand. In a 2022 kindness test conducted by the University of Sussex and BBC Radio 4, 43 per cent of 60,000 participants could provide daily examples of kindness. The underlying values and beliefs centre on how you see people and how you want to treat them, especially as a leader.

A kind and civil leader will see staff as those with potential and to be always respected. Their aim will be to enable and create a culture of kindness and considerateness. They will identify through observing and asking where it is already present and find ways (sometimes formally through, for example, a code of conduct) to encourage kindness and its use.

Such leaders ensure that their values and beliefs are at the centre of their thoughts and actions. They will double-check with colleagues and subordinates that their behaviours match their values and beliefs. Occasionally, everyone will err from their beliefs. The considerate leader will see these times as an opportunity to learn and grow and not something to be denied or ignored.

A considerate leader will also look at any opposing values and beliefs and address any inconsistencies. Overall, they ensure they are self-confident and secure in themselves. This usually means that they are likely to be liberal in how they lead and manage and will be less likely to want to control and dominate.

Behaviours

A leader’s verbal and non-verbal behaviours, for consistency, should match their values and intentions for kindness. Otherwise, people will ignore what they say and just focus on the contradictory behaviours they observe.

A respectful leader will, in small and large ways, use behaviours that show and indicate thoughtfulness and kindness with respect. The behaviours to show and model include the following:

  • Using pro-social language, eg “how can we?” instead of “do this”
  • Listening
  • Praising
  • Not taking credit for others’ ideas
  • Showing that you trust others
  • Being generous with time

Small gestures of kindness make a difference.

When a leader has kindness as a core value and their behaviour accompanies this, then you will find staff reciprocating. “You gave us vision; you led by respect” and “Thank you for your service” are, for example, statements made by staff on the retirement in 2018 of William Lacy Swing, a former US ambassador and director general of the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

If you, as a leader, use these behaviours and ask others to do the same, then you will build a culture of kindness. You can also ask others to think about how they work together and support each other. What could be done with more kindness and consideration? For example, listening to each other without interruption and praising each other. Being willing to look at and address the negative openly, including admitting to mistakes, is also needed.

If there is any toxicity at all, then this must be handled with courage and kindness so that its impact decreases, thereby giving more space for kindness to enter. If this is not done, then any kindness intervention will not last.

Emotions

Emotions are part of us as human beings, but we rarely consider them within the work environment. Yet we experience a vast variety of emotions in our workday. For there to be genuine kindness at the core of an organisation, we need to provide a psychological space for people to have and show the accompanying emotions.

We also need to know how to deal positively with any negative emotions that may arise. In some sectors, suppression is expected and often shown. While there will be times when it will be necessary to suppress, there also needs to be organisational permission for people to handle what has been suppressed later.

Gearshift to kindness

It is in our DNA, but tremendous efforts may still need to be made to increase kindness in self, colleagues and the organisation. Certainly, it is worth stopping and thinking about what the function of kindness is and should be.

How will people respond to your request to become kinder and more considerate? Remember, some may misinterpret this as asking them to be more open and emotional. Think about what you can do to reassure them and help them become more comfortable with kindness. Have discussions about kindness and ask people what they can all do to be more considerate and how you will remind each other of its importance.

Kindness for responsible management

Responsible management and leadership require a holistic focus on responsibility and sustainability for us and the generations to come. If we can achieve this while being considerate, kind and respectful, then we will provide a wonderful basis for the future. 

Anna Eliatamby is director of Healthy Leadership CIC and author of Healthy Leadership (Shilka Publishing, 2022).

Headline image credit: Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

How the world’s biggest societal changes will impact business

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Inequality, climate change, values and technology. Alison Watson, Head of School of Leadership and Management at Arden University, delves into four global challenges and considers what they will ask of tomorrow’s business leaders

Society is constantly evolving. In the past two decades alone, there have been some remarkable feats that have inevitably changed the way we live and how society works.

Little changes can also cause big waves in our everyday lives, such as the shift to remote working and the emphasis on wellbeing brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

If we understand how the world is changing, we will know what problems to expect and can help prepare the next generation of leaders to deal with them. Here are four major trends to consider.

* 1. The great rise of technology

The pandemic has sped up the use of technology and inevitably shifted the skills future jobs will demand. Staying competitive in this changing business environment requires new strategies and practices, with findings suggesting that most executives recognise technology’s strategic importance as a critical component of the business, not just a source of cost efficiencies.

Despite worries that certain jobs will become obsolete, many future roles will be created by, and revolve around, the fourth industrial revolution and the digitisation of the workplace. These in-demand skills will result in business leaders needing a set of foundational skills: cognitive, digital, interpersonal and self-leadership (including self-awareness, self-management and entrepreneurship) skills. With AI, tech developments and automation assisting the labour market, the talents employees bring to the table need to complement digital advancements.

We are already seeing the benefits technology brings. Being able to work remotely has changed the way people view the working day; rightly so, there is now more importance on maintaining a good work-life balance and more freedom to apply for jobs that were once out of reach simply due to location and inability to commute. It has given those with disabilities more options and has allowed parents to progress in their careers without having to sacrifice precious time with their children.

Technology, among many other things, should be allowing businesses to welcome a more diverse team. It will allow business leaders of the future to engage with people from a range of specialisms and sectors, allowing them to broaden their horizons and continually inform their developing worldview.

This interaction will help leaders adjust their perspectives, enable them to build strong, long-lasting relationships with key stakeholders and reinforce an understanding of people across various cultures and backgrounds, allowing them to become a keen advocate of diversity and flexibility.

At the heart of this, therefore, the businesspeople of the future must have a deep understanding of people – they need to know how to empower and get the best from their teams and have a deep emotional and social intelligence which enables them to understand and gauge the impact of the decisions they make on the people around them.

* 2. Values matter

One change that has gathered pace throughout the pandemic and shows no signs of slowing down is that people want to be involved in something that matters, something that aligns with their values and something that fulfils them.

This ‘awakening’ that successive lockdowns brought on has resulted in society wanting more purpose behind their decisions – whether it is deciding to be more sustainable for the environment or changing jobs because they want to work at home full-time. This means businesses of the future will need a more holistic approach. There will be more emphasis on impact and inclusivity; it is not solely about profit.

Business leaders will need to keep this in mind. In order to survive, they will need to consider what people – consumers and workers alike – want. They will be held accountable for decisions that do not align with ethics, just as we have seen with some fast fashion brands, for example, in recent years.

As technology allows us to connect more easily, it will become simpler and more feasible for consumers and employees to go elsewhere if a business does not meet their needs. Things will become more competitive, so the business students of today need to prepare and think about how they will conduct strategies with people’s needs in mind.

*3. Climate change

A change we cannot ignore is climate change and its impact on society. It will undoubtedly cause colossal changes that span different areas, including business. For example, as the effects of climate change become more prominent, more and more consumers are looking to buy goods and services from businesses that operate in ethical and sustainable ways.

According to McKinsey, companies need to take climate considerations into account when looking at capital allocation, development of products or services, and supply-chain management, among other things. This will require a change in mindset, new operating models, and tools and processes to integrate climate risk into decision-making.

So, what does this mean for the business leaders of tomorrow? As mentioned earlier, they’ll be expected to be holistic leaders who make decisions based on sound moral and ethical principles. They’ll need to empower their teams and be innovative in order to revolutionise business strategies that will maximise sustainable and ethical practices.

The future business leader will be a sustainable leader – someone who will drive change by addressing the core social, environmental and economic issues affecting our planet. Instead of getting caught up on ‘everyday’ business matters, the leaders of tomorrow that have sustainability at their core will need to be able to ally short-term business objectives with longer-term, strategic plans that consider objectives relating to economic health, the environment, people and society.

They will need to have a comprehensive worldview that contemplates and understands humanity’s place as part of a global ecosystem and will need to be able to lead and influence others.

*4. The widening gaps in the workforce

Disparity in the workplace remains a big topic with many conferences dedicated to closing the gender gap, for example, and many movements trying to showcase the importance of a diverse workplace.

This final trend is continually evolving and impacting businesses and, as such, is also one that is influenced by the aforementioned points. As climate change takes its toll on Earth’s physical planet, for example, it will cause social, economic, and political chaos as refugees flee areas that can no longer sustain them.

Society is likely to become more polarised due to the impacts of climate change. With some areas losing natural resources, such as drinking water, and conditions either too hot and dry, or too cold and wet, livelihoods will be threatened and citizens will be displaced, causing a rise in people seeking asylum. A rise in floods and increased pollution will also cause public health concerns. Research has shown that social inequality is characterised by a vicious cycle, whereby disadvantaged groups suffer a disproportionate loss of their income and assets from the effects of climate change, resulting in greater, subsequent inequality.

With the rise of technology, we will again see disadvantaged groups missing out on key developments due to financial constraints. As life expectancy rates grow, many will continue to work long past the traditional age of retirement and yet they may fall behind if not included in the rapid developments that allow economies and businesses to thrive.

All of this will result in disparities if development and inclusion aren’t key aspects for businesses. Business leaders will need to consider how best to deploy this older, more experienced workforce, how to react to the movement of asylum seekers and disadvantaged groups, and how they can close the inequality gap.

What traits do you need to be a ‘sustainable leader’? Alison Watson, Head of the School of Leadership and Management at Arden University, looks at qualities to embrace and develop, and outlines why businesses will need them

Alison Watson is Head of School of Leadership and Management at Arden University. Alison has a wealth of experience in business and management having worked for a number of large retailers as an operations and project manager. Her recent research interests focus on inclusion and encouraging wider access to higher education.

The opportunities for international expansion in Asia

Expanding a business internationally can be challenging, but Asia offers five major markets and many of the world’s fastest-growing economies, writes Siddharth Shankar

Expanding a business internationally is a difficult undertaking at any time. But with the current geopolitical tensions and heightened uncertainty, you would be forgiven for thinking this isn’t the time to take a risk on an overseas launch. However, international expansion could prove key to beating gloomy forecasts.

Many of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Asia. India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, China and Mongolia were all expected to grow by between 7.4% and 6.2% over the course of 2019, for example. This makes Asia an increasingly important, and lucrative, focus for businesses based outside the region. When it comes to international expansion, there may now be more opportunity for firms within Asia than within the European Union. 

Research by HSBC has found that approximately 70% of future world growth will be from emerging economies. And analysis from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development reveals that Asian economies will be larger than the rest of the word combined in 2020. It’s therefore becoming increasingly important that businesses shift their focus to markets that will, in the future, dominate the world stage. 

Five major markets

To successfully expand into Asian markets, it’s critical not to fall into the trap of treating the continent as one homogenous market. The region is made up of five major markets – namely China, the Indian subcontinent, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, countries in the Middle East’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)and East Asia. Lumping all these highly diverse regions and countries into one convenient bracket has been the downfall of many businesses. It’s crucial to understand the cultural, social, political, geographical and economic factors at play in each Asian market individually. 

First, the products that will be successful in each market will be very different. Heavy industrial products, for instance, are in demand in India, Thailand and Cambodia. Huge infrastructure construction is needed within these countries, yet their own heavy industry manufacturing is relatively weak. 

Energy products – relating to traditional fossil fuels and renewable energy equipment – are competitive in ASEAN countries as well as in China. China and India have now realised the increasing need to forge a cleaner and leaner path to development. Luxury goods are particularly in demand in GCC countries and Japan. Meanwhile, in China and India, the appetite for traditional beverages, such as whisky and gin from the UK, has reached a whole new level.

As well as the economic, geographic and societal factors that affect a product’s potential in Asian markets, it’s often more difficult to form an understanding of the cultural factors. This requires in-depth local knowledge. For instance, a company launching a range of hats in China might have unrivalled success selling a red hat but find a green version of the same hat would flop. This is because, within local culture, if a man wears a green hat it might mean his wife is cheating on him – never a good look! A local partner can prove essential in navigating these testing cultural nuances. 

The strategy required to expand into each market is also diverse. Launching a product portfolio in Asia’s two largest markets – China and India – requires taking an altogether different approach in each case. Western products can be launched directly into China, with westernised branding, even as a new brand. Conversely, to maximise the chances of success when expanding into the Indian market, it is often advisable to expand into influential markets with links to India first – for instance, Singapore or the United Arab Emirates. 

This allows the target segment of consumers in India to form an understanding of the brand before it is available in India, thereby piquing demand for it. Indian consumers tend to follow their culture, tradition and values strictly. As a result, overseas companies are often forced to give an ‘Indian touch’ to their products and marketing in order to succeed. 

Regional differences

Even within a country, it’s important to be aware of the vast cultural differences that often exist between one region, or city, and another. 

You would probably be forgiven for thinking that the capital city in each location is the best place to launch a new business. But sadly, it is not that simple. Not all capitals work. To give a European example of what I mean, it’s notoriously difficult to do business in Rome. It might be the heart of Italy’s political and religious institutions, but if you were going to launch a fashion business in Italy, you would almost certainly bypass Rome and head straight for Milan, with all its design and fashion credentials and networks. 

It’s the same in each of the five major markets in Asia. The capital cities may be the perfect place to build political alliances – but that doesn’t mean they are the best place from which to launch a particular product or brand. Often, looking beyond the capital and targeting smaller cities, and even towns, can deliver better results.

You may not have heard of places like Tangshan and Sanya in China – but they are exactly the sort of cities that are worth thinking about. Both cities have local economies that are thriving due to huge local wealth, or large tourist attractions. Both also have effective infrastructure and would deliver excellent results for the launch of brands from certain industries.

Cultural identity

Deciding which city to launch from is not even necessarily about choosing one of the biggest cities. Do your research – think about the cultural identity and interests of your target customer and work out where they are most likely to be based. It’s the only way to find the city with the best fit and consumer base for your product.

Before honing in on a launch city, it is also worth spending time reflecting on the bigger picture. Each of Asia’s five major markets presents exciting growth opportunities. 

India has a population almost equal to that of China but a GDP growth rate that is almost double China’s. Looking to East Asia, Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, while South Korea has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Meanwhile the ASEAN region, which includes Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, has a combined population of 640 million people and an economy worth over $2.8trn USD, with increasingly open internal trade. 

Market focus

So which specific markets within Asia should businesses focus on? Let’s take a more in-depth look at two very different, but highly promising opportunities:

A. The major market: India 

India’s GDP growth forecast for 2019 is 7.3%, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Rising salaries mean the region has a burgeoning middle class, with an increasingly disposable income. According to the Economist, HSBC recently estimated that the size of India’s middle class in India had reached 300 million, a figure it predicts will rise to 550 million by 2025.

The demand for products and brands in India is at an all-time high and this is set to continue for the foreseeable future. Indian consumers have become more value sensitive than price sensitive. If they feel that a particular product offers them more value, they are often willing to buy the product, even if the price is high. 

India is a multi-religion country which has a population of around 1.4 billion people. There are four broad segments to the market:

•  The socialites: socialites belong to the country’s elite. They like to shop for luxury products, travel in high-end cars and buy opulent villas. They are always looking for something different. Socialites are also very brand conscious and would go only for the best-known brands in the market.

•  The conservatives: the conservatives belong to the middle classes and are often a reflection of the true Indian culture. They are traditional in their thought processes, slow in decision making and they seek a lot of information before making any purchase.

•  The female profesionals: the so-called ‘working woman’ segment of society has seen tremendous growth in recent years and, as they have become empowered in the workplace, their impact on consumer trends has boomed.  

•  Youth segments: the younger generation is optimistic and enthusiastic. They believe in having a modern lifestyle, are brand cautious and are often ready to pay for quality.

B. The market to watch: Thailand

Thailand is the second-largest economy in the ASEAN, accounting for 17% of ASEAN GDP. There have been huge changes in Thailand over the past 40 years, transforming it from a low-income country to an upper-income country. After a slowdown between 2015 and 2017, Thailand’s economy looks to be on the up once more, with a growth rate of 4.1% in 2018. 

It is increasingly easy to do business in Thailand, as the infrastructure improves and the government makes positive regulatory reforms. There is a growing middle class and, in the capital of Bangkok, new luxury brand shopping centres are springing up. 

In conclusion, the combination of fast-growing Asian economies and a troubled eurozone means there is a lot of opportunity for firms to expand into Asia. While in-depth research into the complex cultural, social and economic factors of launching a brand into each individual market within Asia is essential to avoid falling into common exporting traps, the potential rewards are high.

Siddharth Shankar is a leading expert in exporting and CEO of Tails Trading, a firm helping UK SMEs to export their goods.

The power of purpose: fuelling employees’ motivation

An account of how a walk into the unknown and the plight of late 19th-century farmers in the southern Netherlands provided a powerful means of injecting purpose into employees of Rabobank, from the book Alive at Work  

At some point, we’ve all felt underwhelmed by what we do at work – bored and creatively bankrupt. In these moments, we’ve lost our zest for our jobs and accepted working as a sort of long commute to the weekend. Yet even though we’ve all been there, it can be frustrating when our people aren’t living up to their potential. It’s exasperating when employees are disengaged and don’t seem to view their work as meaningful. It can be hard to remember that employees don’t usually succumb to these negative responses for a lack of trying. They want to feel motivated. They seek meaning from their jobs.

But their organisations are letting them down. We can do a much better job at maintaining their engagement with their work. But first, we need to understand that employees’ lack of engagement isn’t really a motivational problem. It’s a biological one. Here’s the thing: many organisations are deactivating the part of employees’ brains called the ‘seeking systems’. Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When we follow the urges of our seeking systems, they release dopamine – a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure – that makes us want to explore more.

With small but consequential nudges and interventions from leaders, it’s possible to activate employees’ seeking systems by encouraging them to play to their strengths, experiment, and feel a sense of purpose.

The power of purpose

One of the triggers that activates the seeking system is purpose. Purpose is energising. It lights up our systems and gives us that jolt of dopamine. But because purpose is personal and emotional, it is difficult for leaders to instill it in others. It’s one thing to read about something in a business book and another to put it into practice. So how do we create the feeling of purpose and make sure it lasts? To have a shot at success, you need to help employees witness their impact on others, as the case of Rick Garrelfs shows.

Rick, who was a leader at Rabobank for 18 years, told me about an experience he developed to help high-potential employees understand the meaning of their work. Working with a consulting organisation, Garrelfs and his team told the 60 employees: ‘At 5am, be at Eindhoven [a city in the northern part of the Netherlands] Central station.’ They did not divulge any further information to the participants, which naturally caused some curiosity and concerns. Some of the people called and protested: ‘But the trains are not running at 5am’ or ‘I live far away, so I will need a hotel.’ The team responded to these concerns by saying: ‘Yes, that is correct’ to retain the mystery.

People started arriving at the station from 4:30am, and the team made sure the café was open and coffee and rolls were available. Around 5:15am, Garrelfs started walking from the station (the group followed naturally at that point) into a waiting coach, which took them on a 30-minute drive into the dark, away from town. The bus stopped, the group exited and started walking into the fields, with Garrelfs in front with a light, and someone from the consulting firm with a light at the rear.

After 30 minutes, they arrived at a line of trees, where they saw a man standing with a candle. As the group gathered around him, still in the dark of early morning, the man started to speak about the situation of farmers in the late 19th century in the southern Netherlands. He spoke about the farmers’ daily problems, their poverty, and the harshness of their existence. He described how the Dutch priest, Pater Gerlacus van den Elsen, used his local influence to bring farmers together, so that those that had some money could lend it to those that didn’t for investment.

As the man spoke, the sun slowly started to light the scene – the landscape and the group of people – and the group recognised the speaker. He was Bert Mertens, Senior Executive of Cooperative Affairs and Governance of Rabobank, and a direct report to the executive board. Bert was seen as the ‘conscience’ of cooperative thinking in the bank. His core message: Rabobank emerged from the misery of farmers, and we should never forget that.

Bert then walked the group across the farm fields, to a house where they were served breakfast by the farmers, who were long-time members of Rabobank. The farmers talked about the life of farming now, the difficulty of keeping a medium-sized farm alive, and what they did to make ends meet.

Although this had only been the start of the first day of a programme, years later the participants picked out this particular moment as perhaps the most important experience for them in terms of understanding the meaning of Rabobank.

Changing the way employees think and feel about their work

It is one thing for a leader to talk in a meeting about the mission of connecting banking to agriculture. This can be logical and strategic, and a leader can even put pictures of farms on the PowerPoint deck. It is another thing to have a personal experience: to walk in the fields, to connect with nature in the early morning, to eat and talk with the farmers who you serve as a bank.

Imagine how this firsthand experience could change employees’ stories about why they do what they do, and how it might help newcomers fashion their own purpose story. This sense of purpose could help employees make decisions that align with Rabobank’s purpose, but also help them see their work as something worth doing.

This is the power of purpose: it activates the seeking system and makes life feel better. When we understand the powerful humanistic results of purpose – not to mention the economic benefits of building purpose into businesses – then our quest as leaders changes. Our mission moves from ‘how can I make this job more efficient, predictable, and controlled?’ to ‘how can I give my team firsthand experiences that allow them to personalise the meaning of their work?’ This is a powerful new way to think about employment – as a chance to light up employees’ seeking systems instead of shutting them down.

This is an edited excerpt from Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do by Dan Cable (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).

How to use education technology in Business Schools – and why

Technology can help Business Schools meet the evolving needs of their students. Alain Goudey outlines NEOMA Business School’s use of virtual reality in the classroom

The adage, ‘tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn’ is often attributed to US inventor and polymath, Benjamin Franklin. My years of experience as Marketing Professor at NEOMA Business School in France, have shown me that this saying holds true. And now, as Chief Digital Officer at the School, I challenge my faculty colleagues with the power of digital tools for a highly needed transformation of the higher education sector. 

My mantra is ‘disrupt before being disrupted’. It’s time for today’s digital culture to spread into Business Schools, worldwide. The mission of the Business School Professor has dramatically evolved in the past two years, due to the huge technological wave which we are now riding. I believe that, as a Professor, I have to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that have not yet been raised. 

Employment: a technological shift

According to a 2008 article by Centron and Davis in The Futurist, everything we knew about technology in 2008 will account for only 1% of what we will know about it by 2050. Research and technology is evolving at an exponential rate and this will have a deep impact on organisations and jobs, reshaping skill requirements. There are a great number of figures to illustrate this trend: 

  • Up to 85% of jobs that will be available in 2030 don’t exist yet, according to a 2017 report from Dell Technologies. 
  • Almost half (47%) of jobs in the US and 35% in the UK are at risk of automation over the next decade or two, according to a 2013 study by economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne. 
  • In France, 42% of jobs are under threat of automation, according to the consulting firm Roland Berger (2015).
  • The average projected job loss across OECD countries is 57%, according to a 2016 World Bank Development Report.

I’m convinced that 100% of jobs will be transformed in the coming years and a significant proportion of them will effectively disappear due to automation with wide-ranging impact on local and regional job markets. In parallel, new jobs have been appearing for decades thanks to the evolution of the internet, and mobile and data markets. 

New ways of learning

A vast quantity of information is now widely available online. With more than 4.7bn web pages to choose from, hundreds of new videos uploaded to YouTube every minute of the day, a wide choice of social networks and millions of apps to download, access to information, experts and tools has never been easier. Much of this information is streamed directly to your pocket 24/7 thanks to the mobile phone.

Finding relevant and accurate information is far less simple. Nowadays, the challenge is finding the right information at the right time. Professors have to enhance their students’ skills around the critical analysis of online content, tools and expertise. 

The student demographic is also evolving, with so-called ‘digital natives’ proliferating within Business Schools, but there is a tremendous need for all employees to become lifelong learners.

Game-changers in higher education

In the early 2000s, the very first e-learning platforms appeared in the education sector and, in 2008, the MOOC phenomenon gained momentum, thanks to companies such as edX, Udacity or Coursera. During this period, education technology (edtech) providers, including the Khan Academy, Udemy, Coorpacademy, and LinkedIn Learning, also emerged, leading to a plethora of accessible content direct from experts. 

Knowledge is available in the desired format anytime, anywhere, and on any device: from a two-hour recorded masterclass to a one-minute ‘how-to’ YouTube video. Moreover, e-learning platforms are evolving into adaptive learning platforms so that content can be adapted automatically, thanks to algorithms and data, which can set the pace of the learning to suit the abilities and preferences of the learners. This could be the end of the ‘one-best-way’ approach to higher education. In short, it is impossible for us to continue teaching in the way we have done for decades. 

The needs of businesses have also evolved. The World Economic Forum expects critical thinking, creativity, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility to be the key skills that individuals now need to develop for the workplace. Business Schools are therefore strongly advised to explore alternative and disruptive ways of teaching in the classroom.

Using virtual reality case studies 

Since 2016, I have been using immersive virtual reality (VR) to teach merchandising and marketing to thousands of students, thanks to the #ExE Project (experiential education). This is an immersive, VR-based application designed and developed at NEOMA Business School for its specific needs.

VR is a great tool for enhancing the learning experience. For instance, VR can:

  • Make business students experiment with technology and consider what they could do with the technology later as managers.
  • Reinforce the involvement of students by breaking the learning routine. Students are totally engaged during the class, have fun and are active with the learning.
  • Develop a systemic approach, in a non-linear way, to analysing complexity. The experience is much more realistic than a traditional business case with dozens of pages of linear facts and interviews.
  • Avoid group think; students are fully immersed and can live the experience as individuals.
  • Promote interactive and action-based learning by offering access to a wide variety of locations and managerial contexts. The feedback is faster and more efficient.

With this technology, we aim to achieve three key improvements around learning: 

1. Faster learning: the use of VR speeds up the learning process. Students are more engaged and involved in the case studies, and this means that they pick up the marketing concepts linked to the business case more quickly.

2. More memorable learning: students are likely to be positively influenced by this innovative and novel style of teaching. Its effects will therefore last longer and they stand to remember key concepts more clearly.

3. More complete learning: students experience the world in its full complexity and in a ‘natural non-linear’ way: they enhance their critical-thinking skills and creativity, thanks to shorter feedback loops around the experience itself during class.

Neuroscience has shown that incorporating gaming and active student involvement into learning creates powerful shifts. This is precisely what VR technology facilitates. I therefore recommend that other Business Schools invest in this area in the very near future.

Innovation and faculty

Launching the #ExE Project was a wonderful adventure because it gave us the opportunity to understand how people respond to disruptive technology, such as VR. Students were amazed that their Business School was so innovative and discovered this technology as a result of our classes. Staff and faculty members were more sceptical, however, and wished to see the technology in action before being convinced.

At the outset, VR was viewed by many staff and faculty as a gimmick as they lacked a thorough understanding of the value it brings to the classroom. To convince them, we organised demonstrations and seminars in which we explored how to engage a class with VR and what it can provide, both for students and professors.

We brought together a team of five marketing professors to disseminate the findings around our first VR-based case study. During a two-hour meeting, I personally taught them how to use it in their classes; I was also present when they used the technology for the first time, to assist and reassure them. 

In addition, our technical VR team is always on hand to help faculty set up technical elements of a case study. A member is present at every class using this technology, to ensure it goes smoothly and to enable professors to focus on teaching. Two years later, we launched our second VR-based case study; this was designed by my colleague Aurélien Rouquet on the subject of supply chain management, featuring the biggest drive-in hypermarket in France, E.Leclerc. We have a third case study planned for the field of HR, using another large French company. 

Faculty lie at the heart of successful innovation within Business Schools and it is incumbent on Schools to create an environment that supports innovation. At NEOMA, we are lucky to have faculty rules that recognise the value of innovation in teaching. Without such rules, innovation would be unlikely to take root.

It may take time to convince colleagues of the value of a disruptive technology. I have had to explain to peers the value of VR, show people how it works in practice and repeat this time and again, in order to win their trust and backing. Not all disciplines or individual professors will be interested in innovation, and it is unlikely that you will convert everyone to your way of thinking. Demonstrating value creation for learners and professors will support your cause.

It should, however, become clear to all that today’s Business Schools are operating within a period of technological transformation, which is affecting entire sectors and most organisations. Schools need to support students and lifelong learners through this period of drastic change, and to do this successfully they also need to transform themselves. Digital transformation is not an option but a necessity.

To conclude, let me remind you of a quote from management guru, Peter Drucker: ‘The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.’ Don’t be afraid of the turbulence, go forth and transform. 

Alain Goudey is Chief Digital Officer and Professor of Marketing at NEOMA Business School in France. He is also Founding Partner of AtooMedia, a sound design agency, and its subsidiary, Mediavea, a retail marketing provider. 

Brexit is a rally cry for innovation

Now is the time for Business Schools to help their students capitalise on the opportunities that Brexit uncertainty could introduce, argues Victoria Harrison-Mirauer

Wherever you sit on the Brexit spectrum, from ennui to exasperation, there can be no doubt that, for many organisations, the present levels of uncertainty are uncomfortably high.

Uncertainty is nothing new to business – concepts such as ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) have become so much a part of common parlance, and which so infuses Business School curricula, that they can sometimes float past almost unnoticed. 

Brexit has added a new dimension – a ‘perfect storm’ showing that many of the ‘old’ rules are ripe for reassessment. The current political chaos in the UK serves to highlight that many of the organising systems and structures we rely on to make decisions are no longer helpful. As these structures are proving themselves inadequate, now is the time to focus on innovation and the opportunities that Brexit uncertainty could introduce.

Whatever the terms of Brexit and its final details, the UK still operates in a global, networked, connected context, and the country will still be full of skilled, creative and forward-thinking businesspeople who can find opportunities in plenty of sectors. The innovative, competitive and dynamic economic forces that make up the UK’s creative industries, universities, health system, financial and professional services companies are the envy of the world and matter now more than ever. 

Innovation has a central part to play in rewriting the post-Brexit rulebook. Innovators (who are, by nature, optimists) might look at the situation now and hope that new politics, new types of organisation, new global relationships and new commercial opportunities are there to be shaped.

A 21st-century Business School can help its students step up to this opportunity in the following ways:

1. Contextualising the change. This will help ensure future leaders are well equipped to respond to the challenges of unprecedented technology-led innovation, the spectre of climate change and the responsibility of business to the planet, as well as the seismic implications of new-world demographics and emerging economies. This is about helping students see the ‘big picture’, and encouraging them to take some ownership and agency in shaping how it develops. 

When schoolchildren take to the streets to protest about climate change, our time to act on this issue must be surely be running out. What this tells us is that the world is in need of some ideas, and fast. It is the responsibility of Business Schools to ensure their students are ready to drive this change, and to help them graduate both wanting to, and feeling capable of, making a difference.

2. Equipping students with an innovation mindset. Without question, the ‘red threads’ woven through the success narratives of tomorrow’s leaders will be agility, a growth mindset, and resilience as a personal ‘super power’. Business Schools are well placed to encourage and facilitate the development of an innovation mindset, as well as to focus on building creativity and problem-solving skills. Students need to be prepared for new kinds of leadership in new kinds of organisation ecosystems. This environment is one where collaboration, co-creation, partnership and flexibility count. 

3. Developing students’ communication skills. Innovation and uncertainty both demand leaders who are brilliant communicators. Being able to lead for innovation means being able to bring diverse interest groups and stakeholders along with you. Communication is essential for those who want to work at pace in complex circumstances, where strategies are increasingly emerging in ‘real time’, and where priorities are constantly changing and so much is simply unknown. 

If Brexit teaches us anything, it’s the central role communication plays in creating understanding, building consensus and negotiation. It also teaches us what happens when communication breaks down. Tomorrow’s global leaders need to be able to communicate effectively across increasingly international teams and cultures, and to be technology agnostic, moving seamlessly between face-to-face and virtual contexts. Business Schools which use experiential learning effectively can help their students practise these skills in a safe space, as a supportive proving ground.

4. Focusing less on innovation processes and more on cognitive and behavioural approaches. As far as innovation is concerned, ‘where there’s a will, there‘s a way’. As with Brexit, innovation can be a messy and unpredictable business; however, as we all now know too well, being comfortable with ambiguity is easier said than done. Understanding and embracing the cognitive diversity that drives creative problem solving and innovation is an essential piece of the future leader’s toolkit. 

One of Google’s mantras is ‘creativity loves constraint’. The constraints of Brexit are therefore a rally cry for innovators. Educators must avoid fuelling panic and instead work hard to ignite the optimism that, in turn, fuels the kind of opportunism and entrepreneurship that can be the foundation of new markets, new technologies, new jobs, new business and growth.  

In response to some international businesses expressing concern about disruptions to their supply chains as a result of Brexit, UK-based businesses have to be persuasive and optimistic about their ability to meet these challenges. Innovation is a fundamentally optimistic pursuit; it has to be. Innovation is also positive and future-focused. These qualities are all the more important in times of crisis and uncertainty. 

Now is not the time to turn off the innovation tap, but quite the reverse. Investing in the ability to innovate, solve problems creatively and lead in the development and commercialisation of
new technologies is more important than ever as the UK forges new structures, new politics and seeks to lead different geopolitical relationships.

Young people, aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs are often described by the media as the ‘victims’ of Brexit. This may be troubling – and it may be true – but by creating connected communities, active global alumni networks and using genuinely international content, Business Schools are well-placed to counterbalance that narrative. 

Hult International Business School is a case in point. With five campuses globally and a globe-trotting cohort, its UK base is one cog in a truly international machine. Hult MBAs move across campuses in ways that mirror the international career aspirations of many of its participants. Perhaps this peripatetic option becomes more attractive to students as a result of Brexit who might otherwise have chosen a single-campus, UK-based institution. 

A few years ago, I came across some interesting discussions into a 300-year-old theory that challenges today’s innovators. A team at Cambridge University explored some ideas by English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon, and used his approach to think about how organisations innovate today. 

Bacon’s theory was all about ‘unknown unknowns’, different ways of creating hypotheses and therefore ideas and hunches. Born in 1561, he was what history celebrates as an influential ‘thinker’ and someone whose ideas have stood the test of time by being both innovative in context, as well as useful and interesting, posthumously.

Commenting on this research, University of Cambridge Judge Business School Professor of Economics and Organisation. Jochen Runde said: ‘We urge people to imagine possible influences that might lead to business scenarios that are radically different from the one they think is most likely. By being induced to look for information about extreme possibilities, they will be taken away from the familiar places they would normally be looking and thereby put themselves in a position of learning things that are truly new to them. Effectively, the method we are proposing provides a means to counteract the confirmation bias, as well as many other biases that have been identified by behavioural psychologists. And it can be done on either end of the spectrum – extremely good outcomes or extremely bad outcomes.’

The future is certainly unpredictable, but what is interesting is our continued attempts to predict it. The efforts made to ‘future-proof’ loom large in the scenario planning around Brexit, with many businesses across the UK making plans for a ‘no-deal’ scenario. 

To an extent, this scenario-planning conversation is good strategy practice; thinking about the context of your operations, anticipating key influences and trends, working with organisational strategy as an ‘emergent’ rather than fixed entity. 

The organisations best prepared for the future are the ones that spend less time trying to predict it, and more time building the innovative, adaptive, and agile capabilities of their employees at all levels so that they are ready to respond to it and shape it.

Victoria Harrison-Mirauer is a Cambridge University graduate with 19 years of experience across innovation, marketing, digital and brand strategy. She is currently the Discipline Lead for Innovation at Ashridge Hult International Business School and runs a private innovation practice, The Ideas Machine.

Why flexibility is essential in executive education

Flexibility is the new normal, argues NEOMA Business School’s Jérôme Couturier. Institutions offering executive education need to sit up and take note

In today’s business environment, both employers and employees recognise the need for flexibility; however, many popular Business Schools are yet to come to the same realisation. Change is the only constant in the lives of today’s business leaders (switching roles and companies, travelling frequently and interacting globally) and the pace of change is faster than ever. This demands an appropriate response from Business Schools and all other stakeholders.

It is no longer sufficient for ambitious professionals to update their knowledge intermittently; sometimes they must reset it entirely, discarding outdated skills in favour of new ones as companies demand greater agility from their staff. Even governments are reacting to this impetus. France, for example, now subsidises training schemes to ensure business leaders’ capabilities remain aligned to market needs. 

And it’s not just seismic technical shifts such as digitisation that require executives to be flexible, but the increasing prominence of concepts such as corporate social responsibility (CSR). Running a business today is about much more than profit. Considerations around politics, multiculturalism and climate change must be taken into account. Coping with these varied demands requires no small degree of flexibility and the way people work is changing as a result. 

Blurred lines

For Business Schools, the most obvious consequence of this shift to flexibility is the changing segmentation of the MBA market. Lines are blurring in terms of the applicants attracted to different kinds of courses.

Traditionally, the full-time MBA was designed for young people with limited work experience, while the executive MBA (EMBA) was aimed at experienced managers; it was assumed that the latter would prefer a part-time course, allowing them to continue working alongside their studies. This can no longer be taken for granted. 

It is becoming progressively difficult for Business Schools to profile the candidates that come knocking at our doors. In a world, where no one can rely on a career for life, experienced executives often don’t want to pursue a drawn out part-time course. Instead, they sometimes prefer to complete a full-time EMBA, as quickly as possible, making the most of full immersion for parts of the programme. 

Old, dependable assumptions about candidates are crumbling. At NEOMA, we see applicants of different ages and levels of experience seeking part-time and full-time courses, according to their personal career goals.

In the past, these tired-but-reliable stereotypes enabled business education institutions to design programmes to suit predicted audiences, rolling these out for a decade before revisiting their format. Schools cannot afford to take that approach anymore; a more dynamic platform is needed. The architects of EMBA courses need to look beyond the need for reskilling, and design programmes in line with broader competencies. This provides flexibility, since Schools are able to alter the competencies on offer, as market needs evolve.

Prioritising flexibility

In redesigning NEOMA’s Global EMBA, the Course Directors kept flexibility front of mind. To this end, the programme offers three ‘entrance gates’, enabling candidates to choose from three different learning paces; they can study for 15 months, 10 months or for as little as seven months. The varying speeds allow candidates to choose between distributing the course content evenly over a long period of time and opting for a more intense, fast-track programme.

The latter option, also referred to as ‘full and flex’, allows students to cover a very significant amount of the curriculum in a concentrated two-month period over the summer, while fitting the rest into their professional schedule.

We believe Business Schools need to diversify their offerings to attract both local applicants and those from around the world. The three formats available on NEOMA’s Global EMBA were created in the context of our desire to put forward a truly global programme. 

The 15-month programme is designed to suit candidates who are geographically close to Paris: those who are willing to live in the city for the duration of the course, or who live within a commutable distance. Meanwhile, the 10-month programme is a better fit for those within five hours of the capital, as they do not need to be on campus throughout. The full-and-flex programme is the best option for international students, as they only have to spend two months in Paris and can complete the rest of the course online and through four one-week experiences abroad.

After announcing the full-and-flex course, the first feedback we received was from prospective students, delighted with the flexibility on offer. However, in the same breath, they requested more. Excited by the chance to complete most of the course over the summer, candidates wanted to know if they could complete the whole course over two years, in two concentrated summer blocks, enabling them to stay in their full-time jobs, taking minimal time off beyond annual leave. The immediate demand was overwhelming, but not unanticipated. If anything, it reaffirmed our belief that we had made the right decision in putting flexibility at the heart of our course. 

Building relationships

Business Schools might be tempted to achieve flexibility by offering an entirely online EMBA. This way, students can complete the whole course anywhere, anytime. However, it’s important to factor in the intrinsic value of face-to-face interaction, peer learning and networking on these programmes. 

In designing NEOMA’s Global EMBA, we have made all the specialisation aspects of the course available online, so that students can customise their individual experience to the maximum degree, with full support available online from their tutors. However, with the core modules, we ask that students are present on campus to make the most of face-to-face interactions with Professors, and networking with their peers. 

In practice, students on our full-and-flex course spend two months in Paris, and partake in four separate one-week learning experiences on four continents. The rest of the course can be completed anywhere in the world. By balancing customisable online tracks with the right amount of face-to-face time, Business Schools stand the best chance of providing flexibility without compromising relationship building.

Maintaining flexibility

One of the challenges when building a flexible executive course is maintaining consistency. Incorporating three different entrance gates and a range of individually customisable content into one course is no simple task. Incorrectly managed, such a programme could become confusing and disorganised. 

At NEOMA, we found that sustaining a sense of unity across all three customisable tracks was best achieved with a good structure. Our 15-month course starts in October each year. In March, students on the 10-month course take some modules alone as a cohort to catch up at first, before joining in with the 15-month cohort for the majority of the core modules. Students embarking on the full-and-flex version of the course have a significant amount of studying to do online, or as a single cohort, in order to catch up with the two other student groups. 

Most of this catching up is achieved during their two-month crash course over the summer, so by the time the course comes to a close, all the EMBA students come together and have the opportunity to network as one group. This unity is reinforced by four shared international learning experiences; all course participants visit Ghana, the UK, India and the US together, getting the chance to meet and collaborate each time.

Once a strong framework has been established, course architects must go further to ensure their executive education offerings provide continuity. There are a few simple ways to achieve this. Primarily, the same faculty must be available to all students on the course. Easily accessible and consistent support is essential to any student’s success, but for a student pursing a course based on the other side of the world, it can be make or break. 

It is essential that students know who to contact for help, and that faculty members become well-known figures to everyone in the cohort. Similarly, consistency can be maintained through the online aspects of a course. While modules are fully customisable, the same choices of online module are ultimately available to all students; it’s simply up to them which route they choose. The same faculty members that teach face-to-face on the programme should be contactable online as this will enable students to cope better with their complex workload. Beyond reliable faculty, business education institutions aiming for flexibility need to be sensible about how they distribute executive course content. Business leaders and budding entrepreneurs alike are well aware of the increasing prevalence of AI, and the resulting demand for (‘human’) soft skills. 

Emotional intelligence and complex problem solving are the key advantages that humans still have over machines and these must be nurtured to ensure we remain valuable members of the global workforce. There is no getting around the fact that soft skills are best taught in person and it makes sense for Schools to concentrate the bulk of their students’ quantitative study online, to free up the limited face-to-face learning time for soft-skills education. Preparation and group work can also be done online to maximise efficiency.

Technology is a brilliant tool, but catering to the demand for flexibility shouldn’t come at the expense of the personal. Shifting any amount of course content online means less in-person teaching, so this needs to be of the highest quality. Personal development is embedded in the DNA of NEOMA’s executive programme. We believe students always benefit from a personal approach, so small class sizes are preferable. This means that when students come to create business plans, a core part of their EMBA, they receive a great deal of personal support and are never at risk of being overlooked.  

Customised courses

As Business School practitioners know, designing a programme is a multi-faceted task. Threading flexibility through every feature of a programme makes the process even more complicated. In creating NEOMA’s Global EMBA, we needed a strategy that would ensure the course could be fully customised by each student. We responded to this necessity by breaking the course down; we thought of it as a game of building blocks. 

Every ‘brick’ of the Global EMBA can be combined with any other. If you set out with that design in mind then every time you expand, you can consider how your new addition will work with the programme’s other aspects, and with students’ careers. Candidates are also able to select course ‘bricks’ and complete just those. This allows prospective applicants to test elements of the course before committing to completing the whole thing. In a practical sense, each and every ‘brick’ should be standardised to make managing cost and schedule easier for Course Directors.

My colleagues and I set out to make NEOMA’s Global EMBA the world’s most flexible MBA programme. Students benefit from speed of completion, choice of content and a variety of face-to-face and online options. At the same time, consistency is maintained across the course thanks to its ‘building- block’ structure which allows Course Directors to return to its design continuously, switching out modules, re-prioritising competencies and ensuring that what we are offering never falls behind market demand and participants’ needs. The structure is flexible enough that if a company came to us tomorrow, praising the flexibility of the programme but seeking to customise 20-30% of the content for every executive it enrols, we would be able to work with them on achieving that. 

All Business Schools must accept that tried-and-tested recipes for executive education no longer cut it. Attending Business School should present a vital opportunity to realign oneself with the competencies that today’s business environment demands. Schools cannot claim to offer this service unless they design their executive education programmes to accommodate regular rethinking and reconstruction. Flexibility is an indisputably defining feature of the lives of business leaders and managers, and as such, it should equally define their education.

Jérôme Couturier is Associate Dean of Professional Graduate Programmes and Executive Education at NEOMA.

Diversity and recruiting the optimal MBA cohort

Diverse cohorts broaden students’ minds and skill sets, equipping them for the global marketplace and future leadership roles, writes HEC Paris’ Andrea Masini

In the past few decades, there has been a dramatic focus on the makeup of MBA cohorts in terms of nationality, academic and professional background, gender, religion, sexual orientation and other factors. This comes as little surprise, given that today’s employers are interested in hiring candidates who have experience navigating diverse, cross-cultural environments.

While diversity spans numerous characteristics, it is geographical diversity that is most often referred to in business education. We know that students are best prepared for top international jobs when they have a proven track record of working with people from different backgrounds. Just imagine the wisdom our students acquire when they work in small groups to solve complex business problems with, for instance, a tech whizz from Berlin, a policymaker from Egypt and a former Olympic athlete from South America. 

More responsible leaders

Success in an international career is no mean feat. Global managers have to be able to relate to people from different backgrounds, and to consider how they will think and react in various situations, particularly under pressure. The MBA provides these opportunities on an almost daily basis, creating better, more responsible leaders. These leaders of tomorrow will already have been challenged and confronted by opposing political ideas and conflicting beliefs by the time they reach managerial positions. They will not only be familiar with a whole spectrum of contrasting ideas, but they’ll know how to work best with the people who hold them. 

More than this, working with a diverse group of individuals helps students develop their soft skills effectively. For example, at HEC Paris, we send all of our MBA students to a bootcamp at Saint-Cyr, the prominent French military academy. This annual seminar is specifically designed to improve team-leadership skills through a series of increasingly difficult tasks supervised by leadership experts. Students must work in teams to achieve a common goal – and it reveals some important lessons.

Recently, I witnessed a shy student from Asia discover the solution to one of the Saint-Cyr challenges. Her nine teammates – who were more dominant, Western MBA candidates – loudly offered their own thoughts to the point that she gave up trying to tell them her idea. They failed the task. Since no one had heard the one team member who had the solution, the whole group learned an important lesson about their own cultural norms and the need to listen to every voice.

Having a diverse cohort allows these lessons to filter through the whole programme. MBA programmes usually consist of group work, and every person’s skill set is invaluable to the rest of team. Students develop the tools to understand diversity – from nationality to religious beliefs and sexual orientation – and see how they can work with, and benefit from, these differences. 

Opposing ideas that broaden the mindset

While most MBA candidates share some important characteristics, such as a desire pursue excellence and a willingness to work hard, they will discover new or opposing ideas that broaden their mindsets. Diversity offers practical benefits, too. 

Many people join MBA programmes with the desire to learn new languages, for example, and spend time with students whose first language they are keen to learn. At HEC Paris, our MBA candidates must be proficient in three languages when they graduate. Students learn from each other both in classroom settings and in informal social settings. Russian students connect with French students, for example, and they pick up new languages through their friendships. 

Cultural events

A diverse cohort is also a lot of fun. Students plan cultural events and invite their classmates, the faculty and the local community along to enjoy them. From cultural weeks that focus on traditional food and activities to various celebrations, such as Holi – the Hindu festival of colours – diversity enriches campus life. For example, for last year’s Nigerian Independence Day, our Nigerian students cooked a traditional dinner for the entire MBA student body. When we celebrated Holi at HEC Paris, Indian students organised a wonderfully flamboyant celebration with the local town mayor. It really was like New Delhi came to Jouy-en-Josas.

Despite cultural diversity stealing most of the focus, we can’t ignore our students’ work experience. Students should be able to learn from a wide range of professionals, from economists and doctors to engineers and bankers. Past employers among recent HEC MBA cohorts have ranged from Microsoft to the Peace Corps. Former job titles, meanwhile, have included everything from Air Traffic Controller for the Israeli Air Force to consultants from JP Morgan and McKinsey. We have even had the Acting Creative Excellence Manager for Coca-Cola in Pakistan and Afghanistan among recent cohorts of students. 

Achieving career transformation

Exposure to such a variety of peers is particularly important if students want to achieve career transformation. The close friendships they make during the MBA programme will invariably include people from other countries and industries. Finance professionals can look to the tech specialists, for instance, while managers from commerce can learn from those who come from global consultancies. 

This is a key reason why diversity really pays off at Business School – a more diverse MBA class transforms into a more diverse professional network. Students create global links with points of contact around the world that last for their whole careers. 

Students who choose to study abroad already have a head start. They immediately open themselves up to another culture, ready to absorb ideas that can help them far into the future. By spending time in France, students pick up aspects of the country’s heritage easily. That might mean being able to order the right wine at a business dinner, or holding conversations about art and history. 

Still, not all MBA programmes place such a high value on having a diverse MBA class. Many students tell us that they chose HEC Paris because diversity is at the heart of our programme. Every HEC student profile is unique and atypical. For this reason, students come to HEC Paris ready and willing to accept other people’s ideas. 

We are extremely proud of our diversity, and we work to ensure it at every step of the selection process. In perusing the quality international applicants that form a talented and diverse MBA cohort, some Schools are largely able to rely on their reputation. While HEC Paris is globally visible and receives exceptional applications from across the globe, our MBA marketing managers still travel the world to meet applicants personally and introduce them to HEC Paris. Today, our cohort is 93% international – those people are all from outside France – and comprises more than 50 nationalities. We are one of the most diverse MBA programmes in the world. 

Celebrating diversity

Once students join the programme, this diversity is both celebrated and utilised. The idea is never to enforce a level of standardisation, but to leverage each person’s uniqueness, their values, understanding and experiences. 

After all, the world is changing. Companies operate across borders and technology continues to break down barriers. The business leaders of the future should be able to experience how international companies work as soon as they join an MBA programme. We take this mandate very seriously at the HEC Paris MBA. 

Andrea Masini is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean, HEC Paris MBA. He holds a PhD in management from INSEAD. Prior to joining HEC Paris in 2010, Andrea was Assistant Professor of Operations and Technology Management at London Business School. He has a background in mechanical engineering and environmental management.

Solving complex problems with design thinking

Design thinking requires essential ‘front-end’ questioning skills to understand the end user’s experience fully writes David Steinberg

Allow me to introduce you to three hypothetical individuals, with differing priorities, who will set the context for the following article:

Zaha is a full-time MBA student at a prestigious Business School, taking a design-thinking course and learning how to apply the process to her capstone project. Her School will apply design thinking to help her take the next step in her career.

Anna is a partner at a prestigious consulting firm and responsible for recruitment planning. She recently completed a design-thinking course for executives offered by Zaha’s Business School. She’ll apply design thinking to help Business Schools around the world visualise the ideal student profile in three, five and even 10 years. 

Etienne is Director of Post-Graduate Careers at Zaha’s Business School. He recently met and spoke at length with the professors who teach Zaha’s and Anna’s design-thinking courses. Etienne will apply design thinking to help his Business School align its curriculum to the strategic goals of the world’s most successful companies, including Anna’s firm. He’ll also help Zaha take that next big step in her career.

What Zaha, Anna and Etienne don’t realise is that their questioning skills are critical to the success of their design thinking. 

Why? Because design thinking begins with empathy. With empathy, we can immerse ourselves in the world of the end user, and by doing so, we can properly frame the problem experienced by the end user, and go on to solve the problem together in extraordinary ways. 

Design thinking fosters the co-creation of value, ideal for those who work in the highly competitive, ever-changing and relationship-dependent professions of graduate business career services and employer recruitment.

What is design thinking? 

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, describes design thinking as ‘the integration of feeling, intuition and inspiration with rational and analytical thought.’ 

To Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, design thinking is a ‘balance between analytical mastery and intuitive originality’. 

Meanwhile, David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, calls it a ‘framework that people can hang their creative confidence on,’ providing those who don’t consider themselves to be creative with a way to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. 

University of Potsdam and Stanford University are two of the leading centres for the study and application of design thinking. Companies flock to the campuses to apply it to their challenges and change management. Ian Wylie at the Financial Times writes that industry adoption of design thinking ‘has encouraged Business Schools to add design-thinking methods to their executive MBAs and help students find innovative solutions in sectors from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to banking and insurance’. 

It turns out that there isn’t one design-thinking process: several have emerged in the past decade, each with its own terminology and devotees. 

For example, IDEO’s process focuses on inspiration, ideation and implementation. Roger Martin’s version requires ‘moving through a knowledge funnel’ from mystery to heuristic to algorithm. The Design Council, Google and IBM have their own versions. However, the Stanford five-step process is considered the gold standard: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test.  

Let’s bring in Anna and Etienne to help explain each phase of the Stanford process using a simple scenario.

Empathise: during a recent meeting, Etienne initiated a series of questions and learned some sobering news about new hires from his School. They’re not building trust with clients of Anna’s firm. Etienne then conducted extensive interviews with other clients and heard a similar story. 

Define: Etienne returned to his School and met with faculty and staff to define the problem. They determined that the underlying issue was that students, while certainly high-calibre, lacked training in advanced interpersonal skills.

Ideate: Etienne’s team held a brainstorming session and came up with several solutions, including coaching and feedback, workplace simulations and field immersion.

Prototype: a sub-committee of Etienne’s team developed a prototype programme to solve the problem.

Test: Etienne’s School tested and tuned the programme with a selected group of graduate business students before formally launching it the following year.

The enduring value of the Stanford process is that when it is applied properly, it can produce innovative solutions that emerge not from the ‘ideate’ phase per se, but from the ‘empathise’ phase – the information-gathering phase. Proper application means not moving too quickly downstream into the latter phases – what most of us would consider to be the exciting bits involving late nights and whiteboards and lots of pacing around the room – without first understanding the underlying issues associated with the end user’s experience. 

Here’s a common and costly mistake that many companies and organisations make: they conduct a few cursory interviews with end users; they think they understand the problem; they think they have a solution; they roll out the solution and go home feeling good. They return the next day… and the problem is still there. 

IDEO’s Tim Brown describes empathy as the most important skill for the design thinker. He adds that empathic designers ‘notice things that others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation’. 

Design thinkers are taught how to empathise by combining observation and engagement in ways resembling techniques used by ethnographers in the field. Observation includes looking for work arounds and for disconnects between what is said and what is done. Engagement means asking mostly ‘why’ questions to ‘uncover deeper meaning’. 

If empathy is the most important skill for the design thinker, then asking questions comes a close second. However, there are as many generic approaches to understanding the end user’s experience as there are processes for design thinking. One size doesn’t always fit all. What follows is an approach to questioning tailor-made for the ‘empathise’ phase of the Stanford process and for people in career services and employer recruitment. Indeed, business students can also use it to complete their external projects. This approach will put you on the right path towards successfully defining and solving the end user’s problem. 

Change points

Your first step as a designer is to determine the topics to explore with the end user. John Sawatsky, Michener-Award-winning investigative journalist and interview expert, argues that the secret to crafting compelling questions is to build them around ‘change points’, which are key changes in someone’s personal or professional life. In the context of design thinking, the designer seeks to discover change points in the end user’s experience and to understand the associated underlying issues. Focus on the timeframe before a change point and build your question sequence around it. 

There are parallels between this process and an intriguing principle in Eastern philosophy called ‘ma’. According to theatre director Colleen Lanki: ‘Ma is a Japanese aesthetic principle meaning “emptiness” or “absence”. It is the space between objects, the silence between sounds, or the stillness between movements… The emptiness is, in fact, a palpable entity.’

Listen for ma in Japanese conversation in the form of question fragments, or in the silence between drum beats or flute notes or lyrics in Kabuki theatre. Look for ma in Japanese visual arts such as paintings that have empty space in them. Author and TV presenter James Fox notes that ma can give structure to the whole, the way open spaces in traditional Japanese homes are given meaning by those who live in them. It’s the spaces between the change points in people’s lives that offer rich insights for the design thinker.

Ask ‘what-how-why?’

Your next step is to develop a list of questions. In the early 1980s, Sawatsky began teaching journalism at various Canadian universities. He noticed that students who asked ‘what-how-why’ questions (topic-process-motivation) for class projects elicited more vivid responses from sources compared with students who used other words and sequences. This sequence corresponds with the neural basis of human listening. 

Social Neuroscientist, Robert Spunt, at Caltech writes: ‘Listening requires not simply a comprehension of what others are saying and how they are saying it, but also why they are saying it: what caused them to say that and to say it in that way?’ 

Think of the what-how-why sequence as a navigational system in an aircraft cockpit. Use the sequence to prepare for your end-user engagement by developing questions that function as waypoints between the first and last topic you’d like to explore. 

In between the what-how-why waypoints, probe and clarify responses using questions that you deem appropriate; open-ended questions work best, particularly when you want to explore matters of degree such as confidence, dedication, and success. When you’d like the person to confirm or deny a topic, ask a yes/no question, but it’s best to do so after you’ve explored a matter of degree. Moreover, use what-how-why when the person offers you a revelation. If you only have one opportunity to ask the person questions, you must quickly improvise a new sequence. You might eventually return to your original flight plan, or you might decide to stay on the new course. You’re the pilot.

Remember: we prepare to improvise.

PHASE 1: DEFINE THE CHALLENGE

The Stanford ‘empathise’ phase begins with defining the challenge. This can be interpreted as discovering one or more change points associated with the end user’s experience. Three question models follow to jumpstart your information-gathering process: 

Etienne’s questions for Zaha

• What was a positive moment during your time at the Business School that you vividly remember and often reflect on?

• How did this moment make you feel?

• Why do you think this moment made you feel this way?

This question sequence helps Etienne ‘dig into the emotion’, as the Stanford design school phrases it, to help Zaha take the next step in her career. Etienne learns that Zaha often thinks about her idea for a startup project in her elective: to build high-definition cameras and install them inside incubators in neonatal units to help parents see their newborns when they’re away from the hospital. Her work group’s enthusiastic response to her idea gave her a level of confidence she’d never had before.

Etienne’s questions for Anna 

• What is your firm’s top strategic goal in the next five years?

• How will this strategic goal change your firm?

• Why is this strategic goal important to your firm?

This sequence is designed to create alignment between Etienne’s Business School and Anna’s firm, while at the same time assuring that he understands the underlying issues associated with her firm’s strategic goals. Etienne learns that Anna’s firm has access to vast quantities of data with no means of harnessing it for clients. He also learns that the firm’s managing director is growing uneasy about the fierce competition from rival consulting firms, and has asked for ways to design innovative solutions for clients and to roll them out more quickly. Indeed, Etienne learns that the firm would like to launch a new data/predictive analytics division.

Anna’s questions for Etienne 

• What, in your view, is the next step for our employer/ Business School partnership?

• How can we collaborate on this next step?

• Why do you feel this step is right at this time?

This sequence is also designed to align Etienne’s Business School with Anna’s firm but from Etienne’s perspective. Anna learns that Etienne’s Business School proposes to co-create the new analytics division to help the firm’s clients address their own customers’ challenges and make informed predictions about the future. Students would enrol in a new business immersion course and spend six weeks at Anna’s firm. 

After the induction period, students would then work on challenging projects based on their specialisation. This partnership would provide students with the immersive learning experience they expect, and provide Anna’s firm with a continuous supply of ideas and skills provided by students at one of the world’s premier Business Schools. 

PHASE 2: GATHER INSPIRATION

Once you have defined the challenge by discovering a change point, the next step in the Stanford ‘empathise’ phase is to gather inspiration, which can be interpreted as exploring the change point. Help the end user go deeper into their experience. 

As market research interviewers will attest, the end user’s first response may not fully capture their feelings. 

For example, the end user might initially describe their long-haul flight to Shanghai as being ‘fine’, but after a few probing questions, ‘fine’ turns out to mean ‘the in-flight meal was average and the entertainment was limited’. 

Here are three ways to explore a change point:

Ask an immersive question

Craft a question in a comparative structure and turn up the contrast. 

For example, Etienne might ask Zaha this question to learn more about how her work group’s positive reaction to her start-up idea has changed her self-perception: ‘Thinking back to your work group’s positive reaction to your startup idea, how would you compare your perception of yourself as an entrepreneur then and now?’

Embed a verbatim comment

Embed a verbatim comment made by the end user in a comparative structure and once again, turn up the contrast. For example, Anna might ask Etienne this devil of a question to learn more about his Business School’s vision of the ideal student profile in five years: ‘You recently said that “artificial intelligence will reshape labour markets in unimaginable ways”. How would a student’s profile that takes into account the rise of high-level machine intelligence compare with the profile of a current student?

Wrap the change point

Again, it’s the spaces between a change point that are as important as the moment of change. Ask one question that takes the person back into the moment before the change point. Ask a second question that explores the actual change point. Then ask a third question that explores the moment after the change point. 

For example, Zaha might ask the following three questions to her client at Lego as part of her capstone project:

• Thinking back to 2012, before you introduced your co-creation process, how did Lego developers bring their ideas to market?

• When Lego introduced co-creation with customers, what were the steps to bring these products to market?

• What’s the primary difference between products created only by Lego developers and those co-created with your customers?

Design thinking offers people in career services and employer recruitment a way to co-create rather than dictate solutions. It also offers a way for students to hone their problem-solving skills and to co-create solutions with their clients for class projects. 

However, design thinking requires essential ‘front-end’ questioning skills to fully understand the end user’s experience. Mastering these skills will assure that everyone involved is headed in the right direction. 

Dr David Steinberg is Principal at Reykjavik Sky Consulting. He conducts MBA masterclasses on advanced questioning skills at several Business Schools including Cass Business School and Nottingham Business School and is Associate Professor in Leadership, Strategy and Organisation at Heriot-Watt University.

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