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.

Exploring Business Schools’ challenges in Latin America

We share insights from leading Business School professors who attended AMBA’s 2018 Latin America Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, about their Schools’ current strategies, challenges and opportunities. Interviews by Jack Villanueva

Alejandra Falco, Strategic Management Professor, Universidad del CEMA

What challenges do teachers, instructors and professors face when using online technologies in their courses?

The main challenge is to understand that teaching online is not the same thing as teaching face to face. You have to think about the course and your class in a different way. When you teach face to face, you are between the student and the materials so you can see what’s going on in the class, you can see the reactions of the students to what you are saying and the material you are using. This does not happen in the online environment so you can’t make decisions on the spot. 

Schools need to help instructors understand that [online learning] is different [to classroom learning] and make sure that they don’t reproduce what they do face to face in an online environment. It needs a transformation. 

In terms of the online MBA and studying from distance, do you think the experience, learning and the outcome for these students is the same as for those who learn face to face?

It’s an interesting question because the challenge we face in an online environment is to foster learner-to-learner interaction. It is easy to interact between instructor and learner, but the challenge is the learner-to-learner interaction. 

There is something that happens naturally in a face to face environment, so if we can manage this interaction adequately and develop tools to allow the students to interact among themselves, the online option will be richer than the face-to-face option. If we can have the same attributes in an online environment, we add much more flexibility for the student to choose when and how and where he or she wants to study.

Ignacio Alperín, Professor of Creativity and Innovation, Pontificia Universidad Católica

How is business thinking changing around creativity?

Creativity is a process that involves more than one person, it is never an individual idea; it is a communal kind of work. Creativity is the step prior to innovation. Creativity is putting together the correct ideas, innovation is putting together the correct product or service and making it happen in real life. 

Every company expects their graduate or postgraduate students to be open to the idea of being creative, working in a different way, of accepting different manners of work ethics that are not traditional. This not only involves those who come in to work for a company, it has a lot to do with leadership as well. 

Perhaps there is an issue with expectations versus what actually happens in companies. There are too many bosses and too few leaders. There are a lot of people who tell you what to do but very few people who inspire others to do things. In that regard, creative leadership is also a major subject and companies are slowly coming around to the idea that they need to change their leadership style.

Do you think Business Schools are sufficiently inspiring to instil creativity in their students?

When we’re children, we’re extremely creative and we don’t have limits. We like to explore and ask about everything. In Schools as it stands, the creative spirit is squashed by a system that requires students to be right or wrong. 

Creativity is a gift and should be developed like any other talent. We have all been provided with the talent of creativity but when people get to university or Master’s level, they have been kept so far away from their creative juices and, in many cases, it is very difficult to bring them back in touch with themselves and give them inner strength because creativity is a strength. 

We are completely and constantly improvising our lives. Companies, for a long time, tended to squash this, but today, organisations realise that they need to be open and think laterally. If the education system can change enough, many of the problems we face today will be gone because people will come up line already living their creative ability throughout their careers.

In your role, are you trying to unlock existing creativity or teach the creativity?

It’s a bit of both. When I find a master’s class with 30 students, most of them are professional people. They think they know everything and have already made it, and in some respects they are right. 

They will be future leaders, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell them: ‘I am teaching you and I don’t know everything; perhaps you should relax a bit and question yourself about the facts you thought were correct.’ 

By unlocking that vault they will find another Pandora’s Box of issues and problems, but if they learn how to handle them, they may find a way to make their work more effective, their company profitable, their life more exciting and more enjoyable; they may go home and feel like having fun with family instead of taking their troubles with them and feeling miserable when they’re not at work. 

Part of my job is unlocking those talents, it has to do a lot with people’s fear of being wrong in front of other people. After that, we teach processes, ideas and concepts that can help students unleash creativity in themselves and the people with whom they work.

Is it the Business School’s responsibility to lead students towards an uncertain path?

Many students believe the world is divided into creative and non-creative people. We try to erase all this and explain we are all creative – different types of creative but all creative. 

Sebastián Auguste, Director Executive MBA, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella

What are your views on the current global MBA market?

The MBA is the most popular programme within the Business School: about 79% of the applications we receive are for the MBA programme. Demand is growing in Asia, Europe and the US, and it’s increasing in Latin America. The full-time MBA is declining and numbers are increasing in executive and part-time MBA programmes. There is also strong demand for some Master’s degrees such as business analytics. 

How is the EMBA faring?

The EMBA is small but it’s growing in many regions. Many students finish at university graduate level and decide to do a speciality such as a masters in analytics or finance, and then they go for the MBA later when they’re older. Young people are trying to gain more technical abilities; older people are trying to gain more general skills.

How popular is the online MBA?

The numbers show that the online MBA is growing. I previously expected the number to grow, but the increase isn’t as great as I expected. There has been a strong increase in the blended format, even in EMBA programmes. Online is coming very strongly but I don’t see the online MBA replacing the experience of the EMBA or the part-time MBA. You have to learn and you have to be there to learn. It’s quite difficult to learn online.

What’s the effect of specialist programmes on the MBA and on
Business Schools?

Specialist programmes are going to relegate the [generalist] MBA. There is going to be a fall in demand from young people wanting to do an MBA, but an increase in older people wanting to do one. 

In Latin America, you have very technical and specialised degrees so there is less demand for special programmes. Many universities are moving in this direction of having more general graduate-level study, so you’ll need more specialisation later on.

Carla Adriana Arruda Vasseur, Associate Dean, FDC – Fundação Dom Cabra

Why do you think Business Schools should have a role in social development? 

We are the ones who are transforming the leaders of our society. We are working with business managers, leaders, entrepreneurs, company owners, and people who really run the economy of the country. If we don’t have this kind of focus, we will continue to live in a country with a lot of inequalities so it needs to start with us.

How can Business Schools leverage an impact on society? 

All Business Schools have some sort of social impact and development in their value prepositions. Talking is one thing, leading by example is another. We need to provoke students to think differently and to do differently. We need to provoke them to really make a change. And it won’t be just about talking and showing them our mission. It has to be in every single class we give, in the projects that we send them on, it has to be included in all our initiatives.

How can Business Schools help students have a more impactful role in the world of tomorrow?

If you look at Business Schools, most of their students are from the upper portion of the social pyramid and we need to show them how they can really make a difference – in every single class and in every single project. 

A lot of our students come to us because they want management tools. They want to increase profit in their corporations, they want to better themselves in their careers. And, from day one, they realise we’re concerned about economic development but we’re also very concerned about social development. 

Do you work with other Schools to push this idea forward?

We have a partner we’ve been working with on modules and we’re putting an emphasis on that. But I think we can do more. I’ve been talking a lot about that [during this conference] with partners. We need stop considering ourselves as competitors [with other Business Schools] and consider ourselves as ‘co-petitors’ and cooperate more with each other.

Is it a case of starting locally or looking at the bigger picture and effecting change at the top?

Begin with what’s feasible and build up. 

We’re starting to shape the leaders of tomorrow. We’re starting with the students of today to [help them] have a deeper understanding of social development and a deeper understating that there are larger problems in the world. But is there an issue with the bigger businesses themselves not recognising it or not recognising it fast enough and therefore the student not having an outlet for what they want to do?

A lot of the boards require their corporations to think about the social side. Some suppliers refuse to supply to organisations that don’t care about these issues and clients are not buying from them. 

We, as professors of business corporations, need to set the example. 

Michel Hermans, Professor of Human Behaviour and Human Resources, IAE Business School – Universidad Austral

How can Business Schools help students develop skills beyond the analytical tools in the curriculum through action learning?

It’s not only about teaching rational decision making. It’s about helping students anticipate risks and [influence] people who are especially relevant in certain contexts. That’s what we do and this is the added value we consider action learning has. This reflection part is a very important role faculty have. 

One thing is to think about is how to evaluate a company in turbulence. Another is to think how a company can actually use what it has – its resources – to transform its strategy for much broader markets. Think about internationalisation and the acquisition of companies in emerging markets, and then present this analysis to senior managers. 

Can students themselves better prepare for their careers through action learning?

It depends on the student themselves. 

Especially in the Latin American job market, recruiters are looking for ‘plug-and-play’ students so when they roll out of their programme they want students who need little time to be fully functional within the context of their companies. 

If they are able to find students who are proactive, and have used this productivity to actually do something within the context of their programme and learn something from that, it’s highly valued. 

How important is action learning in fast-tracking understanding around the need for adaptability and evolution within businesses? It’s like moving house. If you don’t lay foundations in the MBA programme (which would be knowledge and analytical skills) it’s hard to start thinking about action learning in the first place. 

You have to lay a solid foundation in the first part of the programme and then build on this with follow-up courses. That gives us, as faculty, the confidence that teams are able to benefit from action leaning. We launch most of our projects towards the end of the programme because that’s when students take advantage of the projects they are being offered that they themselves propose. 

We’ve seen many students use their action learning projects to move into new career tracks or to find a different job in companies with whom they collaborated for their action learning projects. 

If you do a full-time MBA programme and you are away from the job market for a full year, gaining contact with the job market again – with employers and organisational life – is fundamental to a follow-up career. 

Juan Pablo Manzuoli, Strategic Marketing Professor and Director of MBA, UCA Business School

What do you consider to be the main disruptive trends students are facing?  

I have highlighted deep trends that are not often evident. For example, millennials want the earth, but they don’t have special powers. Loneliness is another powerful trend, as is self-exploration.

What’s next for the MBA? 

We have to have a convergence between the needs of people and technology and make an improvement. Make things better. We need to adapt and be flexible in how we think and in our business models. This generation is teaching us how to make improvements in different ways not only with the technology, but with emotions. 

Luciana Pagani, Professor of Strategy and Competitiveness, Saint Andrews University

How is the digital age transforming the MBA experience?

Changing behaviours in individuals as learners, and technology, are providing opportunities to deliver a different experience [to students], enabling people to access courses no matter where they are. 

What challenges is the digital age presenting to the way Business Schools teach?

The digital age is creating a new world of opportunities for businesses, while also causing a lot of pressure and setting very different type of challenges. Businesses need to change the way they lead. 

Technologies have to be implemented and customer experiences are transforming, so at the company level, transformation is amazing but very challenging. 

Business Schools have to rethink their value proposition massively. They must consider how they are going to offer something of vital importance to their students to enable them to learn and access the best faculties all over the world, offering a unique experience that blends the best from the physical world and the digital world. 

It’s an enormous strategic and operational challenge for universities.

Schools are transforming in terms of content, so all the strategies and management content required to lead in the digital area is being added to traditional content. They are also adding a broader spectrum of elective courses to meet the specific needs of students. 

They are forming partnerships with industries, with other universities worldwide and with governments.  

They are also transforming their infrastructures in order to provide space for innovation, creativity, and experimentation and they are working across platforms to collaborate, and to enhance their value proposition, with the best faculty, the best universities and the best companies as partners.

Do you think Business Schools rising to the challenges sufficiently quickly, given the current economy? 

The challenge of the fourth industrial revolution is too aggressive for everyone. Universities are moving forward, but it would be nicer if they could move faster. However, it’s not easy. 

I hope the pace will increase and we will have more and more examples of convergence to the new value proposition in the near future.

Melani Machinea, Professor and Business Development Director, UTDT Business School

Tell us about the development of your specialised master’s degree?

A few years ago, we realised we didn’t have an offering for recent graduates who wanted to pursue a career in business. Either they had to do a Master’s in finance or they had to wait five or six years before they could do an MBA. At the same time, we discovered a need for very specific skills, so we designed a Master’s in management which merges the two sides of the story: business for those who come here from a science background and, for those with a business background the skill set they need for the new corporate world. 

We looked at the world. In Europe, there were a lot masters in management programmes which were launched by Business Schools, in addition to their MBAs which are still their flagship programme. In the US, we have seen the emergence of master’s in business analytics programmes. We decided we would have a competitive advantage if we could offer both management and analytics in the same programme.

The first challenge was the type of students we wanted to sign up. We decided early on that we wanted recent graduates or people with little analytical experience who could learn about areas such as  programming and coding through the courses that we were going to teach. When we launched, we realised that there were a lot of men in mid-to-higher management, people with 10-15 years of experience, who said they were lacking this expertise and wanted to do the degree. We had to make a decision at this point and we decided to stick to our initial plan of targeting younger professionals, while just offering short courses for more mature professionals. 

Do you think the MBA is evolving fast enough or do you think there is so much more that could be done?

I think the MBA is still a flagship programme in Business Schools, and the challenge is to maintain and update it to make it relevant. Our hope is that our students from the Master’s in management and other programmes will come back in five or six years to do their MBAs when they realise they need other skills related to management and strategic leadership.

Exploring the future of globalisation

Business Schools must collaborate within a global partnership to help create a sustainable future for all, argues Steef van de Velde, Dean and Professor of Operations Management and Technology at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. Interview by David Woods-Hale and Jack Villanueva

At AMBA’s recent conference in Latin America, you presented on the future of globalisation. What did you cover? 

I shared a couple of stories about how to be a part of a global partnership. The world is globalising very fast. We all want to be international. So I shared a couple of case studies about how we started our international journey, what worked, what didn’t and what we needed to do to make it happen. 

You’ve joined the board of AMBA. How would you like to see the business education arena change for the better? 

I’m looking forward to doing my bit. What I’m hoping to bring to the table is the perspective of the continental European School. It’s important to bring in diversity. It’s important to have people of different backgrounds. 

What draws prospective MBAs to Rotterdam School of Management? 

It’s very international and diverse – 98% of the cohort is non-Dutch. Our mission – ‘to be a force for positive change’ – works very well.  It goes beyond sustainability and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I believe business is a force for change. More and more people are embracing this principle. We promise our students that by joining our MBA, they will be agents of positive change. 

What differentiates the Rotterdam MBA? 

It’s very hard for any School to have a genuinely unique element. We all claim to be unique. We all teach finance and marketing. But if you want to stand out, you need to do something different in the area of character building. We very much drive the importance of the SDGs. We tell our students business is not about making money for yourself, but creating a sustainable future for all. It’s about creating business models that do well but also do good. those values are very much alive in our part of the world. 

What are some of the innovative teaching methods you’ve come across? 

If you look at curricula all over Europe, the delivery format is changing. More and more of the teaching is being done in an experiential way. It’s not just listening to instructions – it’s learning by doing through living cases, field-work and assimilations. That’s basically what’s going on. Ideally, this would be done in diverse teams with people from all over the world. This gives students the opportunity to learn in a very fast pressure-cooker type way, but also with people from different backgrounds. 

How important is sustainability in terms of Business School course design? 

Sustainability is very important. However, we try to step away from using that word, because often the connotation is too narrow – environment or green issues. We’d rather talk about sustainable development and big societal challenges, which go way beyond this narrow interpretation of sustainability – and which make people nervous. 

The SDGs  talk about poverty, inequality, lack of employment, lack of infrastructure, climate change and much more. In our School we avoid ‘sustainability’ and talk about SDGs.

In light of that, what does a sustainable leader look like to you? 

We use the word ‘responsible’ rather than ‘sustainable’ and this means people have a very broad eye on what’s going on in the world; you manage a style of company that goes beyond making money for you and your family, but contributes to a better world. We try to encourage our students and graduates to contribute to a better world and be a force for positive change. 

In your personal and professional life, you’ve worked all over the world. How do you instil this international mindset in your students? 

We do this by recruiting people with different backgrounds from all over the world, in all our programmes, and by creating an international atmosphere. We create opportunities for people to work with others with different experiences. We also recruit faculty from all over the world and who will go places with their students. Our students travel all over the world and therefore are exposed to the global mindsets. 

How can MBAs turn theory into practice in the working world? 

People have to do something experiential. We stimulate students to set up their own businesses, often in the area of social business. 

You’re looking for students who can deliver on a global scale. Should students look at local economies first and work up – or take a top-down approach? 

To me, it’s very clear: people bring local experience but they have to do something with global impact. 

Collaboration is vital in uncertain climates. How is your School building links with other Schools, employers and alumni? 

We’re international through strategy and sheer luck. We’re members of leading groups and our Triple Crown accreditation gives us access to very strong international networks, in which we can discuss new initiatives and programmes. This collaboration for us is key to stay ahead of the competition. 

I’m using the word ‘competition’ but some of the Schools we’re ‘competing’ with in the same market are also the Schools with which we want to collaborate. 

What are the challenges that Business Schools face? 

There are quite a few challenges facing us. First, funding: we’re mainly a public university, so funding goes down year after year; one way or another you have to absorb that. At the same time, all Schools want to be international and we’re after the same faculty and students, so competition is getting fiercer. Faculty management and retention is a big challenge for most Schools. 

What would your advice be to other Business School leaders operating in this volatile and uncertain world? 

Over the years, I learned something that surprised me: the importance of having a compelling mission. Up until three years ago, I thought no one cared about mission. Then we worked on a new mission. To my surprise, this has released an enormous amount of energy and passion. 

Mission, to my mind, is nothing else but common purpose. Everyone wants a purpose in life. If you have a purpose you can rally everyone behind it and then it’s a lot easier to change things as they all understand what you want to achieve. 

Our new mission has had an impact on our School, students, faculty staff and also external stakeholders. It has served us very well so far. I’d urge Business School leaders to define their mission and purpose; once they do, things will become a lot easier. 

How can a Business School add value to a corporate employer with which it’s working? 

A Business School is all about delivering talent to the job market, so as a Business School you need to stay on top of what exactly the market requires. It’s changing very fast and teaching is moving away from accounting and finance towards business analytics. Business Schools have to follow the trends, there’s no way around it, and you have to stay in contact with companies. 

What’s your level of optimism about business, Business Schools and the economy? 

On a scale of one to 100, it’s very close to 100. I’m an optimist by nature, in spite of all the uncertainty in the world – especially around politics. I truly believe in the EU and this has worked well in Europe. 

Steef van de Velde is a Professor of Operations Management and Technology and the Dean of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). 

Waiting for Godot: treading the boards of the great Brexit drama

From the realities of life outside the EU and effects already in evidence, to potential dividends as seen by supporters, ESCP Europe’s Simon Mercado runs the rule over Brexit’s implications for UK Business Schools

In April 2019, Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, remarked that waiting for Brexit is a bit like waiting for Godot. In Samuel Beckett’s famous play, the central characters stay and wait for somebody (Godot) who never quite materialises. Moreover, their long and painful wait is characterised by bickering and disagreement. One gets the connection to Brexit as well as the good humour that extends from the fact that Waiting for Godot was originally written in French. Plus, before anybody screams ‘backstop!’,  it’s worth mentioning that the English version of the play is often played out with the central characters depicted as two Irishmen. 

Three years on from the UK’s EU referendum, we still wait for a Brexit process outcome.  Theresa May’s resignation and a pending summer recess with a new Tory leader will not speed things up much. Halloween (31 October 2019) awaits the UK and EU as a self-imposed deadline. A game of ‘trick or treat’ looks inevitable.

Over these three torturous years, the UK’s Business Schools have had time to eat, breathe and sleep Brexit.  Few, if any, have expressed joy at its choice or impact and most have lobbied for a softer variant or its abandonment. This position has tended to reflect a majority view that continued EU membership is the best platform for the sector’s growth and future success.  

In one of its early pronouncements on the subject, the UK’s Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS) declared: ‘We can’t change the outcome of the referendum but we need a good deal if we are to avoid seriously adverse consequences.’ Behind such a careful statement is a community of Business Schools that would tend to believe that Brexit is a setback, the scale of which will reflect the nature of the final exit deal. Across the sector, Business School Deans have queued up to couple cries of resilience with admission that leaving the EU hurts the UK’s ability to attract the best students, researchers and academics from across Europe.

Brexit fears and impacts

What underpins opposition and/or suspicions over Brexit? To answer this question, we have to look at the current situation and benefits of EU membership.

At the moment, higher education (HE) institutions in the UK can recruit the best European academic talent with relatively little restriction. Over 20,000 European nationals work in the UK’s HE sector on a visa-free basis. Among these are outstanding academics and professionals making great service to UK institutions. In many disciplinary fields, this supply line is vital to the educational offerings and reputation of UK institutions.  

On the other side of the staff-student relationship, the UK currently attracts EU nationals to study here with few obstacles or barriers. There are close to 140,000 fee-paying degree students from continental Europe in the university sector alone, making up about one quarter of its global international student population. As a full EU member economy, the UK can match its appeal as a high-quality, English-speaking sector with a fee and access regime that positions EU nationals favourably when compared to other international students.

With EU nationals treated as if they were home students, they pay lower fees and can study on UK-based degree programmes without visas. They can secure loan financing for their UK-based studies (as if they were UK nationals) and enjoy a right to stay and work in the UK after graduation. On top of this, there are around 20,000 UK citizens studying elsewhere in Europe for a degree at lower continental fee levels and a similar number of British exchange students funded each year under the Erasmus+ mobility programme. For younger people, this is one of the primary symbols of the UK’s EU membership.

Finally, as a highly competitive and impactful sector, the UK’s transnational education (TNE) strategies are very much aided by single market freedoms with considerable scope for growth in such activity. Campus implantation is easier in a context of regulatory alignment than regulatory divergence, as are other forms of award-based collaboration. Our research strategies are intrinsically linked to EU funding regimes and programmes. We presently enjoy full participation and access rights to Horizon 2020, with an excellent funding and participation rate. EU-funded research projects and initiatives have been the source of vast funding for research in UK institutions and are playing a vital role in enabling and scaling collaborative research across European borders. Programmes of this type build relationships and interdependencies that naturally span out into other forms of institutional co-operation. In addition, the EU’s structural funds have enabled many universities and their Business Schools to develop infrastructure and capacity.

The threat of Brexit

Are all the above benefits really at threat? If we consider what happens in a ‘hard’ or ‘crash-out’ Brexit, some of these established benefits look to be at risk. In terms of access for EU students and workers, basic legal rights of access would change dramatically. Students would be treated like other international students in terms of visa requirements and would almost certainly face higher fees and new visa-based access requirements.

UK higher education is renowned for its two-tier pricing model with international students already facing higher study fees, visa requirements (and costs), and restrictions on post-study work. This would be the new reality for EU nationals studying in the UK and one could lead to a decline in demand. The Department for Education (DfE) is said to be preparing for higher fees for new EU students from as early as 2020. Academics and professionals taking up work in UK higher education would require visa sponsorship, which amounts to an administrative nuisance and (small) extra cost to all parties.

The UK would also be outside Erasmus+ and forced either to buy in, or to set up new bilateral exchange schemes. On top of this, there would be no ‘pay-outs’ from EU structural funds to part support infrastructure and capacity projects at institutions in eligible UK regions. Outside the EU, the UK moves from a position of centrality within impactful Horizon 2020 research programmes to life on the outside. In the face of competing investment priorities at national level, there is no certainty that current EU funding levels would be matched by substitute schemes.

A softer variant of Brexit would arguably soften the blow, especially one with a commitment to preserving freedom of movement for young people for the purpose of education and training. In this scenario, one would envisage bilateral protocols between the UK and the EU in keeping with those concluded between the EU and Switzerland.

Specific agreements would, of course, need to be negotiated and implemented. These would almost certainly maintain some of the current freedoms and benefits enjoyed under EU membership but this would be a menu-based approach with agreement to be struck on fees, rights of residence, post-study work entitlements, participation in the successor programme to Horizon 2020, Erasmus+, and mutual recognition of qualifications and diplomas.

Life beyond Brexit

Of course, the strength and resilience of the UK higher education sector must be taken into full account, as must the arguable benefits of a more independent path. Set against the so-called `Brexit penalties’ are the Brexit dividends as seen or understood by its supporters.  Taking a narrow view of potential reform to HE and immigration, UK institutions could expect higher per capita fee income from EU students and a potential reduction in the burden of student loan financing previously open to EU nationals, for which recovery rates are staggeringly low.

UK institutions have proven their ability to continue to attract international students in high number despite relatively high fee levels and even when visas supposedly function as an administrative barrier or psychological deterrent. The logic runs that if the product or service is good enough, demand will endure.

Pending immigration reforms driven by Brexit also extend the period of time that international graduates can stay in the UK in order to secure graduate-level work after completion of their studies. Planned rules will increase the time period international graduates are permitted to stay after graduation, from four months to six months, with a full year in prospect for PhD graduates. If this legislation comes onto to the statute books, then Brexit will arguably have improved the post-study work entitlements of half a million international students.

Brexit supporters will also remind us that whatever money is redistributed back to UK universities and Business Schools through EU projects and programmes pales into insignificance when compared to global net contribution. There is also broad assumption that substitute schemes will emerge at national level and with significant funding. Outside the formal structure of the EU, it is clear that UK-based Business Schools and researchers will find ways to collaborate with their European counterparts too.

Effects and impacts

Although the Brexit process has yet to come to a conclusion and the ‘end state’ remains unclear, it is abundantly clear that its effects are already being felt. One quick win for the UK sector has been the fall in the value of the pound on international currency markets, which has had the effect of making UK study more affordable; a sort of Brexit premium. 

Application and registration rates have held up, at least for now, although the fast rate of growth in EU applications for undergraduate courses experienced prior to the referendum has been lost. There are EU nationals on faculty and in administration teams across our institutions upset at developments and concerned over their future status. The ‘settled status scheme’ introduced by the government has allayed certain fears but the introduction and management of that scheme has attracted widespread criticism.

A significant number of EU staff and academics have left UK institutions citing Brexit as an influence on their decisions and applications for new posts have changed in profile for many institutions with a relative decline in applications from continental European academics. Some students have been confused about the extent and timing of rule changes that might affect them, especially as a whole series of supposed ‘independence day’ dates have come and gone. They and prospective entrants have faced uncertainty over the nature and timing of fee-related decisions as the UK has stumbled through without certainty over the start dates for new rules and regimes. 

Worries across UK higher education about future Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 participation, have been linked to more immediate effects. Organisations across Europe have indicated that uncertainty about the UK’s continued involvement in European programmes is already causing problems. These include sharp falls in secured funding and requests for UK institutional/researcher involvement in Horizon 2020 project bids and applications.

But in a sense, we leave the biggest issue to last. Like other service businesses, the industry is better placed if the market is healthy and performing strongly. The first concern here is the most obvious one. Brexit is an assumed factor in the UK’s weakening growth rate. Apart from the knock-on effect on spending and earnings, there is ample evidence of Brexit-influenced relocation decisions. This may not amount to a ‘Brexodus’ of firms and jobs but there is a growing impact on the UK graduate jobs market, especially in areas such as banking and finance. After a bumper year for graduate jobs in 2015-2016, plans for graduate hiring by top employers have been downgraded. One annual survey (by research firm, High Fliers) has found an average 10% annual cut in graduate recruitment by private sector employees in the first two years subsequent to the EU referendum. Moreover, the requirement for firms to ride out Brexit uncertainties and fund expensive contingency plans is leading to short-term suspensions on investment decisions, for example, into management development training and/or commissioned research.

A final thought

As we await the final act of the great Brexit drama, it remains unclear what sort of sector the UK will finally have. One embedded firmly in the European Higher Education Area and subject to the full body of EU law, one connected to this area through some sort of independent deal, or one that is fully on the outside of it? The curtain falls on Beckett’s drama without Godot’s arrival. Luxembourg may be a tiny state but its Prime Minister might just have found the perfect way to depict and conceptualise this protracted Brexit drama.

Simon Mercado is Professor of Management and Campus Dean/Director for ESCP Europe Business School in London (UK).

How to build an effective online MBA programme

Imperial College Business School’s Paolo Taticchi highlights seven core ingredients that underpin the delivery of a high-calibre online MBA programme

A decade ago, if you asked those at the world’s leading Business Schools where the future of the MBA programme lay, the answer most likely would not have been ‘online’. However, that is certainly the way the industry has been heading in recent years.

To get a grip on what the future of the MBA looks like, your best bet is to reflect on the students. The GMAC Application Trends Survey Report provides an illuminating narrative on just how much the global MBA market has evolved as applicant demands, priorities and concerns have impacted on how programmes are designed and delivered. 

The traditional two-year, full-time MBA, once considered the stalwart industry leader, has faced a steady decline across the US and Europe, while the one-year programme has only grown in prominence. There’s also been increasing demand for part-time MBAs (so-called ‘lockstep programmes’, in which students follow structured classroom-based learning as a group, rather than dictating their own hours of study), which have seen stronger application volumes than part-time, self-paced programmes.

Such developments perhaps, on reflection, are not so surprising. The market changed substantially after the financial crisis of 2007-2008. People enrolling on a full-time MBA had to consider the potential return on investment in a way they didn’t previously. On top of substantial tuition fees, the prospect of giving up their jobs for up to two years of study with less guarantee of securing another on the other side, and arguably less opportunity for speedy career advancement, understandably made applicants look a little closer at the value of the two-year programme in comparison with shorter or more flexible options. 

However the most surprising trend to some, has been the significant hike in demand for online MBA programmes; a study method which, for a long time, was widely considered to be a sub-standard qualification, mostly due to over-ambitious, and ultimately unsuccessful, early attempts to provide online programmes. Despite significant leaps in technological developments since then, modern online programmes have continued to be shadowed by the failings of their less than stellar predecessors. That is, until now. 

High-quality applications

As the global business landscape becomes ever more driven by technology, with geographical boundaries no longer a barrier to working globally, and with the next generation of business leaders demanding greater flexibility in their working hours, the business education market has been under increasing pressure to offer programmes which better fit the lifestyle of the modern professional.

Since launching The Global Online MBA programme at Imperial College Business School, we have seen a growth of 30% in applications each year. This, in itself, wasn’t a surprise. Imperial has been a longstanding investor and supporter of online education. However the surprising factor was seeing the rising number of high-quality applications from extremely capable students around the world – not to mention the increasing number of students being sponsored through the programme.

It seems that the time of online MBAs being considered a B-product is over. 

Today, both applicants and corporations recognise the value of a good online education as equal, if not superior, to one gained on campus. In fact, only Business Schools seem to have missed the memo. Despite the surge in demand, a high proportion of leading institutions still do not offer an online study option to MBA students.

Their reluctance is understandable. The online MBAs remains, in many ways, a new, untested product, which requires significant levels of investment – both financial and intellectual – to make it a worthwhile venture. It’s not only about leveraging technology for the delivery of courses and degrees. It’s about new pedagogies, new forms of engagement and communication with students, and new ways of doing marketing and recruitment. Ultimately, it’s about developing new business models.

It’s no mean feat to create an online MBA – and to do it well. For those Schools willing to take the plunge, through my experiences of developing the online MBA programme at Imperial College Business School and building a knowledge of the best programmes offered by other Business Schools, I’ve identified seven core ingredients that must be present in order to deliver a high calibre, effective online MBA programme:

Top teaching faculty

Students who invest in an MBA programme typically harbour high aspirations and, as a result, hold high expectations of what their education should deliver. Quite rightly, students want access to the best researchers and teachers their School has to offer, and to receive personalised support in their professional development, regardless of whether they’re studying on campus or online. 

In an ideal world, the faculty responsible for delivering an online MBA should be the same individuals in charge of running the campus-based programmes, ensuring the same quality of curricula and helping to create an inclusive atmosphere beyond the physical boundaries of the campus. Any differentiation will only serve to create an unnecessary divide between campus-based and online programmes.

At Imperial, our full-time campus-based MBA is treated with the same academic rigour as our online programme. Applicants are held to the same criteria across the board and faculty are instructed to treat both classes as equal. Upon graduation, all MBA students, regardless of their study method, are awarded the same degree.

Structured flexibility

For all the talk surrounding the benefits of flexible working patterns, affording busy professionals greater levels of flexibility in structuring their learning doesn’t necessarily equal greater satisfaction or success. In fact, the opposite is true. Affording students too much flexibility does little to encourage cohort cohesion and engagement, as students find themselves at wildly varying stages of the curriculum and thus have little cause to engage with and learn from each other. It also provides little benefit to students’ professional development as they lack momentum and structure in their learning. Lockstep programmes put the right amount of pressure on students who, alongside modular learning, develop the additional skill of managing an intense workload of work and study. 

Proceeding in the learning experience together as a cohort creates a positive stimulus; students, naturally, keep up with study and deadlines driven by their classmates, and curricula can become characterised by group activities. 

Innovative ways of engaging students

As well as learning from the programme’s curriculum, a large part of MBA students’ learning comes from conversations with their classmates, faculty and the alumni network. Opportunities for conversations can easily be lost when studying at a distance. Engagement is vital in fostering a positive learning environment, therefore online programmes should be built to facilitate and encourage interaction between faculty, student and the wider school community wherever possible.

Building group projects into the online curriculum, enabling online students to attend live sessions, lectures and Q&As with faculty or alumni, creating online student-led events and regular discussion forums on relevant topics are all ways in which this can be achieved. 

A blended curriculum

Many of the best online programmes offer students a blended learning experience – allowing them the opportunity to engage in some learning in person in a physical environment. Time spent by students on campus should be designed to build the cohort’s spirit, helping firm-up relationships between students and faculty. For example, induction events can be a great way to break the ice between new students and set them on the right path. Similarly capstone experiences can be useful in enabling students to transition smoothly from student to alumni status.

Moreover, offering international study trips can aid dispersed global students to meet up throughout the programme, as well as providing a valuable hands-on learning opportunity. 

Sophisticated technology

The technology challenge scares off many Business Schools and constitutes an entry barrier for Schools that are open to adding an online MBA to their catalogue but don’t know how to. However, to offer a competitive programme, it is vital to invest in modern, intuitive and savvy technologies to support students’ learning.

There is a range of options to consider. Classic virtual learning environments (such as Moodle or Blackboard) typically do not offer the user experience that online MBA students want, so some Schools decide to engage popular online study platform providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity and FutureLearn to run their programmes instead. Others may decide to invest in proprietary bespoke platforms. 

Beyond facilitating the day-to-day running of the programme online, tech innovation is needed to support a variety of learning methods – live streaming of classes and events, or enabling multiple-campus connectivity, creating virtual and augmented reality solutions, developments of chatbots for student support.

Even creating purpose-built on-campus facilities (for example, the Harvard HBX facility designed for teaching online cases at best, or the WOW room of IE to offer a visual-classroom experience to both students and faculty) is a worthwhile investment. 

Continuous investment

The online delivery of an MBA calls for major investment from the outset, and a consistent dedication to investment moving forwards as technologies involved continue to improve. The inevitable growth of this market will bear significant rewards for Business Schools that have invested heavily and strategically in their online offerings, whereas those Schools that have limited themselves to tweaking old distance-learning programmes will have little chance of survival in this crowded market.

Senior management support

The development of online programmes, particularly the industry gold-standard MBA, triggers all sort of questions and problems for Business Schools to consider. It’s not only about money, it’s about developing (or committing to outsourcing) tech expertise and training faculty on how to conduct online delivery effectively, managing and protecting intellectual property, recruiting students globally and facilitating timely support for students of different cultures in different time zones. Managing these considerations is not possible without senior management support and a long-term commitment from all involved.

The structure and continued development of the Global Online MBA at Imperial College Business School is a reflection of each of these points. Since the programme’s launch in 2015, we have endeavoured to keep investing in its development, performing a major curriculum review after two years, and introducing new technologies on a regular basis. We’ve also encouraged and supported faculty to pilot new forms of engagement online, on-campus and abroad.

The successes and positive feedback, we’ve received from students have led us to develop our online offerings even further, offering a blended Executive MBA, a new online MSc in Business Analytics, and adding blended elements to all on-campus programmes.

For Schools, Deans and MBA Directors exploring the development of online MBAs I have three final pieces of advice:

1. Online education is a ‘go big or go home’ game. Investments in online programmes must be thorough and strategically aligned with the larger agenda of your institution. Investing in an online programme could cost you as much as investing in 10 traditional MSc programmes. Be ready.

2. Online education is also a ‘different’ game to master. The best lecturers you have at the School may actually become your worst online, if not trained appropriately. Not all members of faculty will adapt to online education smoothly. Take the time to understand your faculty’s reservations, and invest in their training and development.

3. Online education is only a ‘game’ metaphorically. In fact, it’s a complex business that calls for the right strategies at the right time to ensure success. You must pay attention to the world around you, the actions of your competitors and the needs expressed by your students and applicants – and be prepared to be bold in addressing them.

Dr Paolo Taticchi is Principal Teaching Fellow in Management and Sustainability, and Director of the Weekend and Global Online MBA programmes at Imperial College Business School.

Applying original thinking to business

Business Schools must encourage independent thinking and bravery in their students to help prevent future financial crises, says Fiona Devine OBE, Head of Alliance Manchester Business School. Interview by Jack Villanueva and David Woods-Hale

What were the key points of your presentation at AMBA’s 2018 Global Conference for Deans and Directors? 

I wanted us all to reflect on the global financial crisis of 2008 because the causes and consequences of that crisis are still being felt today and will be for some time. 

I wanted us to think about its impact on the world with a particular focus on leadership and management education. We have to produce the leaders of tomorrow who still take issues of corporate governance very seriously. There are many examples in the business world and in all aspects of life in which we have to think about fraud, accountability, corporate governance and how we address those issues. 

In light of that, how do you think Business Schools should be preparing MBAs to be leaders of tomorrow?  

Business Schools should be producing well-rounded people. By that, I mean people who understand business in the wider context – the social, economic and political environments in which businesses are operating. 

They need to understand this external environment as well as the environments of the organisations in which they’re working.
I think business leaders of the future need to understand how to manage change, how to lead change, and how to deal with risk and uncertainty. 

How can we be sure that the skills that are currently being taught are the right tools to safeguard against another financial crisis?

We’ll only know that when there isn’t another one. 

I don’t suppose we’ll never have crises in the future. But there should be people who will have the independence of mind to step up and say when there is uncertainty about issues. It doesn’t have to be a big crisis for people to draw attention to something. It’s about having the independence of mind and the courage and bravery to say something different – and not be part of group think. It’s about reflecting on and challenging things that come along if they don’t feel right. 

Do you think MBAs are being taught the necessary skills to succeed? 

I would hope so, as a Business School Dean. They will be taught what’s needed if the curriculum is up to date. An old curriculum doesn’t serve anybody, so we want an academic community that is abreast of the latest developments in the world of business and how it’s changing; and always bringing theory and practice together. 

Our strapline in the Business School in Manchester is ‘original thinking applied’ and it is really about defining theory and practice. Theory is often speculative and not grounded; it’s about connecting this to practice and this is very important and I know that many Business School Deans aspire to achieve it. 

How important is the continuation of learning after achieving an MBA? 

It’s hugely important. We all talk about it and we know that in a world of change, risk and uncertainty, it’s important to have the space to step out of your organisation, find a platform to talk to people about issues and challenges and get advice. 

Executive education and continuing professional development provide that space for you to do that. It’s easy when you’re in an organisation to think you’re the only person facing these problems and you’re the one who has to come up with novel solutions, but often when you join an executive education programme you’ll find yourself confronting similar dilemmas and challenges so it’s good to have those conversations and join that collective discussions about the best ways forward. 

In what ways have Business Schools adapted sustainable leadership into their programmes? 

Sustainable leadership is to do with resources and how you use them efficiently and effectively for the long term. One of our preoccupations is with environmental sustainability – but there are other forms – and in Manchester we have scholars working in this area. 

For example, there are lots of discussions at the moment about the need to move to a low-carbon future, but how do organisations get there? It’s a huge transition, especially if you’re a dominant player in a particular market. How do we get there? This has to be a core part of the curriculum [in Business Schools] whether it’s in the MBA or electives on specialist masters or undergraduate programmes. There’s a high demand for these programmes from students. 

What are some of the innovative teaching methods being used to prepare the leaders of tomorrow? 

Teaching has changed considerably over the past 10-20 years, most notably because of new technology. The days when you would go into a lecture for an hour of being talked at, as a passive audience member, are long gone. 

Technology has allowed us to do amazing things in the classroom and that learning engages students a lot more. It’s not about passive learning, even in large lectures. Material can be presented in innovative ways, using apps and gamification, to help people learn and think in active ways. 

Is the need for innovation a major challenge that Business Schools face? 

Like any other organisation, Business Schools have to think about change, evolution and relevance. Business Schools have to be useful to the business world, serving local as well as international communities. 

The biggest challenge is the politics of today – will the world remain as international as it has been for the past 20 years? Will we embrace people of all nationalities moving around the world and studying at Business Schools? Will people still feel comfortable to do this as the politics of the world changes? 

Which is the bigger issue for Business Schools: the volatile economic environment or barriers to student mobility? 

International mobility is important, not only for the Business School world but education in general. The academic world has enjoyed a surge of interest from students coming to Business Schools from all around the world and it would be shame if we lost that confidence people have to travel. 

We’ve got to think about keeping students up to date with current debates about politics, looking at international relations in terms of trade, how countries collaborate with each other, and all those sorts of issues. These are important for understanding businesses and what happens in the business world.

What innovations have you seen in Business Schools that have the potential to change the way businesses do things? 

There are lots of things out there and even as a Dean of a Business School, you hardly know the breadth of innovations happening in your own School. 

I’ve been interested in knowledge-transfer partnerships, in which Schools work with organisations. I have a number of colleagues working with legal companies at the moment, around legal tech. They’re exploring changes happening with legal technologies, how that’s disrupting the legal world and also how data is disrupting this sector, in the same way as fintech has disrupted the finance sector. 

Academics are bringing their expertise to the areas of solving business problems and helping companies through this. It’s important to be useful. 

How can a Business add value to a corporate with which it’s working? 

There are many ways we can work with corporates. Business Schools act as a platform to bring people together to discuss important topics. 

Manchester Alliance Business School recently held a talk on the industrial strategy in the UK, bringing people together to talk about this. What was gratifying about this event was that people were sharing business cards with each other. We can be a place where big ideas are discussed and we can bring solutions to problems as well.

Fiona Devine OBE is Head of Alliance Manchester Business School and Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester.