Creating cultures of change, part II

Business Impact: Creating cultures of change, part II
A look at traditional business school structures and why they are in need of review to meet new student needs and business realities

How can business schools imagine a more innovative and relevant future? To answer this question, it’s useful to look back at the wider context of postgraduate education over the last several decades.

Trends in postgraduate education

As far back as the early 2000s, students and clients have been challenging the conventional wisdom of business schools and their approach to professional development – both the content and the methodologies.

What have people been increasingly dissatisfied with? In the traditional context – and something which is still a dominant model in many institutions – business schools applied tried and tested methods to impart business knowledge to students. Content was fixed, structures were clear, and testing was based on theories and models. If we break down the business school experience into ‘content’, ‘methodology’ and ‘impact’, we can characterise this model as follows:

1. Content: ‘Sage on the stage’

Traditionally, subject-area professors with years of academic research would teach content in a lecture setting on campuses that felt like exclusive ‘seats of learning’. Topics were traditional, from accounting to finance, strategy or marketing, reflecting then-prevalent corporate structures in the world’s major economies. Knowledge was assumed to flow from teacher to student, and the ‘truth’ was controlled by the institution. Students paid to access this truth, with little opportunity to challenge
the status quo.

2. Methodology: ‘Unidirectional knowledge transfer’

Professors and academics shared their expert knowledge with students who would listen, take notes and then reproduce the same information to pass exams. The simple absorption of facts and knowledge by students was the measure of success, rather than the ability to think, debate or create alternative insights. Questions and debate, if any, were limited to after-lecture Q&As and occasional tutorials.

3. Impact: ‘Linear learning’

Courses were taught in a linear fashion, chronologically and in terms of content. Methods and theories would build on each other in lectures within a set timetable of weeks/months. Testing of knowledge at the end was proof that the learner had been ‘educated’ and impact was measured by the learner’s retention of classroom content.

This established order for learning can still work in educational settings where students need to get to grips with essential facts and knowledge on a well-established topic, such as accounting. It also worked at a time when management theory was well established and the corporate world shared common attributes. Classic management models and case studies provided predictable solutions to common business problems for Fortune 500 or FTSE 100 companies, where Six Sigma or Lean Manufacturing provided repeatable methods for accurate business decisions.

Today, the global business landscape is a patchwork of startups, tech firms, VCs, NGOs, collectives, and partnerships. Businesses are faced with new stakeholders, activist investors and emerging ESG requirements. Geopolitics are forcing a fundamental rethink of supply chains. And leaders must develop new talent strategies to manage diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) needs, hybrid work, labour shortages and an inflationary global economy.

Hence, while traditional business school structures and content can still be effective for baseline learning on established topics, they are increasingly in need of review to meet new student needs and business realities. The pandemic has caused a huge acceleration of these pre-existing trends, as businesses moved fast into digital adoption, flexible working, shortening supply chains, or reassessing their business models. So, the question is “what now?”

Andy Craggs is a leadership consultant and programme director of executive education at London Business School.

This article forms part of a series and is adapted from a longer feature which originally appeared in Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: August 2022). Read part I here

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