Designing the future of business

Francisco Veloso, Dean of Imperial College Business School, London, is looking beyond Brexit to equip his students with the vital skills in entrepreneurship and technology needed to create a sustainable future. Interview by David Woods-Hale

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role? 

As Dean of Imperial College Business School, I oversee strategy. I work with a fantastic team to drive the vision and the mission of the School and what we’re trying to build here. 

You’ve been at Imperial College Business School for a year. What inspired you to take this role? 

A combination of factors. One thing that attracted me was the trajectory the School is on. We have a combination of very strong business areas – for example, finance and marketing, and the development of those – mixed expertise in entrepreneurship, digitisation and disruption, both inside the Business School and across Imperial College. I think this is unique and very few Business Schools are working in this space as we are. 

The School’s reputation and brand is strong and London is a city that has much to offer in terms of its dynamic business environment. This also relates well to my own background and personal experience. I trained as an engineer, before growing interested in innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ve worked in engineering and Business Schools across the US and Europe, so I felt the whole thing came together very nicely in terms of a next career step for me and for the School; it was a two-way process. 

You’ve written about London being ‘open for business’, despite Brexit. why will international students come to London?

The core elements of the Business School – the strength of disciplinary areas alongside entrepreneurship, digitalisation and tech disruption – will not go away because of volatility. It’s bigger than Brexit. Brexit isn’t a good thing for the city or the country, and I wish there were less turmoil; however, it doesn’t affect Imperial College Business School’s vision to build a top London Business School, able to tackle the fundamental issues at the core of what it is to be a manager today. 

How are you building skills such as agility and innovation in tomorrow’s leaders? 

This is something we grapple with in our Business School design. It’s critical to consider how we’re preparing students. 

First, we have to re-affirm that we’re addressing areas such as marketing and finance for a volatile economy. The core needs to be there and nothing else can be done at the expense of this. But we’ve been pushing the entrepreneurial mindset. In times of change, you can either be in the driving seat or the passenger seat. We want our students to be in the driving seat; to be protagonists of this change, whether establishing new firms or working in large organisations. 

The other element is data, digitisation and digital marketing and we have a variety of initiatives in this field. But it’s vital to address soft skills such as creativity and working as part of a team in a robotised environment. Soft skills are taking on new importance and we need to prepare students for that. 

The final element is specific to our School. We have an emphasis on training students for design thinking. Over the next 10 years, our students will see parts of their businesses dismantled and rebuilt in a different way. They’ll have to question things at the core
of the business model, be comfortable to ask these difficult questions and think differently. 

It’s important to us to give students this tangible skill to prepare them for a novel and different future. 

Are Schools rising to the challenge of encouraging students to think for tomorrow as well as today?

They’re trying. It’s hard to make a general evaluation, but when I go to meet other Deans they’re keenly aware things are changing and they’re adapting their Schools. 

It is too early to say how successful they are in instilling these skills, because we’re all in transition at different speeds with different aspirations. But we’re all trying to cater to these new realities and to prepare students accordingly. Some are more advanced than others, and I think we’re better equipped than many, but I’m obviously biased in favour of my own School. 

How do you ensure you’re at the forefront of digital learning? 

This is critical and I agree that most Business Schools are behind [on the issues in terms of] what’s happening to businesses around them. Before I joined, Imperial College Business School began to invest significantly in our future capabilities. We have a sophisticated education technology team, which has been working around online learning, in terms of making it rich and engaging. It’s not about MOOCs or videos; it needs to be an enriching educational environment that is digitally mediated. 

We’ve launched a global online MBA and adjusted our EMBA to make it blended. This is the reality of executives today. We learn and bring this learning into the classroom using models such as a flipped classroom and we work hard to generate interaction between students within a digital platform. 

Online learning also provides us with data about the students, their behaviour and their achievements. All of this is an important part of the learning process, both now and in
the future. 

Do you think Business Schools have a responsibility to champion the sustainability agenda? 

Business Schools have a responsibility to develop ethical and responsible leaders. We’re talking about training leaders and preparing them for tomorrow. These elements are important for our common future so have to be present in how we educate leaders. 

Social entrepreneurship is just as important as generating profit. It has to do with ethical dimensions, but there is a growing concern around climate change and this is becoming more mainstream. 

As a Business School, we have a centre around climate change and finance, and green finance is very important to us. We have a global institute cutting across various faculty and a Masters dedicated to this area. It filters through to the courses we can offer to MBAs as well; we have one in clean technology and another in sustainability and climate change. Our part of the curriculum offers students the facts so they can grow more engaged through talks and seminars and it creates a level of depth they can further explore and get to know better. This is not just a ‘course’ people take, but an agenda that our students to care about. 

We have a very strong finance element at our core and we are strong on sustainability. Bring these together and we’re serving the broader School. 

What is the biggest challenge facing your fellow deans? 

There are are several challenges. One is around the role of Business Schools. As we think about ethics, climate change and the future of work, we know Business Schools can’t tackle them all. We need to decide what we can contribute if we want to have a meaningful input, both from an intellectual standpoint in terms of the phenomena, but also around preparing students. We need to build skill sets among faculty to address this. 

Another challenge is finding the balance between the virtual, physical and digital world. The MBA has changed dramatically, as has executive education. The whole landscape is becoming more diverse, so finding the right balance is critical. Working around the boundaries of the Business
School is a big challenge and will require trial and error. 

A third aspect is diversity and the role of women. We are training the next generation of leaders, so concern around diversity needs to be present in terms of class composition and the role models we create. We take this very seriously. This has to be part of the present and
future, and relate to scholarships, fellowships and relationships. 

The last element I want to highlight is about attracting, retaining and developing outstanding faculty in this environment. The way we still think about academics in general, is that they are trained in economics, finance, marketing or innovation, for example. We need to find a way to nurture this deep knowledge because we have to be at the forefront of specific areas. 

What is the position of the MBA programme, within the Business School portfolio? 

It plays a very important role in terms of relaunching people’s career paths, although there are other courses that are equally as important to a Business School. 

In the past, the MBA was the flagship programme and a lot of the thinking within Business Schools was built around this. This isn’t true anymore, but the MBA is still important. It’s more about the fact that Business Schools are now relevant in several education spaces and what I think is unique about the MBA is that it takes people from a variety of working backgrounds and relaunches them in a direction that gives them  a much better sense of what they want to do. 

You may finish an undergraduate degree, or even a Masters, and discover what you like and how to build a career, but the moment you decide to do an MBA, you’ll have a sense of where you want to go and how the MBA can be a tool to advance your career. 

There is no other product like this and it cannot be replaced. It will continue to be a core product within international Business Schools and we have to continue contributing to this group of people who are prepared to be leaders and have that drive and capability. 

We like to contribute to entrepreneurship and technology because we’re equipped to train leaders in these fields. But different MBAs will be able to contribute differently. We’ll follow our own path and other Schools will take theirs. 

Thinking about diversity, how do you recruit the optimum cohort? 

It’s an art as much as a science. Scientists have analytical tools, and we need to be more analytical about recruitment in terms of the composition. We discuss this internally, regarding how we can have structure and take an analytical approach. In some senses, you have to balance many different variables. 

People choose a specific MBA because is has an identity that differentiates it from programmes offered by other Schools. This cannot be considered in an abstract way, so to use our case as an example, we’re trying to create an entrepreneurial dimension
and it’s critical that entrepreneurs apply. People need to come who are comfortable in areas of science and technology that can connect to this. 

In saying that, we don’t want the Imperial College Business School to be considered ‘techy’, so we want to attract people from the arts and creative fields as well, to achieve a mix. Thinking about diversity in terms of profiles is more important than thinking about the sectors from which students come. 

We want to create a certain environment and experience for that class, so it’s all about creating diversity around what we believe is important for our identity. If we want to connect to climate change it’s important that we have someone aligned with this on the programme. 

There are some elements that are challenging, but also some that bring an interesting novelty. We’ve started a successful global online MBA programme and one of the interesting developments around this has been a growth in the number of students participating from regions such as Africa and the Middle East. It’s interesting to understand why. For example, one student who has just joined the course also manages quite a complex infrastructure in Africa; there’s no way he could have joined a regular MBA without quitting his role.

A global online MBA allows you to follow a career path while simultaneously pursuing the MBA. Online and blended MBAs can bring elements of diversity that are harder to weave into a traditional MBA. Blended approaches allow these diverse elements to be present in the classroom. 

How can a Business School build stronger links with employers? 

The relationship with the corporate world is growing ever more important. We can look at it in terms of traditional recruitment. We foster relationships in that field, but relationships need to be even more profound in today’s complex world of business. A job today will not be the same in five years, so a relationship with employers should be about having a two-way dialogue. What are students looking for in terms of development and progression? Employers are eager to know this. 

We also need to partner with employers to learn what the future of work means. While this might not be relevant for all Business Schools, it’s certainly relevant for us. We have partnerships in consultancy and banking, looking at how artificial intelligence is affecting jobs and how they’re going to evolve and be reshaped. 

When you engage with corporations this way, it has spill-overs to understanding skillsets, soft and hard skills and the nature of training for these jobs. We have opportunities to deepen the relationships with these Schools, students and future employees. 

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business? 

I’m an optimist. There’s going to be more disruption and we all have to take responsibility for getting through it. Many firms have a responsibility to help us to understand how to support the generation of people whose jobs will be affected. A lot of these are going to be those doing an undergraduate degree or executive MBA – they have a role to play. 

When we’re talking about how Business Schools can contribute to society, another good example is healthcare. We’re researching pressures on healthcare systems and how we can better manage the system and have a centre that’s active in these areas. 

But at the behavioural level, we’re presenting research on food consumption and obesity and how to tackle this. With links to education, we can connect this to the managerial side so our students could be powerful agents of change in health. 

This is an example of how a Business School is making an important contribution to healthcare, in terms of research and guidance in significant ways. 

Technology will augment the workplace in important ways. Some people will be negatively affected (for example, three million truck drivers in the US, when trucks become driverless) and we need to come up with alternative jobs. Business Schools need to be part of the research here, but large businesses should engage with Schools in supporting this research in terms of understanding what can be done to anticipate these changes. 

We are seeing a rebellion against big firms, which are perceived to be causing this disruption. If these organisations engage with universities, they can come to understand what’s happening with skills and jobs so they can mitigate the negatives and leverage the positives.

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