Finding your unique voice: uncovering an identity with which key audiences can relate

For Mikko Laukkanen, Academic Director at Aalto University Executive Education, Business Schools and their leaders must develop a compelling narrative around the big topics of the day, and provide students with a journey of personal transformation. Interview by David Woods-Hale

As climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, education technology, and globalisation dominate the business education agenda, how can Business Schools innovate in the face of unprecedented disruption – and what needs to change? Mikko Laukkanen, Academic Director at Aalto University Executive Education, offers his perspective.

What are the biggest challenges facing international Schools?

Broadly speaking, the biggest challenges facing international Business Schools all have to do with finding our own voice. Schools and individual E/MBA programmes need to have an identity with which our various audiences can identify and to which they are drawn; generic generalists will have a hard time in the future. 

Similarly, just as consumers expect companies to demonstrate their values, Business Schools and their leaders must be brave enough to express an opinion about the big topics being discussed in society – even when these discussions seem not to link directly to operations, or you fear a backlash. 

As well as these, there are, of course, smaller challenges around having the right organisational competences to take advantage of new technologies, resourcing issues around one generation of faculty retiring while the younger generations are sometimes too burdened with publishing pressures to teach in our programmes, and challenges stemming from shifts in the market – from degree programmes to shorter engagements.     

What do you think differentiates the MBA at Aalto University?

Our MBA and Executive MBA programmes build on the unique strengths of Aalto University, which brings together business, technology, and design. This means we can complement our more business-oriented topics with rich perspectives from technology and design, as well as having dedicated content around topics such as artificial intelligence (AI) or sustainable design. 

Along with this interdisciplinarity, we value the personal development of each participant, and the programmes are designed around the idea of a journey of personal transformation. Finally, and maybe this relates to our Finnish heritage, we place a lot of focus on equality, openness, and fairness in our programmes. Taken together, these elements build a unique programme identity and compelling narrative. 

How did the Covid-19 pandemic change your School? 

The long-term impact will likely be around how our participants, faculty, and other stakeholders view online and offline delivery. We must be ready to justify why certain elements of a programme are delivered in a classroom, some online, and others in a hybrid format. During the pandemic, the justification has always been that we are simply adhering to the guidelines set by the authorities. Now, we must be more detailed about the reasoning and should expect some criticism from participants if we were to bring them on-site for something that would have made more sense as an online delivery.  

During the pandemic, there has been some great ‘myth-busting’ around what you can and can’t do in online delivery. For example, we used to think that online group work was somehow superficial and cumbersome, but when you design it well and use the technology to its full potential, you can actually have more impactful breakouts online than in a classroom setting. 

It was also commonly believed that deeply personal and emotionally engaging topics need to be covered face to face, but we’ve found that some of these topics are actually easier to discuss when people are joining from their homes or offices (and can turn off their cameras if they need a bit of privacy).  

In a previous interview with AMBA’s Ambition magazine, you spoke about your study tours to Silicon Valley and Tehran. How have you worked to adapt these elements of your programme?

We still do a study tour to the Bay Area, but, increasingly, attention has been shifting from Silicon Valley to also other technology hotspots around the world. Cutting-edge technology and associated business-model innovations are not found exclusively in California. Indeed, we are also welcoming quite a few study tours from other Schools to Helsinki, where we can combine academic content with exposure to the unique startup ecosystem that has formed around Aalto University and the great examples of Finnish companies leading digital transformation in their own contexts. 

In Tehran, we used to have an EMBA programme which we delivered with a local partner, but that had to be discontinued due to unfavourable political and economic developments in recent years. We look forward, one day, to being able to return to working with our friends in Iran and to serving those wonderful participants. 

How do you believe technology will continue to impact and disrupt the Business School environment? 

Technology will continue be the driving force impacting the delivery and content of the programmes Business Schools offer. On the delivery side, this means transforming the way we bring content to our audiences – not only in the form of online teaching, but also as it relates to asynchronous elements: videos, online tutorials, and simulations. As geographical boundaries become less important, we can reimagine who our audience is and engage with faculty in entirely new ways. 

The same also holds true for all other Schools, so the marketplace of Business Schools will look very different in a few years’ time. Regarding the content of our programmes, technology is transforming businesses and the ways businesses operate. Business Schools need to review the content of their programmes proactively to make sure it is still relevant and valuable. The key is not to think that everything we knew before is now obsolete, rather to gauge carefully how technology has impacted the underlying assumptions and ways of working in different contexts.  

What innovations are your School developing to future-proof its postgraduate Business programmes? 

Future-proofing is fundamentally about critically assessing what remains important, what needs to be amended, and what is no longer relevant, as we transition out of the pandemic into whatever the future holds. 

We have processes in place for ensuring that this is being done for all the core disciplines, such as finance, accounting, and marketing, while simultaneously bringing in larger chunks of new content into our elective portfolio. 

We’re fortunate that within our organisation, along with our degree programmes, we’re constantly running dozens of customised executive training and development programmes for leading organisations, and reflecting the topics being covered in those against the topics being researched and taught by E/MBA faculty is great way of making sure we don’t miss any important developments.   

How important is it that Business Schools are ahead of the curve and what more could they be doing?

Please excuse the slightly tortured mix of metaphors, but I like to think that it’s our job to be above the curve, as opposed to ahead of it. Especially in the field of technology, some of the industry will always be pushing ahead faster than university research can keep pace – that’s just built into the way we do research. 

Consultants and ‘technovangelists’ will sell their new solution as the most important discovery for the future. It’s our job to take the 10 thousand foot view, provide context and put new things into perspective. As well as with technology, management fads and pseudo-scientific self-help concepts can make a sudden big splash in business discourse. It’s the role of the Business Schools and their faculty to serve as a filter of the most useless ideas and an emergency break for the most dangerous ones.     

Is the business education sector as a whole, responding quickly enough to this disruption?

Clearly, we’ve been slow to change how we deliver content and embrace technology more broadly. We’ve been talking about digitalisation of the business education sector for decades, but it took a global pandemic to get us to start taking some bigger steps. 

We’ve made more progress in the past 18 months than in the previous 10 years, but there’s still ways to go and every player in the market will have to find their own way of operating in this more digitised business education sector going forward. 

But I go back to finding your own voice: for some, the right way to go will be to move fully to online offerings, while others may find ways to use technology to get even more value from classroom sessions.

The initial step was to move the classroom to Zoom, the next step will be to design programmes that integrate technology and teaching in new ways. I like to compare our situation to online banking, where the first step was to move some services from the bank teller to an online channel. This was decades ago, and it was only much later that service providers started experimenting with online services; we’re only just seeing some entirely novel applications. 

As Business Schools, many of us are at the first stage, while some have started to move beyond it.     

In 2018, you discussed the international approach Aalto takes to its MBA programme with AMBA’s Ambition magazine. As globalisation and consumerisation have become trends in business education, how has your strategy changed? 

We still believe wholeheartedly in a better world through better leadership, as our slogan states, and continue value our international programs and partnerships.

Our strategy focuses on leveraging the unique strengths of Aalto University to have a global impact. We know that the impact a single institution can have – especially one coming from a rather small home market – is dependent on the partnerships we have around the world. We partner with others to deliver programmes in different locations and to engage the best faculty. 

For us, being international is built into our DNA, and we shy away from looking at topics as being either domestic or international, as for us they are always both.    

Considering the importance of lifelong learning, what is your strategy for enabling continuing learning among your alumni?

We’re constantly developing new ways to engage with our alumni, as well as those who are not yet part of any of our programmes. Lifelong learning is about finding ways to connect with people throughout their careers. Our participants don’t have episodic or linear careers; rather, their careers have become more splintered and ambiguous. 

The role of a Business School can’t be limited to the start of their career (undergraduate studies) or to a pivotal point mid-career (post-graduate studies). We must be able to have relevant and valuable interactions with our people at various points throughout their careers. Those interactions can sometimes be entire MBA programmes or, indeed, much shorter; for example, in the form of a symposium on the most current developments in a subject area tailored for alumni.     

How important is sustainability, and in what ways have Schools innovated in this area?

Sustainability is a cornerstone of Aalto University’s strategy and central to everything we do in the MBA programmes. Personally, I think sustainability and climate issues need to be present in all our content. We are currently reviewing our content and looking for ways to integrate the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals in as much of it as possible. 

It’s been encouraging to see how issues of sustainability require less ‘selling’ every year, as almost all participants see their value before starting our programmes. Our job is then to give them more information and to show them how they can have a positive impact. This development has been partly helped by many of our client companies seeing the business potential in sustainability, while, of course, recognising its importance for the planet.    

Given the climate emergency, do you think Business Schools have a role in helping communities recover from natural disasters?

Absolutely. As I referenced earlier, many of the companies for whom our participants work are extremely active in this space. Businesses can often move faster than national governments and international organisations. 

At this point, responding to the climate emergency is largely about how fast we can move towards zero carbon and stop our most harmful activities. Businesses will have to be a part of the solution and Schools have a role to play in multiplying the impact of those businesses doing the right thing by taking their message across industries and regions. If we, as Business School leaders, are not actively part of the solution, we’ll have look back and admit that we were part of the problem.   

Aalto is a triple-accredited School. What would your advice be to other School leaders aiming to achieve the triple crown – as well as for other Schools that have it already?

I get asked about accreditation quite often and that would be a whole other discussion, but let me take one key point here. Accreditation is useful for getting you to look beyond great individuals.

Business Schools are full of smart and capable people. One potential risk when you have an organisation packed with smart people is that issues are easy to solve on an ad hoc basis between individuals – just put the people you need in a meeting room, and they’ll figure out whatever issues you’re having. 

This, is problematic in the long run when people leave your organisation, or you expand into new areas. Accreditation forces you to detail the processes, steps, and responsibilities that are part of your quality management and quality assurance. Hopefully, you’ll still have smart people working for you in the future, but even they will be more productive when you can offer them clear process maps and instructions.

When aiming to gain accreditation for the first time, make sure you have all your processes detailed and responsibilities clearly defined. So, to put it bluntly, more boxes and arrows is always better.    

What are the next steps for yourself as a Business School leader? 

We saw the first impact of Covid-19 on our operations in the early months of 2020. The 18 months since have been quite a ride. I’m proud of the way our organisation has been able to respond to the constantly changing situations and ensure continuity of operations without making any compromises on safety and wellbeing. 

Now, I feel that both the organisation and I need to take a breath and reassess where we are and start building a foundation for an interesting future. For me, that means reconnecting with colleagues and customers in the office and in other social settings, taking time to decompress and reflect, and exposing myself to new ideas and perspectives – usually through reading and meeting interesting people.    

Do you feel optimistic?

Yes. A seismic event such as the pandemic is always a chance to reset – to stop doing things that don’t work and reassess what is truly valuable. US President Joe Biden talks about his ‘build back better’ plan. If businesses, Business Schools, and even us as individuals, all decide how we can build back better we could be in for a genuinely better (and more sustainable) future. 

Mikko Laukkanen is Academic Director at Aalto University Executive Education (Aalto EE). He teaches and consults actively for Aalto EE’s corporate clients and conducts research at Aalto University School of Business on topics of strategy, innovation management, and the executive education sector.  

This article is adapted from one which originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

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