Innovation for success in business education

Leaders from Rolls-Royce, PwC and the European Space Agency on how innovation will impact the business world, and what this means for business education. Highlights from a session at the AMBA & BGA Festival of Excellence

What challenges and opportunities await Business Schools in the ‘new normal’ of business? How will Business Schools create the leaders who can not only survive, but also thrive, in uncertain business conditions? And how are boundaries being pushed in terms of creativity in theory and practice at Business Schools? 

A panel of leaders working at the forefront of global innovation shared their take on these challenges and offered solutions as part of the AMBA & BGA Festival of Excellence. 

Chairing the panel was Simone Hammer, Global Marketing Director for Learning and Training Solutions at Belgian tech company, Barco. She introduced the conversation by explaining: ‘We can see as a solution provider that there has been very quick adoption [of new technology] that we didn’t think was possible. So very often in the education sector, faculty or teachers were thought to be technology adverse but the pandemic has meant that they have had to think of a different solution. That’s what we call digital enablement and now we are looking into digital transformation.’ 

Bodo Schlegelmilch, Chair of AMBA & BGA and Professor of Marketing at WU Vienna, agreed. ‘The Covid crisis has been a very big accelerator. We had a number of tendencies which were already visible – for example, more online teaching,’ he said, before adding that the pandemic had brought about, ‘a sudden huge field experiment, into which everybody had to be dragged. We went through stages. The first stage was panic: “How do we cope and how we can we do this?”. The second stage was: “This has worked quite well, so let’s experiment a little bit and make it better.” Now what we’re observing is that [Schools] are starting to become much more familiar with technology and are willing to try things out. This is an attitudinal change where they say: “Zoom is fine but what can we do in addition? Can we use virtual reality or AI in order to tailor the programme for the specific needs of students when they come in?” There’s much more willingness to explore what is possible and this attitudinal change has been very important.’

The coming stratification 

Innovations and disruption in the wider business arena have been widespread and this has also impacted on business education. The thoughts of PwC’s Director of Artificial Intelligence, Rob McCargow, chimed with those of Schlegelmilch. ‘We’ve all been dragged into this massive field experiment and everyone had to pivot to remote working within 24 hours,’ said McCargow. ‘At PwC, we had to move our 300,000 people to a remote setting immediately and this has accelerated many of the digital transformation programmes we were building. In some cases, things that had been on the roadmap for four years [from now] have been dragged to immediate action, which has been really quite exciting. 

‘This has been radical innovation by necessity – not by aspiration – and that’s been an exciting place to be. I keep hearing the phrase, “when we get back to normal,” but if we’re being candid, there is no getting back to normal now and we will see a stratification of companies that have a different mindset about the return to normal, post-Covid-19. There will be some laggards who will be desperately trying to get back to a semblance of normality and wishing to adopt the same format as before the pandemic, but at the other extreme, we will see companies entirely reinventing their business model. We’ve already seen companies disinvest from their real estate portfolio entirely and work to a fully virtual setting. The reality [for most], though, will be somewhere in the middle. PwC is going to be radically different, but we still need to have some face-to-face contact. 

‘My biggest concern is the more junior staff coming into the workplace for the first time. We have to cater for them properly and enable the ability to build social cohesion and social capital. We can’t go too far down a digital track immediately and forget about that essence of humanity.’ 

Finding the right balance

On this point, Manisha Mistry, Head of Digital Culture at Rolls-Royce, explained that more innovative approaches to business education will produce more innovative graduates, and that both Schools and employers will need to adapt quickly to make the most of a creative, tech-savvy stream of talent. 

‘There’s a real balance now that I think organisations, in my experience, are working out how they can allow these [tech-savvy] people to come into a world that we’ve cultivated over years of experience and built to a point where we’re safe in the sense of where we’re operating. We know we need to shift but [these people] are used to volatility; they’re used to changing direction instantly without worrying about all the predicating processes, models or practices around them. They have to do that with us – not to us – and these are the kinds of new areas of focus I think we’re going to need to start seeing coming through Business Schools.’

Frank Salzgeber, Head of Innovation and Ventures, ESA Space Solutions, European Space Agency, summed up the session by voicing his support for the notion of ‘social capital’ to enable innovation: ‘Everybody has a kind of social bank account. When you become older, your career is fuller, and you can really use these connections. If you’re younger, you have to fill up [the account] somehow. While they will also have to do this face to face, we have to see how we teach students that they can do this online. The challenge is to adapt our soft skills to make them work in a digital format.’

Chair: Simone Hammer, Global Marketing Director, Learning and Training Solutions, Barco

Panellists: Rob McCargow, Director of Artificial Intelligence, PwC; Manisha Mistry, Head of Digital Culture, Rolls-Royce; Frank Salzgeber, Head of Innovation and Ventures, ESA Space Solutions, European Space Agency; Bodo Schlegelmilch, Chair, AMBA & BGA; Professor of Marketing, WU Vienna

This article was originally published in Ambition (the magazine of BGA’s sister organisation, AMBA).

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