Opening the minds of tomorrow’s leaders

Emmanuel Métais, Dean of EDHEC, discusses innovation at his School with David Woods-Hale and shares his thoughts on instilling leadership capabilities in MBAs at a time of genuine change

EDHEC Business School (EDHEC) is headquartered in Lille, France, but runs its Global MBA programme from its campus on the French Riviera, in Nice. The School also has campuses in Paris, London and Singapore. Emmanuel Métais has been Dean of the School for the past two years, but has been a member of its faculty for more than two decades – the perfect choice, therefore, to learn more about recent developments at EDHEC and the School’s strategy for the future.

What are the biggest challenges facing international Business Schools today?

The need to demonstrate the relevance and social utility of what Business Schools do. Through education and research, we can have a positive impact on society and greatly influence areas such as inclusion and diversity, sustainability, the climate change debate, and internationalisation. 

Higher education, as we know it, is undergoing revolutionary change. In an age where knowledge is available anywhere and anytime, the role of education is no longer just to transmit knowledge, but to give it meaning and guide the way forward. Tomorrow’s professors are going to need to develop their students’ intellectual and creative abilities in a way that makes human intelligence and AI and complementary.

In a society searching for meaning, teaching serves a purpose when it actively contributes to furthering the transformation processes currently taking place in society and business. 

In the case of research, we have to make it useful and let its value be judged according to its real impact on the world. Higher education institutions can no longer be content with simply delivering knowledge, but need to construct robust responses that serve society and the economy in terms of education, career preparation and knowledge creation. 

For instance, the idea behind the launch of the EDHEC-Risk Institute and Scientific Beta (an organisation which provides smart beta indices underpinned by the EDHEC-Risk Institute research), was not only to furnish financial markets with new and robust financial instruments, but also to use our research work to cross-fertilise the courses we offer to our students. 

From my perspective, this cross-fertilisation between research, course content and the needs of business is the way to judge whether research is genuinely useful to the economy and society in general. International Business Schools need to think in terms of sustainable business models. 

How does your School work to prepare leaders to survive and thrive amid change and volatility? 

Until very recently, both educators and employers believed that producing specialists was the best way to respond to a broad range of issues. This remains true, and specialisation is still a guarantee of employability for the vast majority of those in higher education. But if we accept that 60-80% of professions likely to be practised in 2030 do not yet exist, it is easy to see that specialist expertise will not be enough on its own and that employability is set to go hand in hand with adaptability. 

At EDHEC, our mission is to train young professionals with composite profiles to be capable of reading across a multidimensional matrix that not only embraces their main area of expertise, but also extends to disciplines such as the humanities and others that are not traditionally taught in Business Schools. We need to teach students to be curious and ambitious, to have the curiosity to question the world, to open up to other realities and to stay alert and in touch with useful knowledge throughout their lives. They need to have the ambition and desire to change the world, and get back to the basics of entrepreneurship, by looking for the meaning and impact of their actions, and leveraging their creativity to help society progress. 

In your view, what are the factors that set the EDHEC MBA apart?

First of all, our MBA students and graduates are completely sold on the location of our Nice campus at the heart of the French Riviera and the School’s hard-to-beat balance between studies and quality of life. Another differentiating factor is the highly international and diverse nature of our MBA, with more than 36 different nationalities, and women holding 35% of positions on student bodies. The EDHEC network also extends to every corner of the planet, and the programme includes international business trips to global centres such as London, San Francisco, New York and Singapore. 

EDHEC also offers an intense programme that allows students to graduate with their MBA in just 10 months. EDHEC has always stood out among Business Schools for its ability to adapt its offering to what students and businesses are looking for.

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

Tomorrow’s leaders are going to have to be able to inject meaning into their actions and demonstrate value to society, their stakeholders and all those they reach. 

By breaking boundaries between disciplines and encouraging cross-collaboration, we can foster minds capable of conceiving and injecting sense into things that cannot currently be imagined. 

The return of the humanities to Business School curricula is already well-documented. Will tomorrow’s business executives have to be accomplished sociologists in order to beef up those sales pitches? Not exactly, but we need to strike the right balance and this is the aim behind EDHEC’s pre-master’s year and digital culture course initiatives.  

The idea is not to squeeze in a dose of Socrates between two classes on machine learning, but to offer a rich reading matrix and provide students with context, by accustoming their minds to multidimensional thinking, thereby enabling them to harness the past to project into the future. 

In order to address the challenges looming on the horizon specifically, EDHEC has just launched a new MSc in Global and Sustainable Business. This programme not only provides a solid grounding in essential business disciplines, but also offers courses on specialist subjects such as business ethics and the impact of AI on business and society. It also includes modules devoted to innovations across a broad spectrum of sectors, from energy and fashion, to food and green real estate, while seeking to develop a mindset that ensures best practices are both sustainable and profitable.

Almost all new students, including those entering EDHEC’s pre-master’s year, kick off the academic year with a 28-hour non-stop hackathon run as part of an entrepreneurial day that is devoted to climate change. Participants are tasked with cracking real-life problems proposed by 10 major partner companies and non-profit associations, in an exercise designed to bring out entrepreneurial flair with a focus on the new imperatives for our planet. 

How is technology continuing to impact the Business School environment? 

While there is no question of technological progress slowing, we do seem to have left behind the logic of progress for progress’ sake: what’s the use of data if there’s nobody to explain it? What’s the point of ‘uberisation’ if its overriding effect is one of destruction, instead of simply removing the ‘middleman’? Where’s the sense in a social network if it distances people from each other, rather than bringing them closer? 

While technology has boosted the quantity of readily accessible knowledge, it has also multiplied our ability to personalise, support and transform. The application of technology to education is ‘rehumanising’ teaching: the use of learning analytics now allows us to identify how students learn, the pace at which they learn, and what they retain. This enables teachers to adapt their teaching to students’ profiles and has changed their role into one where they seek to guide students through the learning experience.

EDHEC sees its role as providing the starting point for a lifetime of knowledge, friends, contacts and influence. We are therefore firm believers in ongoing training. The School’s executive education offering embraces a portfolio of programmes designed for various key moments in participants’ careers. They cater to those seeking to transform themselves through personal and professional growth, and looking to move on from one phase of their career to another. 

Ongoing training allows participants to update their capabilities continuously, in line with the most pressing challenges and this form of learning thereby responds to the goals of both individuals and companies. Rather than focusing on pure competencies, the onus is on developing the participant’s state of mind, by raising his or her awareness and improving the ability to frame the right questions.

How important is it for Business Schools to be ahead of the curve here and what more could and should they be doing?

This is no time for Schools to be passive observers and let change pass them by. New players are arriving in the market and business students have greater choice than ever before. 

In anticipation of this shift, EDHEC has embraced technology for augmented learning, notably via the creation of  EDHEC Online, a digital learning platform combining faculty expertise with technology and designed to meet growing demand from students and executives for a more flexible, bespoke and globally accessible study experience. Business Schools need to go ‘phygital’. That is, to be digitally-enabled, but with physical, real-world aspects that embody their strength and heritage. 

Moreover, bringing students into close contact with research is a way of feeding their appetite for learning. By involving them in the research process to varying degrees, students develop a taste for analysis and reading at a very early stage. Likewise, they pick up a ‘test and learn’ philosophy, which gradually demystifies uncertainty and helps them deal with failure – fundamental components of entrepreneurial culture.

Just as students and future professionals are expected to show great agility, those tasked with shaping them should be expected to do so too. A strong presence in class and well-prepared courses no longer suffice on their own. Professors need to be capable of offering a diverse range of teaching modes and scenarios. Ongoing teacher training, or facilities such as EDHEC’s PiLab, are there to support our professors in their own development and help them take an objective view of their practices. 

EDHEC is part of the Future of Management Education (FOME) Alliance. Can you tell us more about this initiative? 

The FOME Alliance is a very exciting development in our sector, geared to creating the world’s first fully online learning platform leading to the award of degrees. This ambitious student-centred platform has the potential to revolutionise remote learning as we know it. 

In the near future, students will be able to choose degree programmes co-developed by two or more of the Business Schools in the alliance. Through a combination of technological and pedagogical excellence, these degrees will rank highly in terms of value, while placing FOME at the forefront of the global remote learning market.

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

Disruption is already here and there is plenty more upheaval arriving at speed, but many Schools are too stunned to do much about it. Disruption is driving a genuine revolution that is overturning traditions and habits. From the way we teach, to how we manage professors and build the student relationship, every aspect of what we do demands fundamental change. It’s a new game with new rules that are still being defined.

Are Business Schools reluctant to introduce too much change into their programmes? 

To some extent, this is true. Education is a long lifecycle industry and the fact that it is quite tightly regulated means it can seemingly take considerable time to implement far-reaching change. At EDHEC, we’ve managed to reinvent the educational experience and make fundamental changes to our programmes. Many Business Schools will admit that some of their professors are resistant to change, but we have been fortunate to have so many professors on the team who are keen to do things in new ways. 

What advice would you give to other deans hoping to take advantage of the tech revolution? 

Be creative and harness the people around you – your professors, staff and students are the best agents of change you have. And use your creativity to think of positive ways to inspire and encourage teachers and staff, and make sure you protect the innovators. 

They are the ones liable to keep the whole School heading in the right direction.

How important is sustainability and how have Business Schools incorporated this into their programmes? 

If we can no longer live on the planet 50 years from now, what point is there to anything? Sustainability is clearly vital. Harvard Business School put business ethics on Schools’ radars back in 1929, but the sector’s general awareness of the situation’s urgency has only really taken hold recently. The climate emergency is our moment, an historic opportunity for Business Schools, and businesses in general, to contribute sustainably to the good of humanity. But regarding the extent to which Schools have incorporated this issue into their programmes, there’s probably still too much window dressing and a shortage of real deeds and decisiveness.

How would you define ‘sustainable leadership’? 

Our School’s founder, Motte Duthoit, defined this concept more than 100 years ago. In his words, graduates from our Business School would be fully-rounded people, capable of speaking and writing to a high standard, and of making sound judgements. The School would not just teach leaders how to manufacture products, but also show them a way of leading others that relies less on authority and more on their intellectual and moral powers. Sustainable leadership is that special ability to blend the societal, ethical and financial constraints of business into one.

How is EDHEC building links and collaborations with employers? 

The classroom is not a closed box, but a theatre of enriching interfaces in all directions, notably with businesses. By having companies participate in building and delivering our programmes, EDHEC students are challenged to respond directly to real-life problems and issues. 

EDHEC has set up a wide range of initiatives aimed at bridging the gap between Business Schools and the corporate world: examples include the ‘teaching factory’ based on the co-development of courses, open innovation challenges or Explora Project rooted in a ‘test and learn’ approach. While medical schools have their clinics, Business Schools have their ‘reality’ labs, where the application of knowledge can be used to create strong connections with the corporate world and hence with the needs of society. 

The same logic applies to EDHEC’s community-based commitment, which is often the cornerstone and the differentiator of the educational experience in Business Schools, since it forges an immediate link between academic capabilities and societal impact.

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

Having taken on the mantle of Dean in 2018, I’m still in the early stages of a journey. My immediate future lies in continuing to steer EDHEC into the future as a flourishing and vital institution and we have many ambitious plans already on track with this goal in mind. 

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business, Business Schools and the economy?

Yes, I am optimistic, because I know business can be an extremely powerful driving force. Businesses have become major institutions within our societies and exert a significant impact on our lives. If we ensure that education contributes towards opening the minds of tomorrow’s leaders to the new realities and challenges to be faced in the upcoming decades, business can be a definite force for good.  

Environmental sustainability, security, respect for diversity and gender equality are all key issues progressively taking centre-stage in societies around the world. Today’s young generations are therefore going to have to address them. The key to enabling them to do so is to be found in education and its ability to raise awareness among tomorrow’s leaders and prepare them for the future.    

Emmanuel Métais is Dean at EDHEC Business School. He has been a member of faculty at EDHEC for the last 23 years, holding various leadership positions at the School prior to his current role. 

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