Transforming in turbulence

As Covid-19 continues to cause disruption, Frankfurt School of Finance and Management is preserving its innovative edge and adapting to emerging trends. David Woods-Hale speaks to its President, Nils Stieglitz

In 2022, it will have been 10 years since you joined Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. What have been the biggest changes in business strategy? 

There have been two major developments. First, across industries, there has been an increasing need to understand and respond to the changing role of technology and business disruption. Changes in the business landscape force companies to become more adaptive internally as we have within the wider ecosystem. Second, the topic of sustainability has moved from being a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have.’ Nowadays, business strategies must address how a company makes a positive contribution above and beyond financial returns to owners and shareholders.

What are the most pressing challenges facing international Business Schools? 

With the Covid-19 pandemic on top of a global climate crisis, every aspect of a Business School can be considered VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). We have seen disruptive technologies enabled by the pandemic changing the demographics of our knowledge economy on a global scale. The most pressing challenge has been to adapt to this in time. Speed is of the essence. 

Is the business education sector responding quickly enough to this ongoing disruption and what advice would you offer to other deans?

I would say that Business Schools are doing a good job at adapting to the new reality. We have seen a lot of innovation and experimentation, especially during the past two years. Many Business School leaders have quickly transformed how they teach, interact, and do research. However, the challenge will be to preserve this innovative edge once the immediate pressures created by the pandemic subside. 

We have learned so much from how we had to pivot to remote learning so suddenly, and using the necessary software and technologies to do this effectively. Business Schools will only continue to stay relevant if they explore new opportunities and continue to be ready to change – sometimes quite drastically. Intel’s Andy Grove once argued that only the paranoid will survive disruption – and there’s a lot of wisdom in that claim. 

Your research interests focus on strategic decision-making and organisational adaptation. These topics have, arguably, never been more important than during the Covid-19 pandemic. Can you share some insight into how your School managed through the pandemic? 

Early in the pandemic, I gave a talk to our alumni about managing in a crisis. I made three key points:

1*. ‘Prepare for the worst and hope for the best’ (which is a saying attributed to former UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli). On the one hand, it was important to think in terms of scenarios and to develop options (especially around trimming costs and scaling back investment) that we were ready to act on. That gave us a lot of flexibility as the pandemic unfolded. On the other hand, it was crucial to identify and focus on the opportunities created by the pandemic. 

2*. A crisis provides a good opportunity for innovation. For example, according to some research, the Great Depression was the most innovative decade of the 20th century. That coloured my own thinking about how to handle the crisis. For example, we suddenly – more or less overnight – had new digital formats that could reach students and alumni all over the world. 

3*. A crisis reasserts the value of strategy. Strategy is very much about deciding what not to do – and a crisis forces you to have clarity about your key priorities. 

How did the pandemic change your School for the long term? And what have been your most important learnings during lockdown? 

As was the case for organisations in many other sectors, Business Schools had to engage technological and digital processes and equipment at a level that many Schools may not have experienced or attempted to deliver before. Schools and campuses being forced to close so suddenly meant that teachers would have to deliver lectures and education to students online for an undisclosed period of time, with many potentially never having experienced this before. 

Over the years, digitalisation and technological advances have been increasing within Schools, but the pandemic has really forced us to push all aspects of digitalisation from theory into practice. We can now effectively and successfully offer hybrid learning – combining both online and offline learning – for students that require or desire that flexibility. 

Within Frankfurt School, the pandemic also forced us to accelerate existing processes of change drastically.

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

The future of our sector is hybrid. We have learned over the past two years how vital the campus environment is to students. Therefore, we might see more and more shifts towards augmented and virtual reality at home. Institutions such as ours will have to find a way into our students’ environments through more than just Zoom lectures.

Business Schools might also want to invest in augmented reality tools to add value to their physical campus by bringing the outside world in for the students to experience it. Schools should invest in capacities that students could not afford or have on their own. Lecturers will have to learn to use tools and devices meant for enhancing education in this way and become mediators between students and the campus.

Can you give some examples of innovation that the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management is developing to future-proof its postgraduate business programmes moving forward? 

Frankfurt School actively lives by the principle of continuous learning. We encourage personal and professional development at all career levels – nationally and internationally. Nowadays, employees and business leaders face an increasing necessity to reskill and to develop continuously. 

To further our students’ development, we offer a variety of executive education programmes, ranging from seminars and certificates to Executive Master and MBA programmes. All of our formats are grounded in research and all offer practical elements. 

Traditional classroom teaching no longer suffices, so we offer hybrid and online courses, as well as various on-campus and virtual experiences. As we see an increasing need for virtual teaching, we design our online courses in a clearer, shorter, and more engaging way. 

For example, our online courses carry elements of gamification, artificial intelligence (AI)-based research, and are often personalised to each participant’s individual and unique needs. Students can study in bite-size modules, in their own time, and they can do this anywhere they want. 

How important is it that Business Schools are ahead of the curve in terms of lifelong learning and alumni relations, in light of emerging trends such as stackable courses and digital credentialing? What more could and should they be doing?

I consider it very important! When it comes to what Business Schools should be doing to stay ahead of the curve, I believe a mandatory semester abroad should be incorporated into BSc programmes. The world is becoming increasingly connected – even more so since the increased use of online working and learning due to the pandemic.

Individuals from multiple countries can easily be in the same lecture or work meeting without actually being in the same room. Affording Business School students semesters abroad gives them some experience of different cultures, education, and people from the very beginning of their higher education journey.

Future-focused topics should also be introduced into Business Schools, including areas of AI, blockchain, and sustainability. 

Disruption is changing the workplace as much as the business education space. How are you ensuring that your graduates have the mindsets needed to be agile-yet-decisive as they lead the businesses of today and tomorrow? 

We do this directly and indirectly through the content and structure of our programmes. The content is shaping the mindset of our participants. We cover the theories that are essential to leadership. The structure of our programmes is also intentional. We have built in ‘surprise’ elements where students are required to pivot, think on their feet, make quick decisions and then carry them out sustainably. 

Business leaders can usually predict pretty well what tomorrow is going to look like, but there are things we cannot predict. Covid-19 is an example of this. But there was always a theoretical possibility of a global pandemic, just as there is a theoretical possibility of a nuclear war, or alien invasion – all things that are very difficult to plan for. I think our future business leaders of tomorrow need confidence in their ability to predict what’s going to happen under normal consequences.

Sustainability and climate change are huge influencers on how we will live and work. What does sustainability mean to you as a Business School leader? 

The original intent of Business Schools, as stated by the Ford and Carnegie Foundation Studies of 1959, was to ‘professionalise management’ – meaning ‘to create responsible professionals’. In 2021, responsible has a new meaning. This meaning is derived from the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, but we have adapted it to our institutional vision. In line with our commitment to the highest scientific and academic standards, the approach to sustainability at Frankfurt School is led by hard science which is skills-based, interdisciplinary, integrative and authentic.

Students care very much about the climate agenda. Do you think this will have as much of an impact on student recruitment, physical environments and student exchange and study tours, as as it will on course components and pedagogy? 

Now more than ever, rankings continue to be a primary source of Business School legitimacy, which prospective students consider when choosing programmes and Schools. The weight of various sustainability categories increases each year, and individual Schools win or lose as a result. This, in turn, has an impact on which School a student chooses to study at.

‘Green topics’ such as sustainability and green finance are growing in demand. These subjects used to be integrated into traditional core courses, but now we are developing entire programmes around them. We have seen this trend in Executive Education specifically, and have reacted very quickly by offering courses such as Financing Renewable Energy, Certified Expert in Sustainable Finance, and Certified Expert in Climate & Renewable Finance. 

The Erasmus+ Programme is also encouraging students to find a ‘green’ approach to their exchanges. One of the ways is to choose greener accommodation options. At Frankfurt School, we are committed to providing those options, and are working closely with our partners in the building of our new student accommodations to ensure they are up to the latest standards in sustainable living. 

Your School’s frankly.green strategy will create revenue streams for green investment in emerging markets. Can you explain a bit more about this innovative crowdfunding initiative? 

Our new crowd investing platform, frankly.green, offers retail investors the opportunity to finance green projects and SMEs in Africa and Latin America. We bring together companies that want to go green with investors who put an emphasis on financial return and environmental protection. Crowd investing is a relatively new form of finance that allows private investors to directly finance projects, and companies that meet their personal preferences. With individual investments starting from as little as €100 EUR, frankly.green allows everyone to participate and diversify their portfolio. 

All information is provided to potential investors so that they can make an individual, informed investment decision. We define green investments in terms of sustainability and environmental protection. A green investment must – directly or indirectly – have a sustainable positive impact. 

The frankly.green platform is managed jointly by the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance and FS Impact Finance, and co-operates with GLS Bank. 

It is part of the International Climate Initiative and supported by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

What are the next steps for you as a leader and for Frankfurt School of Finance and Management? 

I hope that Frankfurt School of Finance and Management will continue to grow, but also that we keep our edge – that we remain as vibrant and as innovative as we currently are. I think it’s vital that we preserve this.

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

I am hopeful about the world. It might seem like a very dangerous place to be right now, but if you look at the broader picture, things have improved over recent decades and centuries. We live longer, we are generally more affluent – not just in Europe, but also in Asia and increasingly in Africa, and we suffer fewer deaths from wars. Climate change is a huge challenge, but one I am confident we can tackle. Our right to liberty, freedom and free enterprise has also come under a lot of pressure in recent years, and not just because of Covid-19. However, I am hopeful that in the future we come back to this trajectory.

Nils Stieglitz has been President and Managing Director of Frankfurt School of Finance and Management since April 2018. His primary research interests are strategic decision-making and organisational adaptation.

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

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