Masters of agility
Business expert Stuart Crainer examines how business schools have adapted throughout recent events, and why getting an MBA is still as desirable as ever
Business schools attract opinions as surely as summer flowers attract bees. And there have been opinions aplenty on their future – as well as that of executive education and the training industry generally – since the pandemic touched down. Many were quick to sound the death knell for traditional executive education. Zoom was lauded as an educational revolution, a world of endless webinars, constant polling on our likes and dislikes, incoherent questions and presenters sitting uncomfortably in their own homes wary of what messages they are accidentally transmitting through their choice of books, clothing or internal decoration.
The days of whiteboards, creative teamworking, strategising, problem solving and the like in leafy leadership centres do appear to be over. But where does this leave business schools and their gold standard qualification, the MBA? And where does it leave executive development more generally?
What is striking is how quickly many business schools responded to the pandemic. These educational supertankers tacked as nimbly as ocean racers. At IE Business School, 5,000 students moved online in less than 24 hours. London Business School launched its first pandemic webinar on 18 March – featuring Lynda Gratton sharing her advice on working virtually. It was the first in a series of 26 webinars sharing the School’s expertise on how to adapt to the crisis.
“We wanted to offer our pearls of wisdom,” explains professor and deputy dean Julian Birkinshaw. “We were a first mover and we are very proud of that.”
The webinars covered everything from making difficult judgements and leading through a crisis to using quarantine to improve your work relationships. Up to 6,000 registered per webinar, with 50 per cent watching live. London Business School is following this up with its new Ignite Series (launched on 5 October), which covers some of the challenges that have emerged in the wake of the pandemic – including strategic agility, crisis economics, crisis leadership and operational resilience.
Not surprisingly, online learning is more attractive than ever. IE reports a doubling in demand for its executive education online courses delivered through platforms such as Coursera and a strong increase in interest in its online MBA.
“The last few months have proven that our world is increasingly becoming digital. Thus, there is no better way to prepare yourself for this future than by studying online,” says IE dean Martin Boehm. “Our face-to-face programmes have undergone a complete pedagogical overhaul due to recent events. We have introduced our liquid learning methodology, which will ensure that students always benefit from the best learning environment given the chosen pedagogy and topics being studied. Students might attend workshops face-to-face on campus while at the same time they might follow some of the lectures online. This liquidity – switching back and forth between online and offline – resembles the multichannel world we live in and enhances the learning experience for our students.”
The multichannel world also brings a slew of new competitors into the executive education space. Google has teamed up with Udacity to offer tech-related training in subjects such as machine learning. How long before one of the big tech players makes a play for the executive education market?
“The old system, where you could trust that enough people from the surrounding area would choose you as an education provider, was already under strain from increased digitalisation, and the pandemic has turbo-charged this change process,” says innovation guru Alf Rehn of the University of Southern Denmark. “Tomorrow’s business school, which might be at a university, but might also be run by other actors – imagine getting an MBA from Apple or Berkshire Hathaway! – will have to do more than just excel in research and be decent at teaching. It will have to be a hybrid organisation, ambidextrous when it comes to online versus offline, and very resilient. It will have to deliver true value, not just a diploma. Most of all, it will have to differentiate rather than use the same textbooks and the same cases as everybody else – because you’re competing with business schools all over the planet.”
Among the upstarts is the Global Institute of Leadership Technology (GILT), the brainchild of the German speaker and author Anders Indset. GILT focuses on delivering open programmes built around leadership, change and exponential technologies. “Business schools of the future cannot be built by taking courses of the past and putting these online. It is much more fundamental. It is all about rethinking how and what we learn and teach,” says Indset.
The change agenda is echoed by others in the training world. “As a classroom learning provider, we went home in March wondering if we would survive, having lost virtually all our income,” says Henry Stewart, founder and CEO of the London-based training company Happy. “We reconfigured all our programmes, working on how to make them as interactive in live online sessions. Many people actually now find them more engaging and by July – after some tremendous work by our people – we were back in profit. Learning has been turned on its head. You can have speakers and participants from across the globe and can run short sessions that you couldn’t do if people had to travel to a classroom.” One of Happy’s initiatives is the ‘Productivity Blitz’, which shares one tip a day for five days, and students come for 15 minutes in the morning and the same time at the end of the day.
It seems that the major business schools are, for the time being, safe. Time and time again they have responded to crises and new competition. Executive education is in the process of being reinvented and they remain in pole position to shape this reinvention. But, as the pandemic has made clear, there is no room for complacency.
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