2020 EFMD Online Annual Conference

By Marc Smelik, Associate Dean, IE Business School and 2020 EFMD Annual Conference Chair

Engaging across borders

The 2020 Online EFMD Annual Conference created a new way for our members and delegates to engage across borders, much like the methodologies we have put in place for our learning communities in a year dominated by the fall-out of the pandemic.

When the organising committee developed the conference theme, COVID-19 was not on our minds and EMLyon beckoned us to their wonderful city and campus – something we can now look forward to for 2021.

What has happened to all our members has created a sense of urgency and necessity to the theme, since our future will look different and business schools have a vital role to play in the recovery and opportunities which result from the economic, social and political upheaval. Our conference took on new meaning for the many delegates who decided to network, share and learn through the virtual method.

Embracing the future: business institutions’ commitment

From what our speakers in various sessions highlighted and posited as opportunities, we can start to build a picture of what it means to embrace the future as business schools.

Firstly, it is a transition from crisis response and attitude to a purposeful strategy that defines the character, impact and position of each institution.

The role of business schools and higher education is not merely one of economic and corporate governance and growth, but an expectation that success is measured by its commitment to a deeper sense of societal purpose. Where our distinct successes in the crisis mode may have been an approach to methodology and flexibility, in the strategic mode, it is key to have that defining purpose which has real value to individuals and companies.

As Nandani Lynton, VP Organizational Growth: OD, Transformation & Leadership Development, Siemens Energy, emphasised in her opening keynote, business schools need to have the confidence and innovation to help companies change by translating their capabilities into a customer-centric solution and an ability to communicate in the language of the partners.

Business schools as forces for positive change

The definition of a mandate is ‘the authority to carry out a policy.’ Our partners and stakeholders in society can give us this authority. They will only do so if they believe and trust that we have a good policy, and we can carry it out effectively.

At last year’s conference, we emphasised trust, and this year we discussed policy and execution quite a bit: how we act as leaders towards our communities in times of crisis, how we can deliver students good job prospects and the right skills, how we can help our stakeholders achieve their goals in an online environment etc.

All of our execution can only be truly effective if we have clear and explicit goals which build the authority of, and trust in, business schools as forces for positive change.

Building effective partnerships

The discussions point to key criteria which were highlighted so effectively during the conference: taking responsibility, being resilient, and ensuring relevance (3R). It is our opportunity in these difficult times to position our research and education expertise by communicating a clear purpose and safeguard our mandate in society. Our students and our corporate partners need to know they can trust in our role and policy, not just our methods and knowledge. Our ability to build effective partnerships will be even more central as a competence for business schools. After all, a clear sense of purpose should give a clear sense of the broad partnerships required for delivering true impact, and our ability to be the rainmakers in society will deliver trust and belief in our role.

All of our execution can only be truly effective if we have clear and explicit goals which build the authority of, and trust in, business schools as forces for positive change.

Walk the talk

Embracing the future also means asking two key questions which we discussed during this conference: how can we do things differently, and how can we do different things. Isomorphic behaviour in our world has been highlighted many times before, and it has become even more important that there is real effort to break the mould, reinvent, diversify our competencies, understand our stakeholders by offering different tools and decisions. This makes the research agendas even more important, and the modes and pedagogy for our students a constant question of improvement. If your school’s purpose is clear and distinctive, it should follow that there are distinct approaches and activities. If companies around us are reshaping and reinventing, isn’t our future to not just talk about it, but ‘walk the talk’?

Creating a distinct sense of purpose

Our closing speaker, Dan Pontefract, Leadership Specialist, emphasised the role of leadership in this picture, provoking everyone to think that there is ’no new normal for an activist dean’ and by extension, the leadership teams which support the dean. We have excellent examples in our midst of leaders who have created a distinct sense of purpose for their institutions and have delivered solutions and decisions which inspire trust and contribute to a better world. Especially in times of crisis, our mandate gets tested and our leadership skills exposed – are we following our purpose?  Not to forget the leadership skills required from an activist dean, which according to Joanne Li, Dean, College of Business, Florida International University, in the Dean’s discussion was fully tested and which brought forward one key competence and activity: communicate constantly and repeatedly.

Ingredients for a successful future

The Annual Conference should have three purposes in my view. Firstly, it is a place to network and get to know people, and develop existing relationships. The virtual conference format has its challenges, but it also gave a new way to network and get to know people, something I enjoyed enormously. Secondly, we should learn something new and share innovation. From practical solutions about student placement to tips about online learning, research without travel to corporate solutions in education, our conference showed it can be done online too. Thirdly, it should inspire delegates to embrace the future and make a difference.  The annual conference showed optimism, great spirit and collegiality, ingredients for a successful future. We are facing big challenges, across borders, in our own countries and our own institutions. Our EFMD partnership and its support is enormously valuable in such uncertain times. To be continued next year in Lyon!

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