Multi- and Interdisciplinarity Empowered and Entailed by Business Schools’ Digitalisation

With the global health crisis precipitated by COVID-19, we have once again experienced that society’s biggest challenges today demand multidisciplinary (to independently apply expertise in different non-business and business disciplines) and interdisciplinary (to integrate and synthesize knowledge and skills from various fields) approaches to problem-solving. To master COVID-19, public policymakers, lawyers, specialists from the health sector, data scientists, and the corporate world needed to collaborate hand-in-hand, among many others. Further examples of such global challenges asking for multidisciplinary teamwork are the worldwide refugee crisis, climate change, environmental protection, and society’s digital transformation.

Corporate expectations

The corporate world is conscious of its interdependence, multifaceted links, and intertwined relations with society at large. When talking to employers, it quickly becomes apparent that students with multiple sets of expertise from a variety of disciplines are more in demand than those “only” showcasing one or even multiple business degrees. Students who combine management with legal proficiency or programming skills will most likely be offered the highest starting salaries against “simple” business school graduates.

For years, business schools have responded to this demand, accentuated by students’ own expectations and requirements from accreditors, by developing double degrees with law, health sciences, or engineering faculties. Increasingly, master’s programmes have opened up to undergraduates from non-business areas, not forgetting that the MBA was designed in the first place for students from different disciplines to top up their respective expertise with a degree in management.

Some schools go one step further and directly integrate a multidisciplinary approach into their programmes. This, e.g., is the case with ESCP Business School’s recently launched bachelor’s degree, which provides courses in sociology, psychology, programming, or international relations. Aalto Business School has even crafted its entire positioning and overall mission to promise students multidisciplinary learning experiences and opportunities.

Evolution of multi- and interdisciplinary programmes

This evolution toward more multi-and interdisciplinary programme content touches not only upon business schools. The same trend in the opposite direction, with non-management institutions providing their students with the opportunity to learn about business increasingly exists, too. Berlin-based Hertie School of Governance, e.g., combines non-business fields such as data science, public policy, and management studies in their new and innovative master’s programme. CentraleSupélec, a French engineering school, does similarly in its master’s in data science and business analytics, co-created with ESSEC Business School.

Academia’s evolution toward a more multi- and interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning might result from increasing need and higher feasibility due to both higher education’s and society’s ongoing profound digital transformation, significantly accelerated by COVID-19. One could say that inter- and multidisciplinarity are empowered and entailed by business schools’ (and the corporate world’s) digitalisation.

Rapid technological progress, notably in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, makes job markets and requirements evolve at the speed of mobile phone updates. Some jobs will exist in the future that we do not even know about yet. Employees will increasingly need to (quickly) adapt and adjust to new realities and work contexts. A multidisciplinary education teaches a wide variety of vocabularies and languages of different disciplines, enabling and facilitating workers to autonomously learn whenever the job demands it. Knowing the fundamental theories and concepts will help them detect quality information for re- or upskilling when searching on Google or YouTube.

Digitalisation of education

Higher ed’s digitalisation facilitates a multidisciplinary approach since courses from other universities and disciplines can now be attended online. This is of particular interest to stand-alone business schools, which likely cannot benefit from non-management faculties residing in the same building or close-by. Anyone who has been in charge of timetables that permit students to physically participate in another institution’s courses, having to consider commute times and everything else the process entails, knows what kind of simplification we are talking about when planning (asynchronous or synchronous) online sessions. Lectures from geographically distant institutions overseas can now be attended, too, providing new options for partnerships and strategic alliances. Finally, even a compilation from different institutions’ MOOCs is possible and enables an entirely new line of thinking for multidisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinarity, even more challenging than a multidisciplinary education, is again simplified via the digital sphere. Interdisciplinarity often asks for tandems of professors who teach simultaneously. Teaching in pairs of two results in higher cost, accentuated by higher preparation times for such courses. In general, producing asynchronous online study content for some course parts delivered to larger groups could lead to productivity gains. These freed-up budgets could then be reinvested in such tandem teaching, rebalancing overall allocations. Finally, professors would not need to commute to their partner institutions to teach but could stay in their (home) offices, making such “couple” courses less complicated to organise.

Business schools’ digital transformation can, however, only help so much with the development of multi- and interdisciplinarity. Many other structural conditions need to be put in place. For example, so far, professors are evaluated on their scientific production, with interdisciplinary research being much more challenging, let alone the facts that there are very few journals focusing on interdisciplinary research and that departments and faculties are organized along disciplinary lines for teaching and research purposes. As such, business schools would have to change, e.g., their hiring schemes, department structures, and compensation and evaluation policies.

To integrate more multi- and interdisciplinarity has been on the agendas of many business schools for years, as they are aware of the appeal and necessity of such an approach. However, a multitude of challenges and barriers have made such plans disappear deep down in deans’ drawers. Digitalisation facilitates the endeavour to a certain extent. The timing, therefore, might be right. Nevertheless, such a change is substantial in scope and needs both a top-down and a bottom-up approach. Commitment is required from various constituents, foremost among them the faculty and the schools’ leadership teams, to provide the necessary resources in terms of budgets, effort, and time. Such an educational paradigm shift is not without obstacles but is much needed and undoubtedly worthwhile.

Further reading in Andreas Kaplan (2021) Higher Education at the Crossroads of Disruption: the University of the 21st Century, London: Emerald Publishing.

About the author

Professor Kaplan has served as Dean of ESCP Paris, Sorbonne Alliance, and as Rector of ESCP Business School Berlin. Previously, he was the School’s Provost, overseeing approximately 6,000 students and supervising nearly 30 degree programmes across the institution’s six campuses throughout Europe. Kaplan completed most of his studies and engaged in his professional career alternating between France and Germany. A European at heart, he moreover has resided and worked in Austria, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. He is a board member of the German-French Economic Circle, part of the prestigious society of leadership fellows of St. George’s House – Windsor Castle, as well as a founding member of the European Center for Digital Competitiveness.