Looking back on the 2021 EFMD Annual Conference

2021 EFMD annual conference

Nicola Kleyn, Dean, Executive Education, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and 2021 EFMD Annual Conference Chair, shares her thoughts on the 2021 EFMD Annual Conference.

At the beginning of the EFMD Annual Conference, I challenged the audience to take a step back from our normal busyness and customary behaviour, to reflect on what is useful and what is not in our daily practices. I suggested that we consider these issues both personally, and in terms of our schools, and noted that we cannot do this without examining the world where we currently live.

It’s hard to sense-make about the world right now. We know that we are facing fundamental changes and have a lot of learning to do. If we only learn from one perspective, whether that’s one discipline, or one country, or one context, it will likely not be enough to navigate the world as well as someone who is reading, speaking, engaging and thinking more broadly.

In this frame of mind, several key themes emerged during our “not business as usual” conference.

What it means to reboot

Jacqueline Brassey, Chief Organizational Scientist at McKinsey & Company, spoke about a “personal operating model reboot” in her opening keynote. In a reboot, we do not lose all of our software. Our values, the things that we think are important, are built up over time. We cannot simply say goodbye to history. We have to onboard, acknowledge and understand it. We need to reboot by continuously rethinking where we spend our time and devote our energy.

Rebooting is a constant reminder of how we show up as human beings in the system. Our discussions with Kleio Akrivou, professor of Business Ethics and Moral Development at Henley Business School, on mental wellness and with Ansgar Richter, Dean of Rotterdam School of Management, and Morris Mthombeni, Interim Dean of Gordon Institute of Business Science, on social justice, reminded me of the need to reinforce certain traits like curiosity and vulnerability, becoming more comfortable with uncertainty, humility, openness and empathy.

Business school competition and collaboration

In our session with Johan Roos, Chief Academic Officer of HULT International Business School, Nathan Greeno, Senior Vice President, University Relations at 2U, and Matt Sigelman, CEO of Emsi Burning Glass, we discussed heightened competition in the business education area and the potential narrowing of our traditional markets. As market needs fundamentally shift, we spoke not only about new competitors but also about new collaborators. The notion that the competitor is the business school down the road or the school scoring better in rankings may be an overly narrow view of our competitor landscape. We need to start thinking about our ecosystems, more about collaborating with schools and new market entrants.

We highlighted the centrality of both corporates and alumni when it comes to collaboration. Business schools should not only see corporates as clients; we need to come together to understand their needs and think about how we can work with them to equip graduates with knowledge, skillsets, attitudes and mindsets that will help them thrive in the future world of work. Alumni are not only potential markets for lifelong learning, but also, more importantly, people who can help us in sense-making and understanding the world.

Business unusual

Several themes appeared as business unusual in our schools.

Humanistic ethos – We discussed the need for a humanistic ethos. Dave Snowden, Chief Scientific Officer at Cognitive Edge, talked about moving beyond an engineering mindset, which is not synonymous with a humanistic and organic ethos. Technology is essential as an aid, but we must think about the actors in our systems as human beings, whether that is about wellness at an individual level or about building systems that foster social justice.

Faculty – Our faculty are the primary key stakeholders in our change efforts. How do we want our existing faculty to shift, onboard and transition while having a deep respect for their knowledge and abilities? Which new actors do we introduce as enablers of teaching and research into our system? What skills do they need in terms of research, knowledge of practice, and awareness of practice in management education?

Programmes – We discussed our programmatic offerings, learning processes and learning communities. We know there will be a significant focus on bringing new offerings to market. Significant effort and innovation are required to meet the needs of new learners in a changing market at the programmatic level, and through the offerings we provide.

Impact – Evidence of impact came up in several sessions. As Dave pointed out, some of the evidence needs to focus on showing momentum and effecting change. It may not be conclusive evidence because it is impossible to precisely measure certain types of impact, but we need to think more about how to show that we are shifting the system.

Technology – Leveraging technology was a constant theme throughout the conference. How can technology be used to aid our understanding, in student acquisition and programme delivery? How can it help our quest for internationalisation or measurement? Technology can play a vital role in enabling us to gather supporting evidence to guide our decisions.

Research – There were a number of comments suggesting that there is some cynicism around publications, particularly where the focus is on researching and producing thought leadership for the academic community, but not necessarily for practice. The investments made and systems developed by so many schools to generate research and journal publications must evolve while maintaining the positive aspects already in place. There should be a shift in making sure our research and findings are relevant and accessible to larger audiences including practice.

Building community

While we are fascinated by technology, building relationships manifested as a key theme. The business education community thinks together. Established connections are essential because we need safe spaces to ask questions, ponder, and share our mistakes to enable us to strengthen and differentiate our brands as we move forward.

In conclusion

I want to say thank you to everyone who was a part of this 2021 EFMD Annual Conference. I look forward to future collaboration, future conversations and ensuring that we can productively thrive in a world that’s not business as usual.


2021 EFMD Annual Conference


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