Marion Debruyne, Dean of Vlerick Business School and 2022 EFMD Deans & Directors Conference Chair, shares her thoughts on the conference and redefining the (im)possible.
The theme of this year’s EFMD Dean & Directors conference was “redefine the (im)possible”. A theme that surely resonated with a lot of deans attending the conference. Because redefining the impossible, isn’t that what we all have done as we navigated our schools through a global pandemic? At our last face-to-face conference in 2020, nobody predicted what would unfold globally, and the speed at which it would all be happening. Nor could we predict the consequences for the way we would run our schools, and how little time we would have to prepare. Had we known what was ahead, we would have declared it impossible. And yet… we did it. Just this thought is cause for optimism, as we ponder everything else we claim to be impossible. And yet it might be.
It is that combination of belief and imagination that we will need in the future. Because, what was abundantly clear from the discussions and sessions during the conference, is that more is expected of business. More is expected of business schools. And more is expected of business school deans!
What the covid-19 crisis has shown abundantly, if we did not know it already, is that business and society are intrinsically linked. We cannot have a flourishing economy without a flourishing society. Just as we cannot have a flourishing society without a flourishing economy. Whether you are a true believer or a reluctant cynic who believes a lot of greenwashing is going on, the message is clear, that business should take its relevant role in society. Considering the efforts needed on the global societal challenges we face, it is clear it cannot be done without companies contributing, and all actors, private and public, need to work together to develop innovative solutions.
The leadership challenge ahead though is not an easy one because it means reconciling seemingly competing forces between agility and resilience, purpose and performance. Leaders today need to confidently embrace the paradoxes of this complex reality. A reality that requires leaders to make decisions that span from big picture strategic thinking to careful execution, from focusing on sustainability and innovation as well as profit, and from advancing digitization goals while keeping employees engaged. Doing that requires a paradox mindset, the ability to embrace and capitalise on divergent and often conflicting demands and perspectives.
Whether you are a true believer or a reluctant cynic who believes a lot of greenwashing is going on, the message is clear, that business should take its relevant role in society.
While all of this is expected of business and their leaders, it also means that more is expected of business schools. First, to inspire thought leadership: leading the way and not just catching up. As companies grapple with the complex realities that they are in, how can we be a beacon of knowledge, and have that knowledge impact business thinking and doing? Second, to inspire our students’ thinking, as they are the change agents and leaders we mould for the future. Third, practising what we preach, in considering our own societal impact and the extent to which we can live up to the standards we teach about.
The post-pandemic opportunity to re-imagine
Throughout the conference sessions, there was a sense of a fresh start, reflecting the opportunity to rethink old routines and mental models. Considering our own societal impact, that comes with the realisation that putting society at the centre touches the core tenets of our business model. From what we consider relevant and rewarding research, to reconsidering our curricula, to rethinking our own operations.
Susan Fournier mentioned the necessity for a “zero-based culture”, where existing conventions and habits can be questioned.
A couple of areas where that zero-based culture can be used:
- How do we assess the impact and quality of research? Are journal lists still the best guidance?
- How do we rethink international activities when the world is a click away?
- Should we question our ecological footprint as we take our students to travel the globe?
- Should we question our own track record in making academia a diverse and inclusive place?
- How do we cater to the 1$/year student?
- Should we question our business model that in the words of Ravi Ramamurti “only caters to a sliver of the population”?
These questions reflect that there is ample opportunity to rethink our relevance and purpose.
What business are we really in?
At the same time, we are entering a new era of learning innovation and digitisation. The Covid-associated lockdowns often meant that there were no alternatives to consider, and schools simply had to work within the very limited confines that health measures, self-imposed or regulatory imposed, allowed us. We are entering a new period now, where we need to search for the best future learning design amidst blended hybrid, multimodal, …. Undoubtedly, there will not be one cookie-cutter answer as to what that learning model should look like, depending on the audience and program objectives. And undoubtedly, the consequences will not be limited to our pedagogical approach and learning channels but lead to questioning the basic principles of the classical business school business model. The traditional MBA is a high touch experiential product, delivered in a vertically integrated way. When we unbundle the offering, it contains multiple value elements such as career outcomes, the alumni community, capabilities and skills acquired, etc. Digital learning affects these elements differently.
What does this mean for business school deans?
The leadership challenge ahead of us includes navigating our school against a backdrop of fast technological evolutions, geopolitical and demographic shifts, and the ever-increasing demands of an ever-increasing multitude of stakeholders, who are not always aligned in their expectations. After 2 years of covid-induced volatility, deans may long for some stability and continuity. The reality ahead tells us a different story. And as leaders of our institutions, it is our role to get our faculty and staff, who may long for stability and continuity, on board with the idea that the rollercoaster is not yet at the finish line.
The key lies in connecting back to the intangible elements that make the fabric of our school: the culture of the school, the values it lives by, and the values we pass on to our students. One may wonder how much of these values and how much of that culture is left after two years of remote working and remote learning. But pondering the values and culture of our school brings us closer to the heart of the matter. It brings us to the ripple effect we have on the world through the types of leaders and entrepreneurs we shape. That really is putting society at the centre of what we are doing.