Responsive Management Education: Giving back control

management education

Traditional management research does not fit today’s challenges and needs to find ways to give back control to learners. Management education at business schools and universities is based on the promise of developing the competencies of the next generation of managers and leaders.

Thus, the substantial changes in society that we are currently witnessing have, by default, fundamental implications for the capabilities required by future leaders to shape positive futures. This development underscores the high demands placed on current management education, necessitating a more responsive approach aligned with societal needs, which entails returning control over the learning process back to the students.

So, what does this all mean?

Traditionally, management education (at least in university settings) has been heavily focused on the development of analytical skills, very often via the analysis and discussion of case studies. While such approaches can be highly fruitful in shedding light on particular issues, and while they rest on collective discussions, they are often still heavily orchestrated by the tutor who guides the conversation towards predetermined learning objectives.

There is, of course, value in doing that. Yet, at the same time, it misses a central component that will become increasingly important: the engagement with issues in our society ‘as they unfold’ without the luxury of hindsight and, hence, the need to deal with strategic ambiguity.

In such instances, management education becomes responsive to the ‘now’ of society, and it becomes responsive to the needs and backgrounds of learners.

Therefore, it is time to give back control to the individuals that truly matter: the students. Students in management education control over their learning processes not only increases their motivation and social skills but also enables them to form their very own understandings and opinions during the process. Giving back control shifts salience to the learning process in contrast to content. But, how may such a teaching format concretely look like?

Giving back control to students: A co-creation experiment at the University of Bamberg

As part of a two-year research project at the University of Bamberg, we took the bold step of drawing on principles of co-creation in order to give back control and create more responsive management courses. An expert advisory board that brings in relevant expertise from higher education as well as industry supports the project team. co-creation approaches are widely applied in product or service design.

They refer to a collaborative process in which various stakeholders work together on a problem. Relatedly, we consider co-creation in management education as a problem-based learning approach.

In this sense, problem-based learning is designed to foster deeper understanding, critical thinking, and the ability to solve complex real-world problems.

Students are encouraged to work jointly with their fellow students and lecturers to integrate their personal capabilities, opinions, and competencies into the learning process.

In other words, through this approach, we aim to empower our students to make their own decisions and provide them with the freedom to experiment and learn first-hand from current issues. The role of the tutors shifts towards guidance instead of dominating the situation.

The required level of engagement and individual responsibility for learning aims to strengthen not only students’ analytical skills but particularly their personal and social competencies. Students were convinced of the module’s impact: “I have taken away a lot from the module that I will be able to apply in other areas as well.”

The syllabus emerges as part of the course

In the summer term of 2023, we tried this teaching approach in an MSc-level course on strategic transformation. Rather than drawing on cases, students role-played the transformation of Bayer, a global pharmaceutical giant with substantial strategic issues after the merger with Monsanto. To do that, students take the perspective of the management teams of Bayer as well as the various divisions.

The role-play starts with the current situation involving all the ambiguities of strategy work. The course had no lectures or input on theories and concepts. Rather, the course syllabus emerged as a result of the role-play as students engaged with issues as they unfolded. For students, this approach is highly unusual.

It is not what they expect, but the level of control is perceived as highly rewarding: “This course was an absolute blast for me; absolutely terrific, especially for a master’s course; I highly suggest people take this module.”

What did that look like in greater detail? From the perspective of their particular role, students then contributed to the formulation of a strategy that prepares the company for the future. Students quickly see that such futures may substantially differ from the vantage points of Bayer’s Pharma or Crop Science businesses.

Thus, in this setting, they were required to engage proactively with their fellow students in the development of the company’s strategy, giving rise to social dynamics and tensions as they may also occur in the organisational reality.

In the role-play, Bayer’s Crop Science, for instance, may pursue a strategy that conflicts with Bayer’s Pharma intentions/strategy and can, therefore, create disagreement.  Importantly, how students make sense of the complex business environment, negotiate their interests as key stakeholders, and ultimately contribute to the firm’s strategy is up to them.

Of course, in their analysis, students started to use particular strategy tools and frameworks. Students were given the opportunity to select specific literature or various strategy frameworks to ‘control’/steer their strategy development. Yet, importantly, it is a deliberate choice and response to issues encountered rather than the need to practice using a particular tool.

Focus on process rather than content

How do we ensure that everything is moving in the right direction and that the scope provided to the students has not been stretched too far? In our co-creation framework, predetermined milestones serve as guidelines and checkpoints. It enables guided self-determination of the participants and is important in order to rein in complexity.

In this way, students articulate key strategic issues as well as options for strategic renewal. Indeed, in such learning designs, complexity may easily spiral out of control and thus get in the way of learning. Students surely commented: “Are we going the right way?” […] definitely a little bit worried that we might go astray,” was even stated from the student’s perspective.

In our module, such milestones were regular presentations in the form of mock press conferences. The lecturer played the role of the financial press, challenging and being challenged by students in their roles. As part of his role, the tutor of the course published a weekly news article in which he commented on the progress, linked the various observations and gave wider comments on the issues explored.

The course concludes with students writing essays based on the theoretical syllabus derived from the role-play experience, thus connecting practical experience with theory.

Undoubtedly, this module was a challenge for both lecturer and students, yet a highly enriching one. Yet, the evaluations and feedback we received encouraged us to continue our path towards a new era of management education. As the course was embedded in a wider research project, we followed students with interviews throughout the course.

They commented that this approach used learning time effectively in this lecture [as they were] not just sitting there and listening.” While the workload was substantial, they considered it “fun because it is so open”.

They considered this learning environment a “creative space, in which we can take our own paths”. And importantly, they felt that learning transcended the specific context: “I could learn so much I can also use in other areas!”

Giving back control leads to the creation of responsibility

Giving back control to students implies giving them trust and responsibility. Drawing on principles of co-creation as exemplified by our research project, presents innovative pedagogical impulses that make management education responsive by making students the architects of their own education. This promises multiple benefits.

As students engage more proactively in shaping their educational paths, they become more responsive to the content and its relevance to their goals. Empowering students with control over their learning process allows them to not only amplify their strengths but also their personalities and competencies while tackling real-world challenges.

Yet, importantly, it also improves their social skills. Our co-creation approach is based on social interactions, requiring students to closely work in groups and balance different interests across groups. Thus, it seems valid to say that our approach contributes to the development of socially responsible managers by not only fostering students’ responsibility for themselves but also for others.

This blog post was co-authored by Isabella Dittmar (University of Bamberg), Christoph Brielmaier (University of Bamberg), Martin Friesl (University of Bamberg / NHH Norwegian School of Economics) and Radka Newton (Lancaster University).

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