Reflections on the EFMD 2024 Annual Conference from Chairperson Marion Debruyne

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When the setting is a building dating back to the 5th century, and the topic is AI, it surely makes one pause and wonder. To put things in perspective seemed to be the best thing to do, and it was masterfully demonstrated when Romano Prodi compared the current campus protests to those of the sixties of the previous century.

Coming at the end of another undoubtedly busy academic year for the 600 business school leaders in the room, the EFMD Annual Conference offered a great opportunity to take a few days away from the hustle and bustle and reflect on the state of play before we move forward again. What better locations to do so than university walls that are centuries old, the main historical square and the hills outside of Bologna. The 2024 conference was hosted by Bologna Business School, the business school of what is reportedly the oldest university in the Western world.

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Paolo Benanti, Professor of Theology and Ethics, Robotics and AI, and advisor to the Pope and Marion Debruyne, Dean of Vlerick Business School

The conference theme this year was “Navigating geopolitical tensions, AI and fostering a human-centred future”. The theme points to two of the main sources of uncertainty in the business world today and the need for mere mortals to make sense of it all. Here are some of the main lessons we learned.

Business cannot operate isolated from geopolitics

Does politics dominate business today? Or is it the other way around as some tech giants have become so powerful they have the same influence as nations? What is clear is that business leaders today better understand the impact of geopolitics, and the same goes for business school leaders. Whereas many business schools have been built on the belief that globalisation is a force for good, the very nature of globalisation is being questioned today.

Technology brings major opportunities and major concerns

We heard two perspectives on AI. One that emphasises the entrepreneurial opportunities coming our way as the cost of AI is coming down. Yet there is also a cautionary word going along with this optimistic viewpoint. Technology is not neutral and innovation comes at the cost. When it comes to AI we can even question if humans stay in control. Using the smartphone analogy: is it the finger controlling the machine, or is it the algorithm that dictates where the finger goes?

Marion Debruyne and EFMD Global President Eric Cornuel

It’s all about people

That we should put people at the centre was a recurring theme throughout the sessions. Surely this is a reassuring message for all of the conference participants, whose main purpose is developing and educating people. Yet it reminds us as well of the obligation we have to contribute to a human-centred future and leverage the challenges the world currently faces into a positive outcome for humanity.

The job to be done

“Uncertainty without agency creates anxiety” was a quote in the closing keynote of the conference. As business school leaders, we are in the privileged position to have agency in our organisation and to be able to utilise that agency. The opening keynote of the conference, however, had already taught us that “Uncertainty requires a compass rather than a rulebook”. Nobody has all the answers.

But asking the right questions already has value. As we are leading through uncertain times, what will enable us is an openness for innovation, the willingness to fail and learn and the drive to take out the friction as we create space for our people to excel. The hopeful words we took away were that innovation requires energy and resilience. You may fail 7 times, but the 8th time, you will succeed!

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Helke Carvalho Hernandes, Marion Debruyne, Benedetto Vigna, Ilaria Manghi

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