a woman gives an online presentation to dozens of people shown on two monitors on her desk Photo by iStock/SDI Productions

Innovation and Impact at ICAM

Speakers at AACSB’s International Conference and Annual Meeting address diversity in cases, tech in the classroom, and business education’s role in society.

How has the coronavirus reshaped the way business schools deliver education? How can academics ensure more diversity in the cases they teach in the classroom? What are the best ways for schools to integrate topics like ethics and sustainability into their courses? These were among the questions debated by business school deans and faculty at AACSB’s International Conference and Annual Meeting, held virtually the week of April 5.

The sessions were divided into four tracks: Connect for Impact, Connect for Innovation, Connect for Quality, and Connect for Student Success. Here, we present highlights from a few of the offerings on impact and innovation; in a related article, we showcase comments and examples from the sessions on quality and student success.

Connect for Impact:
The Shortage of Minority-Focused Cases

John Elliott, dean of the University of Connecticut School of Business in Storrs, led the session about how administrators can use business cases to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to their campuses.

While no one is surprised to learn that the majority of cases feature white male protagonists, the Haas School of Business’ Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership at the University of California Berkeley has dug a little deeper. It recently created a compendium to discover how many business cases are discussing DEI, no matter what the primary topic.

Researchers at the school found that, of the 236 cases that were categorized as focusing on diverse protagonists, 84 percent were about gender, 29 percent about ethnicity, and 5 percent about age. Furthermore, the cases that featured nonwhite protagonists frequently reinforced racial stereotypes by presenting these businesspeople as “rare unicorns,” said Kellie McElhaney, lecturer and founding director of the center.

Faculty often resist teaching cases about diversity because they aren’t comfortable with the topic, said McElhaney. In those instances, she suggested that faculty should show humility, letting students know professors don’t have all the answers; faculty also should admit they might get some details wrong and ask students to share their lived experiences. At Haas, faculty are encouraged to take a “professor pledge,” promising to add more diversity in their classrooms through their syllabi, readings, guest speakers, and cases.

Rachel Taliaferro, acquisitions editor of Sage Publishing, noted that not only are most cases about white men, but there’s also “a striking homogeneity in the authorship and curation of cases.” Because publishers “shape what’s available, what gets readership, and what gets taught,” she said that publishers have a responsibility to build case collections that feature protagonists who are diverse in terms of race, gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, age, and geography. “We need to fill in the gaps,” she explained. “We need to offer cases about women in leadership or immigrant entrepreneurs.”

Sage aims to nurture diversity through efforts such as creating the Case Research Foundation Fellowship that funds early-career scholars and by hosting case-writing workshops in parts of the world that are not frequent sources of new material. Diversity also will be enhanced when deans and publishers work together to support DEI initiatives. Taliaferro said, “We don’t want to have this exact same panel in seven years.”


Case authors can seek examples from small local businesses rather than large global corporations. These cases inspire students because they’re aspirational but achievable.

Richard McCracken, director of the Case Centre, agreed that case publishers and curators have a responsibility to support diversity. The Case Centre has done so through a variety of initiatives, such as launching Case Focus, a journal devoted to the Middle East and Africa; supporting workshops about writing and teaching cases; offering free resources on case writing; and providing some free cases, especially to special interest groups.

McCracken suggested a variety of ways that authors can ensure more diversity in the cases they write:

  • They can seek examples from small local businesses rather than large global corporations. “These cases inspire students because they’re aspirational but achievable,” said McCracken.
  • They can work in teams that include more diverse co-authors or contributors who use a more vernacular version of English because it is not their first language. Those who come from underrepresented groups can make their cases easier to teach by including extensive notes.
  • They can disseminate their scholarship more widely by writing both peer-reviewed articles and cases from the same research. They also can create cases in formats that are more accessible to all students, such as virtual, multimedia, or graphic arts. “Graphic arts cases that look like comic books are very popular, and they cross cultural boundaries quite smoothly,” McCracken said.

He added that administrators can do their part to encourage diversity in cases by allowing these works to count toward promotion and tenure decisions.

Diverse cases bring great advantages to the classroom, said McCracken. For instance, if a case is about a small startup in Africa as opposed to Google, everyone in the class is on a level playing field because no one starts out with much prior knowledge. On the other hand, a case about a company from India could give an advantage to the Indian students in the class who might speak up with more confidence.

Additionally, diverse cases can benefit the school itself, especially if it wants to change its own culture, according to McCracken. If faculty write their own cases and focus on diverse protagonists, they will very soon have new material to teach in the classroom. He said, “Case-writing isn’t easy, but it’s fast. It’s a quick way to create change.”

Connect for Impact:
Innovative Business Education

The summer internship is a staple at many business schools, but not all universities can provide students with opportunities at national or international firms. In this session, representatives from the Beacon Fellowship described how they aim to fill that gap by providing internships for individual students or cohorts from a university. Teams of students are treated as junior consultants led by experienced professionals from McKinsey, Bain, and BCG. Student teams take on real-world projects at companies such as Roche, Airbus, Vueling, and Transparency International.

A recent project, which took place in the fall of 2020 and the winter of 2021, illustrated how Beacon works. Two teams, comprising students from multiple schools, consulted for Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., to determine the major drivers behind low levels of childhood opportunity. Using a national tool known as the Childhood Opportunity Index, they developed a historical perspective on D.C. neighborhoods, focusing on racial inequities, and suggested actions for community engagement.

According to Chaya Merrill, director of the Child Health Data Lab at the hospital, the goal was for the students to uncover what factors contributed to inequities in children’s healthcare and what the hospital could do to change the odds. Students gathered primary and secondary research, looked at local and national policies, and studied what other hospitals had done to address racial disparity.

Throughout the consulting process, students learned a variety of valuable skills: how to analyze data, question assumptions, ask high-level questions, collaborate across teams, create presentations and reports, visualize data, and manage feedback and stakeholder expectations.

Some of these skills, such as data visualization, will be critical once students are in the workplace, said Merrill. “Your work will not have an impact unless you can provide it in ways that people will listen to,” she pointed out. Because so much of the effort that goes into analytics is invisible, she said, “packaging and dissemination of data is incredibly important.”

Universities that offer students unique learning opportunities are the ones that will thrive as the education industry is disrupted, said J.P. Toste, managing director of the Beacon Fellowship. Any part of the curriculum that deals with content could be commoditized over the next few years, he predicted—but hands-on learning can’t be. “Even the best Harvard Business School professor could not simulate a consulting experience,” he said. “To the extent that businesses school programs are experiential, they are commoditization-proof.”

Connect for Innovation:
Teaching and Learning Innovations Born of COVID

The coronavirus forced schools around the world to make a dramatic switch to online learning. In this session, two schools shared how they made the pivot.

At the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA), administrators investigated a novel solution: delivering classes via holographic professor. To make the idea a reality, the school contracted with Austin-based startup Contextual Content Group, which creates the holograms through a combination of green-screen technology, large flat-screen monitors, studio lighting, high-resolution immersive video cameras, and a control panel in a broadcasting studio.

Joseph Stephens, senior assistant dean of working professional and executive MBA programs at the school, explained how the system works. The professor teaches from a studio that’s about 20 feet by 20 feet with a green screen behind him, while a producer controls the cameras. To students in an in-person classroom, he appears as a holographic image standing before a lectern, with a video screen behind him where he can show slides and other material. Remote students see the same image on their home screens. Because participants can view the professor’s entire body, it lessens the sense of “Zoom fatigue,” said Stephens, but students who need to read lips can still see the instructor speaking.

The professor in the studio has screens in front of him that show both the in-person and online attendees, and he can address each type of student with equal ease. “There’s no delay in what the professor sees and hears—he can call on any student as if he’s standing there,” said Stephens. “He can pull up a chair and sit down to have a conversation with a student.”

UTA piloted the technology in an EMBA class over the summer and is exploring how to expand the format to its locations in Dallas and Houston. While the school hopes to scale up delivery to “potentially anywhere,” said Stephens, the key will be making sure students still feel a sense of community—even when all the elements of the class are virtual.


Another innovation is a resources chatbot that helps academics sift through the massive amounts of online data by answering their queries and providing links to relevant information.

The Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, dealt with the abrupt transition to remote learning by developing two innovations to help faculty become comfortable teaching online.

The first was the Blending Learning Accelerator Program (BLAP), which the school had already piloted with about 20 professors before COVID arrived on the scene. Participating professors were treated as students as they moved through the Canvas learning management system. In the process, they learned how to turn approved course outlines into high-quality blended courses. Through in-person workshops and online modules, they were introduced to techniques for converting lectures and other content to a digital format. They underwent assessments, developed e-portfolios showing proof of their learning, and received certificates of completion.

So far, more than 150 faculty at the school have been “blapped,” according to dean Keryn Chalmers. The professors who had already undergone the training were more comfortable with the sudden switch to online learning and reported feeling more empowered and more confident to adapt to the new normal. Undergoing BLAP training is considered professional development for faculty, who have not received reductions in workload for participating.

The second innovation was INO, a resources chatbot that helps academics sift through the massive amounts of online data by answering their queries and providing links to relevant information.

Both innovations have helped faculty become more adaptable and more comfortable with online education, Chalmers said during the session. That’s critical because, as the pandemic rages on, “we’re aware that we could go into lockdown again at any time.”

Connect for Innovation:
The Mega Trend of ESG Investing

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues were at the heart of a discussion by Cristiano Zazzara, an adjunct professor of finance at New York University, and Sakis Kotsantonis, the CEO of Richmond Global Sciences. While ESG factors have become increasingly important to both business leaders and investors, there are no strict definitions of what the terms mean and wide variations in how each one can affect specific companies or sectors.

Kotsantonis and Zazzara noted that ESG investors are increasingly pressuring companies to be more socially and environmentally responsible. For instance, these investors might hinge their investment on a company’s record on climate change or human rights because they care as much about making an impact on the world as about making a profit. And ESG is increasingly influencing capital markets—more companies are introducing sustainability funds and green and social bonds, and more company leaders are claiming that considerations such as lowering CO2 emissions prompted their mergers and acquisitions.

Why has ESG become such a hot topic? One reason is that top business leaders believe ESG factors account for four of the top five risks facing business in terms of the impact they could have on livelihoods. Those four risks are climate action failure, extreme weather, biodiversity loss, and human-made environmental disasters. For instance, in 2019, the U.S. saw 300 billion USD in damage from extreme weather results.

ESG is also growing in popularity as preliminary research shows that it’s generally good for companies. In fact, 71 percent of corporations experience a positive or neutral effect on performance when they integrate ESG factors into operations in ways most relevant to their industries and business models.

Kotsantonis and Zazzara observed that the topic of ESG doesn’t just offer business faculty a rich new field of research. It also allows schools to develop students who care about the impact business has on society. “What kind of future leaders do you want to create?” asked Kotsantonis. Added Zazzara, “Educating people is the first step. The next step is seeing them implement these values into the real world.”


Nicole HansenSharon Shinn is an editor with AACSB Insights.