Time for Business Schools to Start Anew

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021
By Jean-François Fiorina
Photo by iStock/Butsaya
What will be the role of business schools in the post-pandemic era?

Even before COVID-19 hit, many business school leaders were already questioning and redefining the role of the business school in society. Once we arrive in the post-coronavirus era, I believe our mission will be crystal clear: We will need to support our stakeholders in an era of massive change. This mission is both exhilarating and dizzying, as it will help ensure the survival of our schools—and society as a whole.

In the new era, it will be essential for business schools to become more active in the world by taking part in discussions around public issues such as corporate social responsibility, climate change, and education for all. In addition, fighting against all forms of discrimination must be among our most critical objectives.

Human, environmental, economic, and social dimensions of change will influence the ways we meet this unique and historical challenge. We will need to determine where we should break with traditional business school practices, and where we should seek continuity. This means we must let go of the thinking and traditions that do not suit the evolving needs of business, while we focus on the areas where business schools can create great impact on society—or actually transform it.

Where We Must Break

I see eight traditional practices and models that business schools will need to adapt, or even leave behind altogether:

Time-honored curricula. We have long prepared students for work by teaching them the fundamentals of management and the particulars of their specialization areas. But the future of work also will require the 21st-century competencies of critical thinking, agility, and resilience. We must help students master the transferrable skills they will be able to use in any setting, while also giving them the tools to understand a world that is in constant flux. Among other things, we will have to add new courses on topics such as epidemic management, health crisis management, and health economics. At the same time, we will need to change our students’ mental “software”—the way they think about and interact with the world.

In-person delivery of education. For too long, academia has believed certain stereotypes about online learning, but the current crisis has broken down much of the resistance university leaders have had to this teaching method. We need to embrace various approaches to online education—not only because it is the best way for students to learn during a pandemic, but also because telework is becoming increasingly common. While I believe the best learning will take place through a mix of face-to-face and online formats, students will have the edge if they already know how to work effectively with their colleagues in virtual environments.

Notions of the typical student. We can no longer assume that most students prefer face-to-face full-time learning. Individuals who might have been interested in full-time education before the crisis might not be able to afford it any longer. Others might simply have new priorities. We need to rethink our courses so they appeal to a wide range of potential learners—older adults, younger workers who are looking for specific skills, and executives who have only enough time for short courses.

We must carry out research that is more visible, more efficient, more integral to the school, and more useful to the public.

Our deliberate pace. Academic institutions are historically slow to change. But we will have to be nimble to keep up with the demands of the current era.

Outmoded ways of thinking. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” As a society, we must find new ways to grapple with monumental challenges such as environmental degradation and strained global relations. Business schools will need to undertake fresh topics of research and engage in cross-disciplinary scholarship. Only then will they be able to develop new ways of thinking and find potential solutions to the world’s problems.

Old economic theories. Post-pandemic trends are forcing nations around the world to reconsider their sovereignty and geopolitical strategies—and companies to re-examine their global value chains, locations, and production methods. That’s why business schools can no longer restrict their teaching to the current state of economics. Instead, we must develop stronger connections with policymakers, work more closely with think tanks, and move from merely posing questions to providing answers.

Research priorities. In the past, we rewarded research studies because of the quality of the journals in which they appeared, not because of the impact their conclusions had on society. But we now must cooperate with public and private players to carry out research that is more visible, more efficient, more integral to the school, and more useful to the public. If we succeed at those goals, faculty research might also become a more substantial source of income for our institutions. The coronavirus has offered business schools a fantastic opportunity to showcase the research produced by our faculty, who will be the ones to help find the answers to tomorrow’s challenges.

An outdated worldview. For too long, we have believed that it was sufficient to maintain the status quo in our curricula and research. But now is the time for us to imagine what the world will be like once the virus is contained. What types of economic models, organizational structures, and management strategies will be in place? It is unlikely that we will quickly and quietly return to our old habits and previous activities, so we must prepare for the world that is to come.

Where We Must Continue

Yes, we need to break with many of our long-held traditions. But at the same time, we need to invest more time and resources into areas that were growing in importance even before the crisis began:

Sustainability. As we prepare for the recovery of the economy in the long term, we must make sure our own institutions are sustainable in the near term. This requires a 360-degree approach. We must consider sustainability practices not only in our business models—for instance, our purchasing policies and our management practices—but also in our course content.

Cross-disciplinary education. We know that knowledge hybridization and diverse experiences will best prepare our students to handle unpredictable situations once they’re in the workplace. Through case studies and other pedagogical approaches, students encounter a diverse range of problems in areas such as management, marketing, law, information technology, design, geopolitics, and ethics. The better they are at solving multidisciplinary problems, the more they will gain a full understanding of business.

Business schools will play a key role in imagining how diverse socio-professional groups fit into corporate settings and public life.

Technology. Because technology will play an even more important role in business in the future, our students have to understand how to use it—and how to use it ethically. Not only should they be comfortable deploying technology, they also should be aware of the impacts it can have on their own tasks and on the world around them.

Geopolitics. It will be essential for our students to have an excellent grasp of how today’s geopolitical structures affect business across borders.

Leadership. Even in times of great change, one of a business school’s most essential tasks is to train students to be managers and business leaders, as I have written about in my own blog. Leaders must embody the identities of their companies, choose the right courses of action, communicate with employees, and reassure all stakeholders. Like a ship captain, an effective leader is an exemplary model—and business schools must teach each student how to take on that role.

Diversity. Business schools will have to play a key role in imagining how people from diverse socio-professional groups fit into corporate settings and public life. This will be possible only if we transform ourselves first: by revamping our program models, by investing more in research and education innovation, by rethinking how we organize the work of our employees, and by changing our relationship with our students and with the world. All these steps will have consequences for our own business models—and we must begin taking these steps immediately.

What Lies Ahead

The business school of the future will look different from the business school of the past. It will participate in and coordinate unfamiliar ecosystems; it will cover new topics and enroll a wide array of students. This approach, I think, is the only way forward for our industry.

We will need support from our corporate partners and our professional organizations to create new virtuous economic models. But I believe that we will succeed in developing real strategies that allow us to make a difference in a world reshaped by the pandemic.

These are consequential transformations that require our quick response. Our survival depends on how well we remake ourselves for the future. It’s a beautiful challenge!

Jean-François Fiorina
Vice Dean and Program Director, Grenoble Ecole de Management
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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