Innovating by Example

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Monday, March 1, 2021
By Michael A. Roberto
Photo by iStock/alphaspirit
Faculty at Bryant University teach students how to navigate a crisis in real time.

Over the last year, the global pandemic has forced seismic changes throughout the world, requiring individuals and organizations to pivot fast, and continuously, to meet the challenges and opportunities of the moment.

At Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, we knew we had to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and the challenges our students faced because of it. Realizing we had to move quickly, we prepared two new programs in time to launch by the start of the fall semester. Each relied on coursework, mentorship, and collaborative research to teach students vital lessons about crisis management and innovation.

The first, Navigating a Crisis, explored how leaders can cope with and learn from adversity. The second, the Virtual Summer Research & Innovation Village, offered skill-development opportunities to students who had lost internships and jobs due to the pandemic. We believe the lessons students learned from these two initiatives will help them become the kinds of leaders who can adapt during eras of sudden and massive change.

Learning to Navigate

Bryant faculty developed Navigating a Crisis in a matter of weeks over the summer so we could deliver it during the fall of 2020. In this multidisciplinary semesterlong course, 13 juniors and seniors in our Honors program enrolled alongside 13 alumni. Upon successfully completing the course, students earned academic credit, while the alumni earned certificates from our Executive Development Center.

Participants were a diverse group. The students came from a variety of majors across business and liberal arts, while the alumni worked everywhere from startups to large corporations and held positions in finance, supply chain, and marketing. Alumni all had at least five years of work experience, and some served in very senior management roles.

Before each weekly session, both students and practitioners completed the assigned readings and case studies. Then everyone participated in lively class discussions, with alumni sharing their knowledge from the field and students offering insights based on their academic work. The discussions continued asynchronously through an active online discussion board.

One of the most valuable elements of the course proved to be the real-time sharing of best practices. The practitioners often would ask each other questions about challenges and dilemmas they were facing at work. The responses they received were helpful for the working professionals and illuminating for the students.

Each participating alumnus was not just a learner, but also a mentor for one of the students in the class, and the student-alumni pairs spoke frequently during the semester. At the end of class, students wrote reflection papers describing what they had learned from these conversations.

We did not assign a textbook. Instead, faculty members examined crisis management by drawing on recent news articles, videos, and case studies. Practitioners also shared their insights.

In addition, each student spent the semester independently researching a crisis from the past. Topics chosen included the Greek debt crisis, the Challenger space shuttle accident, and even the Mount Vesuvius volcanic explosion that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago. At the end of the semester, students presented their analyses of what went wrong and offered recommendations for how leaders and organizations could have responded differently. Alumni and faculty asked questions and critiqued the projects.

A hallmark of Navigating a Crisis was its interdisciplinary nature. One faculty member organized the course, monitored the discussion boards, graded the written work, and led several of the initial and closing sessions. However, it was taught by nine professors from the fields of management, finance, economics, supply chain, and psychology.

We did not assign any textbook for the class. Instead, each week, a faculty member examined crisis management from a different perspective, drawing on recent news articles, videos, and case studies. Practitioners enrolled in the class also shared their insights—for instance, during a week that focused on preserving employee engagement during a crisis, a senior executive from the hospitality industry presented a live case.

At the end of the semester, participants offered unanimously positive feedback on all aspects of the course, from its multidisciplinary approach to its mix of participants. “I think this experiment—combining alums and Honors students—was an overwhelming success,” wrote one alumnus. “I’ve felt more engaged with the campus than I have in a decade.”

One student commented, “I LOVED this course. The current application of this course in real time was a fascinating way to learn. I really enjoyed each discussion as well as the exposure to different disciplines and perspectives from alumni and students.” Another student described how her mentor inspired her to explore an industry with which she wasn’t familiar and helped her land an internship in a field she would not have considered otherwise.

Finally, a faculty member commented that she learned a great deal from the practitioners who attended. She wrote, “The students clearly benefitted from having the alumni in the class and learning from their input—as did I—and I loved the willingness of the Honors students to engage in class discussion.”

Building a Village

The second program we launched last fall was the Virtual Summer Research & Innovation Village. When a group of faculty members learned that many students had lost their job and internship opportunities because of the pandemic, they recruited colleagues from the College of Business and College of Arts and Sciences to create the program. The goal was to help students build their analytical, research, and problem-solving skills as they worked on projects with professors.

Thirty-five faculty participated on a volunteer basis. More than 90 students signed up for the program, and 75 completed it. From the first week of June through the first week of August 2020, students worked with faculty on research papers, case studies, and new course development projects. A matching process helped connect professors and students with similar research and learning interests. At the close of the summer, students submitted their work and provided a reflection on what they had learned.

While some students worked one-on-one with faculty members, several clusters emerged, too. For instance, a group of faculty and students met regularly to collaborate on fintech-related issues. A second group came together to learn data literacy and analysis skills. Another cluster focused on issues of income equality, particularly as they related to the pandemic. Two students and a faculty member wrote a case study on LVMH’s acquisition of Tiffany & Co. That case was accepted for publication by The Case Centre in February 2021.

The pandemic has made it clear that higher education must adapt to and confront societal challenges in real time, rather than simply examining and analyzing past situations.

A unique feature of the program involved three large virtual gatherings of all the faculty members and students taking part in the initiative, as well as top academic leaders on campus. The speaker at the first session was Joseph Cabral, an alumnus of Bryant’s MBA program who is now a professor at Louisiana State University. He discussed his professional journey as well as his research on corporate venture capital. The speaker at our second session was Hana Nguyen, an alumna of our undergraduate international business program who is now a doctoral student at Georgia State University. She too described her academic journey before talking about her research in real estate finance.

During these presentations, students learned not only about the research process, but also about the specific data analysis skills these young scholars found particularly useful. In addition, students heard about opportunities for graduate education and academic careers. At the closing session, the university president and the provost delivered brief comments, and all students received certificates of completion.

The students participating in the research village told us that the experience opened their eyes to new possibilities and provided them with skills that would enhance their career competitiveness. In fact, one faculty member noted that the work conducted in collaboration with a local industry association led to an internship opportunity for one of the students.

Adapting for the Future

The pandemic has made it clear that higher education must adapt to and confront societal challenges in real time, rather than simply examining and analyzing past situations long after the fact. Business schools can’t wait for months or years to adjust our curricula in the face of a turbulent world. We have to respond nimbly to disasters and other events so we can show students how leaders react to emergencies.

At Bryant, we addressed the pandemic by getting the crisis management class designed and approved in six weeks and assembling the research village in half that time. Both initiatives capitalized on virtual collaboration tools to facilitate knowledge sharing across different constituencies, and both provided tangible benefits to students, alumni, and faculty. The two programs also offered numerous opportunities for real-time learning, as participants worked together to discern key lessons from the pandemic—and, in some cases, to put those lessons immediately into practice.

These programs were innovations that we introduced to provide our students with new opportunities to learn. Now, like any innovators, we will seek input from various constituents, iterate our product—and improve our future efforts.

Roberto is the author of several books on leadership and creativity, including
Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets.

Michael A. Roberto
Trustee Professor of Management, Bryant University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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