COVID-19 and the New Business of Business Schools

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Monday, August 8, 2022
By Oliver Laasch
Image by iStock/Maria Stavreva
The pandemic presents opportunities for business schools to become more proactive and innovative as they prepare for whatever the next crisis brings.
  • During the coronavirus, business schools transitioned quickly to online learning, a move that had seemed impossible before.
  • Schools and conferences also increasingly turned to digital events, which had the effect of lowering carbon footprints.
  • Because society is facing a series of grand crises, business schools should look ahead and consider how they can adapt in other ways that benefit themselves and society.

The COVID outbreak became one of the largest natural human experiments since the invention of electricity. Almost overnight, organizations around the world—including business schools—had to learn how to support their staff and their constituents in a world that had become largely digital.

The pandemic still isn’t over, and we have already transitioned to another crisis that has global consequences—the war in Ukraine. Indeed, there are dozens of other candidates for mega issues that might, at any time, escalate to become global emergencies. These disasters could be natural or manmade, and they could range from geopolitical conflicts to extreme climate events to biodiversity collapse. It’s not a case of if but when the next major catastrophe will occur.

In my recent research, I have focused on the organizational-level impact of current and future grand crises. In particular, I’ve examined how business schools have adapted to the COVID pandemic, how they can mitigate the impact of disasters yet to come, and how they can use crises as opportunities for transformation.

Accelerating (R)evolution

Business schools have been under pressure to change for almost as long as they have existed. Transformations generally have been slow and business models remain largely unchanged, due in part to the nature of academic governance and the structure of academic employment.

But global crises such as the coronavirus, the war in Ukraine, and climate change provide historic opportunities for business schools to make themselves more relevant and important to the world. These events also provide opportunities for business schools to do things their leaders had not considered possible before. That’s the premise of an article I recently published with co-authors Olga Ryazanova and April Wright in the journal Academy of Management Learning and Education.

For instance, before COVID, many universities resisted the idea of offering courses online or allowing faculty to work from home. The pandemic forced school leaders to adopt online and hybrid course delivery and required many of them to upgrade their technology.

What if academic leaders acknowledged that the world is in a state of continuous crisis and that schools can help address ongoing challenges by implementing innovative new models?

But those were reactive measures. What if, instead, business schools took proactive measures? What if academic leaders acknowledged that the world is in a state of continuous crisis and that schools can help address ongoing challenges by implementing innovative new models in their teaching and operations? What if they stopped discussing what COVID has done to us, and took steps to prepare for, or even combat, the next emergency?

A Transformational Opportunity

Schools can take many different proactive approaches to preparing for the future. For instance, academic leaders could choose to create a new value proposition in which they decide they will focus their programs on the ways business can be a force for good. Such a move would ensure they are doing something more impactful than simply producing “hired hands,” as Rakesh Khurana describes it in his his 2010 book.

Or schools might encourage faculty to conduct research that addresses the grand challenges that have the potential to be global crises, as Jennifer Howard-Grenville suggests in a 2020 article. This is an action that particularly appeals to me because, as founder of the independent Center for Responsible Management Education and as an associate professor at Alliance Manchester Business School in the U.K., I have a deep interest in using research to make a difference in the world.

Business schools might decide to use a current global issue as a jumping-off point for adding new initiatives or even transforming their operations. For instance, because of the war in Ukraine, a number of schools are providing educational resources to refugees. Others are using their campuses to address climate change. As examples, China Europe International Business School has sought to be the first carbon-neutral business school in Asia, and the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business is a front-runner in practices to neutralize its carbon footprint.

A growing number of schools want to make a positive societal impact by adopting and promoting the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to end extreme poverty, inequality, and climate change by 2030. Business schools are aligning their teaching with the SDGs, embedding the goals into their curricula, and teaching responsible leadership through the medium of the SDGs. When schools take such commitments seriously, there is an impact on all aspects of their operations, from the way they manage their physical infrastructure to the way their employees and students choose to commute to campus.

Accreditation bodies such as AACSB also increasingly are aligning their criteria with the SDGs as a way of partnering with member schools to create societal impact. While there is more to be done, it’s heartening to see that many business schools already are displaying a renewed focus on the wider societal benefits that their teaching and research can bring.

I believe that every crisis can serve as an important transformational opportunity that can better prepare us for the next crisis. We can use the grand challenges facing society as chances to make our business schools more relevant. But we need to innovate proactively so we are ready for every emergency yet to come.

The Digital Future

Not only has the pandemic encouraged business schools to reexamine their value propositions, it also has hastened the digitalization of the entire education industry. During the lockdown, schools stayed open largely because there was an accelerated investment in online and blended teaching.

While some research shows that neither students nor faculty want all education to shift to online, many still want virtual or hybrid instruction to be an option. In the future, I expect online learning to persist, especially when teaching on campus is not viable, or where travel is restricted because of pandemic measures, extreme weather, or environmental concerns.

The drive to cut carbon emissions could result in conference organizers offering more digital options, budgeting for mandatory carbon offsets, or encouraging attendees to use less CO2-intensive means of travel.

In fact, environmental concerns might also revolutionize another aspect of the education industry: conference presentations. The drive to cut carbon emissions could result in conference organizers offering more digital options; budgeting for mandatory carbon offsets; or encouraging attendees to use less CO2-intensive means of travel, such as rail or boat.

Digital and hybrid conferences not only have lower environmental impacts, they also are more inclusive. They make attendance possible for researchers who can’t be present in person, especially junior faculty who have lower travel budgets. For instance, a study in the Journal of Climate Change and Health found that the typical registration cost of attending a conference in person was about five times that of participating online. In addition, online conferences are easier to attend for faculty who can’t travel because of mobility impairments or caregiving responsibilities.

But the shift to online events brings challenges, too. Research by The Royal Society highlights how organizers should maintain a blended approach between online and in-person events. The article makes the point that face-to-face conferences are particularly important for younger people, who benefit from the kind of ad hoc interactions that are enabled by in-person events. In response, many blended events have begun to pop up post-COVID, including this year’s Academy of Management conference in Seattle and the British Academy of Management conference in Manchester.

After the Storm Is Before the Storm

Like the rest of the world, the management education industry is attempting to find its way in the “new normal” of the post-COVID era. It is a time that seems to be shaped by geopolitical insecurity, fractured economic ties, and a looming biodiversity collapse. These issues are impacting everyday life for individuals and institutions, including business schools.

But we must accept that our current state is only temporary until the next grand crisis creates yet another “new normal.” So, we’d better rebuild the models of our business schools so we can survive and thrive in all the new normals that are yet to come.

Oliver Laasch
Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Alliance Manchester Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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