We Must Embrace Purposeful Innovation

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Monday, September 26, 2022
By Baback Yazdani
Photo by iStock/AntonioSolano
As we emerge from the pandemic crisis, it is time for our schools to adopt more deliberate, mission-driven approaches to ongoing innovation.
  • Business schools must avoid pursuing change for change’s sake, but instead choose innovations that suit their individual missions.
  • To support innovation, Nottingham Business School formed teams to explore and deploy improvements in seven strategic areas and held weekly online schoolwide meetings to discuss, disseminate, and rapidly adopt potential changes.
  • Before NBS adopts any innovation permanently, its faculty and administrators make sure that the change both constitutes an improvement and aligns with the school’s mission and strategy.


When COVID-19 first triggered a global lockdown, the impetus for business schools to innovate was overwhelming—primarily because the need to adapt was a matter of survival. Luckily, most students were forgiving because they knew that schools had to adopt quick fixes to cope with a difficult situation.

But some two and a half years later, the world is emerging from the shadows of COVID-19. We have passed the crisis management phase. It is a good time for us to reflect on the lessons we have learned during the pandemic, as well as on the transformations our business schools have undergone in areas such as technology-assisted learning, online educational delivery, and analytics.

It is also a good time for us to refine how we can continue to innovate in a post-pandemic market and what innovations we should pursue. Above all, we must avoid pursuing change for change’s sake, or adopting innovations merely to achieve greater efficiency. Instead, we need to ask deeper questions: How can we manage and embrace change most effectively going forward? What new paths are most suitable for the purpose and identity of our individual institutions?

In short, what should the future of our business schools look like?

Strategy Drives Tactics

When it comes to innovation, business faculty and administrators typically take one of four approaches. Some are early adopters, who advocate for using the latest and best available technology at any given time. Others are traditionalists, who advocate for sticking to tried-and-tested methods. Still others see advantages to combining the best of traditional and digital technologies. Finally, there are those who believe that the school’s innovation process should be expressly guided by its mission and purpose.

At Nottingham Business School (NBS) in the United Kingdom, we strive to take the last approach. As we have charted the school’s path over the last two years, we have allowed a strong sense of purpose to guide us. Even during the pandemic crisis, we wanted our carefully designed strategic plan to drive our innovation, not the other way around.

By aligning every innovation closely with our mission and strategic plan, we have found that the changes we adopt work together more holistically, rather than in piecemeal fashion. As a result, not only do they have greater permanence, but they also make a greater positive impact on our research, teaching, and collaborations with business.

When innovations are adopted using mission-driven processes, they speed up a school’s strategic plans, not take them into unintended directions.

Identity Drives Strategy

NBS emphasizes four primary areas as part of its identity: experiential learning, personalized learning, connectivity to business, and curricula and research that embeds responsible and sustainable business. In our strategic plan, we also emphasize that we are “enabling all our students to live, thrive and succeed in a connected and evolving world.” These elements are important parts of our identity, and we take great care to incorporate them into everything that we do.

When the pandemic struck in early 2020, we kept these targets in mind as we held weekly online schoolwide meetings to support innovation and preserve our sense of community. At developmental and dissemination meetings, all stakeholders could learn about and discuss the appropriateness of every change we were considering. This ongoing communication strengthened our community and ensured that no one was left behind. 

By aligning every innovation closely with our mission and strategic plan, we have found that the changes we adopt work together more holistically, have greater permanence, and make a greater positive impact.

We also doubled the tempo of our decision making by instituting a design and delivery meeting every Thursday morning. A complement to our executive governance meeting held each Monday, the design and delivery meeting focused on maintaining continuity and quality in our programming. This meeting was attended by the School Executive Team (SET) members, the digital learning manager (a newly created position), the teaching and learning manager, and several digital technology and pedagogical experts.

In June 2020, as soon as we had stabilized the initial online delivery of our courses, we created seven interrelated work streams. A small team of six to eight NBS faculty, administrators, and members from the SET was assigned to each work stream. These individuals were tasked with addressing different scenarios, proposing solutions, and developing new methods of teaching and learning. Our work streams included the following areas:

  • Program Design and Approval
  • Blended Learning Approach
  • Assessment and Assessment Methods
  • Personalization and Experiential Learning
  • Resourcing and Scheduling
  • International Opportunities
  • Insights and Staff Development

The members of each team identified, designed, and implemented both small and large changes in all aspects of our work, including the conversion of our bachelor’s programs to a semester-based schedule (from their original format, in which six modules ran in parallel throughout the year), the creation of online and blended course content, and the revision of our assessment methods. Our teams also explored ways to continue to offer international educational experiences to students during the lockdown, as well as design more effective and personalized forms of online student support.  

Each work stream met as many times as necessary to develop a mature proposal for consideration by the SET. Our deputy dean coordinated the work of all the teams, ensuring that every suggestion was linked to our mission-based themes of experiential learning, personalization, sustainability, and connectivity to business. 

We also realized that our faculty would need sufficient training and support to adopt new ways of design and delivery. For this, we used an existing initiative called “NBS Purple Wednesdays,” which had been in place for seven years. These sessions had always been earmarked for training and development for NBS faculty and staff. In 2020, however, members of our faculty and the larger university designed a set of training workshops that specifically focused on our needs during the pandemic.

As mentioned earlier, we created a new senior role of digital learning manager, whose responsibilities include advising us on best practices in the design and delivery of online programs and on-demand materials for our students. In addition to participating in our design and delivery meetings and Blended Learning workstream, the digital learning manager leads a group of expert NBS professors to set standards and provide training and support for all NBS faculty.

Innovations Arise From Identity

To be able to innovate quickly while ensuring that all changes are mission-aligned, our school has adopted a two-phase process:

Phase 1: Design and Test—During this phase, we pilot changes recommended by our work stream teams to discover if the innovations we are considering address the intended challenges.

Phase 2: Align and Select—Once we have proven that an innovation satisfies our requirements, we examine it in light of the purpose and identity of NBS. If the change enhances our identifying themes, benefits our purpose, and aligns with our mission and strategy, we select it for broader implementation.

Below are four areas where we have implemented innovations using this approach:

Delivering our bachelor’s programs. Since March 2020, we have experimented with several iterations of our programs, learning many lessons about online synchronous, online asynchronous, hybrid, and face-to-face educational delivery.

Using these lessons from all work streams and guided by our Blended Learning team, we determined how we could best digitally support student learning on an ongoing basis. As a result, we have adopted a new module configuration and course structure for NBS bachelor’s programs. Under this configuration, undergraduates complete three modules in each semester, totaling six every year. Each module includes several closely linked components:

  • An on-campus lecture.
  • An on-campus seminar or workshop.
  • Course-level workshops and activities.
  • On-demand activities and resources.
  • Other physical and digital activities.

We believe the digital components of the program, carefully designed and tested over the last two years, provide students with a richer experience than would our traditional methods alone. This outcome means that this new configuration directly aligned with our dedication to personalized learning and experiential learning.

Tracking student engagement. We have increasingly used our school’s analytics software, in place since 2015, to maximize engagement for each of our 8,000 students. Co-developed for us by Solutionpath, the NBS Student Dashboard measures and categorizes engagement by tracking students’ interactions with our physical and virtual learning environment, e-books, and other digital activities and resources.

The data on the dashboard helps us generate an engagement rating for each student. Faculty use this rating in scheduled one-on-one discussions in which they offer feedback and discuss developmental needs with each student. They use standards set by the Personalization and Experiential Learning team to guide their recommendations.

Creating podcasts. NBS faculty now curate and create our NBS Business Leaders Podcasts, as a complement to the Business Leaders Lecture Series. Our first episode went live in December 2020, and we have featured 22 episodes so far. These podcasts feature interviews with a range of business leaders connected to NBS. The podcast format allows us to share business insights with our campus community and helps us strengthen our connections with the business community.

Our path to innovation is guided by our purpose, identity, and mission to combine academic excellence with a positive impact upon people, business, and society.

Enhancing the NBS Personalization Program. We provide each of our students with a highly individualized package of advice and one-on-one support. Before COVID, we provided this support via face-to-face session with faculty members, who serve as academic mentors. Throughout the pandemic, we administered the program via online meetings. Today, we personalize the program further by allowing students to choose which format they prefer.

Adopting Collaborative Online International Learning. With travel restricted due to COVID, our international study programs were severely hampered. In response, we partnered with business schools around the world for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) projects. In these projects, students work virtually on international teams to create solutions that address issues related to sustainability. Students use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as the main framework.

For example, a two-week COIL project between NBS and Kedge Business School in France culminated with a Business Simulation Game designed by Prime Target. Focused primarily on international business and marketing, the simulation requires students to complete a series of collective assignments before making final presentations in front of business partners. In a COIL that students completed during our 2021–22 academic year, business leaders from BMW provided students with insights into the auto industry.

So far, some 300 NBS students have taken part in COILs with their peers at several of our partner schools in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Each of these projects marshals the creativity of our students to help create a better world in direct, experiential ways. Now one of many international experiences available to our students, COIL projects both enable students to learn in a connected world and strengthen our support of responsible and sustainable business.

Purpose Drives Innovation

In the years to come, new crises will arise. The needs and expectations of our students, alumni, and corporate partners will evolve. New technologies will emerge that will enable us to deliver our programs more effectively, using approaches designed to serve each of our stakeholders in more personalized ways. As a result, business education will continue to undergo a total transformation.

At NBS, we have taken these ongoing trends to heart. Our path to innovation is guided by our purpose, identity, and mission to combine academic excellence with a positive impact upon people, business, and society. Our goal has been to embrace purposeful innovation as we shape our transformation and chart our path for the future. 

Baback Yazdani
Professor of Product Development and Executive Dean, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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