Equipping Business Students for a Dynamic Future

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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
By Hannah Haynes
Photo by iStock/miniseries
To encourage academia-industry collaboration, business schools must equip students with agile thinking and inclusivity skills to align with workforce needs.
  • Future leaders need adaptability, effective communication, and a learning mindset to thrive in rapidly changing work environments. 
  • Embracing inclusivity in business practices is essential for building trust, fostering collaboration, and staying relevant in diverse markets. 
  • Strengthening partnerships between academia and industry is a crucial part of preparing graduates to meet evolving workforce demands. 

As the speed of business accelerates to keep up with change, business schools face pressure to produce graduates with industry-ready skills aligned with workforce needs. In April, AACSB's Innovation Committee and Business Practices Council came together to explore solutions for fostering more vital collaboration between businesses and business schools. The goal was twofold: to better address employer needs and to prepare students for the rapid changes continually reshaping the workforce. To jumpstart the discussion, the committees engaged a panel of industry experts to share critical developments in the talent development space and the evolving role of business schools. 

The panelists included Chelsea C. Williams, founder and CEO of Reimagine Talent Co.; Simon Hayward from Alliance Manchester Business School and previously Accenture; and Julie Peters, university relations leader at PwC. These thought leaders highlighted key areas that business schools should prioritize as they prepare the future workforce, including organizational agility, transformative and inclusive leadership, and industry-relevant curricula. 

Agile Thinking for a Workplace in Motion 

“Change is the topic of the hour...the next generation can focus on what they can bring to the table and their ability to be agile.” —Chelsea C. Williams 

Adaptability is an essential skill that future leaders will need to thrive in an era defined by constant change and disruption. Williams, the founder and CEO of Reimagine Talent Co., leads HR and career development solutions for local and global organizations. Her mission is to create initiatives that engage employees, develop their skills, and build retention. In the discussion, Williams underscored the need to upskill today's managers on effective agile leadership, particularly in the context of change and disruption. With the rise of hybrid and remote work environments, leaders must deeply understand how to foster engagement, build trust, and create cohesion across distributed teams. Practical communication skills are crucial: leaders will need more than ever to demonstrate active listening, show empathy, and provide constructive feedback.

Tomorrow’s workforce will also need adaptability so they can pivot when strategies become ineffective, and they’ll need emotional intelligence to motivate and unite their teams during times of uncertainty. As Williams pointed out, many professionals assume managerial responsibilities earlier in their careers, making it imperative that they develop these soft skills. They should be able to navigate change, resolve conflicts, build collaborative environments, and inspire teams—skills that are all critical for success in today's rapidly evolving workplace. 

“At the heart of agile is the ability of the team to make its own decisions about how they achieve their objectives.” —Simon Hayward 

A leader on the topic of adaptability, Simon Hayward has helped many executives and teams navigate change through agility. He is the professor of leadership practice at Alliance Manchester Business School in Manchester, England, where he conducts research on responsible leadership. He was also a managing director for Accenture, where he established its global leadership and cultural practice to guide leaders through digital and environmental disruption by using agile methods.

Throughout the panel discussion, Hayward specified that true agility goes beyond just efficient product development workflows. It requires an enterprise-wide cultural shift toward creating empowered teams, thoughtful decision-making, and collaboration across teams. It is essential for agile leaders to create an active learning culture, prioritize their team over their functions, and effectively navigate through uncertainty. Establishing this cultural shift requires time, consistency, and commitment from all leaders. 

Hayward also noted that agility in today’s environment hinges on continuous innovation that includes rapid iteration and response to market feedback. Incorporating digital tools to collect data, analyze customer behavior, and monitor trends allows companies to sense and respond to changes swiftly. Achieving a continuous innovation mindset requires dedication to organizational learning and evolution based on agile leadership. 

Embracing Inclusivity as a Business Opportunity 

For leaders who are transitioning to an agile mindset, Williams introduced the importance of focusing on values and purpose equally among external and internal members. Inclusiveness is the gateway to effective and meaningful collaboration, she says. Williams emphasized that inclusivity has evolved beyond personal value; it is now a market necessity. Consumers desire to see themselves authentically represented in companies' products, services, and branding. This inclusivity is fundamental for organizations to build trust and stay relevant as they shape their public perception and adapt to diverse markets. An inclusive and human-centered approach to product development, marketing, and customer experience ensures that consumers feel not only seen but valued. 

Within the topic of inclusivity, Williams mentioned that many of the organizations she has worked with are increasingly expanding nontraditional talent pipelines and revamping hiring practices. Hayward adds that this push is particularly evident in innovative companies shifting toward stakeholder-driven growth and that it’s even challenging their fundamental business models. As skills like collaboration, communication, and problem-solving become more sought after, organizations are exploring recruitment practices that prioritize hiring based on skills and a growth mindset over credentials.

As Generation Z is expected to comprise 25 percent of the workforce by 2025, Williams urged organizational leaders to be cognizant of this group’s priorities and aspirations. Gen Z values companies that demonstrate social responsibility and ethical practices. They want to feel a sense of purpose in their work. They expect a workplace that is inclusive, sustainable, and positively impactful to society. To attract and retain this emerging talent pool, businesses must proactively embed such ethical principles into their core operations. In business education, curricula should go beyond just teaching ethics as a concept and should provide tangible training on how to implement ethical business practices, manage stakeholders, and measure social and environmental impact. Case studies, experiential projects, and interdisciplinary learning can help position Gen Z graduates to be more empowered to drive positive change in the workplace and beyond. 

Bridging the Academia-Industry Gap 

“There is real accountability when someone at a university has been asked to lead the charge to stay on top of new things and look for initiatives that can be infused into curriculum, like creating a new course, etc.” —Julie Peters 

By bridging the academia-industry divide, educators and business practitioners can shape future leaders with the skills and mindsets needed to thrive amid workforce disruption. Julie Peters, who has been a PwC team member for over 30 years, currently serves as the U.S. university relations leader, where she works with business and accounting faculty to provide resources and programs for an enhanced student experience.

When explaining the gaps between academia and industry, Peters noted that individuals working in the corporate world often misunderstand the academic environment, as practitioners tend to draw only from their past student experiences in the classroom. Practitioners may not understand academics’ other responsibilities and may not be familiar with the process of curricular development and approval in the university environment. From a faculty viewpoint, priorities in academic research and publishing often outweigh the limited incentives that are offered for establishing deeper connections with industry in areas like curricular change. The disconnect between corporate expectations and academic activities can hinder the development of relevant skills in graduates. 

Peters also noted that entry-level hires tend to focus solely on mastering a specific skill and getting the correct answer, which can lead to discomfort when they need to navigate ambiguity. This narrow perspective can make it more difficult for employees to adapt to complex, real-world situations that require creative problem-solving. Experiential learning activities bring business realities to the classroom, like case studies or exercises that require team discussion, critical thinking, and solution-storming.

Peters offered an example of looming fears around artificial intelligence. She acknowledged that business leaders face the challenge of addressing the generalizations and uncertainties about how AI may impact certain roles and career paths. She suggested that using case studies to better understand emerging topics like AI is an impactful way for business schools to prepare students for the uncertainties of tomorrow’s workplace. 

Additionally, Peters recommended that business schools emphasize collaboration skills in their curricula, to encourage inclusive teamwork across locations and cultures. Students need experience facilitating virtual meetings, communicating effectively, and coordinating projects despite being geographically dispersed. She also suggested that universities should encourage knowledge-sharing across departments to broaden awareness. By cultivating skills for successful virtual teamwork, practical application of concepts, and cross-disciplinary learning, business schools will be poised to create talent that can meet industry needs and lead in the multifaceted workplace. 

This conversation helped spark dynamic dialogue on practical ways for business schools and business to collaborate more effectively in co-creating solutions to talent development challenges. It also highlighted the pivotal role that AACSB can play as a convener and connector to bring these collaborations to scale. As both the world of work and higher education reach an inflection point, the future is brimming with opportunities for meaningful and collaborative relationships. 

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Hannah Haynes
Market Insights Analyst, AACSB International
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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