The 6 Things Business Schools Don’t Want to Regret Five Years From Now

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Publication date:

April 20, 2021

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Winston Churchill put it well: “Any crisis is an opportunity to waste”. If the educational system ever suffered a crisis, the COVID pandemic was it. This crisis exposed the fragility of the delivery model we had become so wedded to. In fact, most of us still don’t believe that any education is possible without students sitting in a classroom together with their teacher. That is the ingrained image many of us carry and it got shattered in just a few months. Now what?

It is evident that education will evolve beyond the classroom. But the empty school buildings weigh heavily on the minds of those in education. It is difficult to think creatively and effectively when the gravity of these expensive assets pulls at you. Furthermore, as I discuss in my book Rough Diamonds ( https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), the business model prevailing in education today implies dynamics that can quickly hijack minds that should know better. This is not the time to cuddle the past. We should learn from it, and fast, and then move on decisively. We need to show leadership, something we preach but seldom practice. The crisis is a call to action.

I have been watching with amazement and amusement (and occasional horror) at how business schools (and educational institutions in general) are grappling with the fallout from the pandemic. Just imagine if we could not have fallen back on Zoom and the like? However, those platforms offer only a temporary reprieve to regroup and stay afloat. The current situation is not sustainable. Nobody can convince me that online teaching as practiced today ensures effective learning. It is a stopgap solution with no future. We need to move beyond this and fast. Education needs to change to remain credible. The moment to create a more sustainable model is now.

The pandemic knocked over quite a few domino pieces in the pattern we had layed them out in. Now that we have straighten a few where they fell over to save the ship from sinking, we need to think of what new pattern we should lay them out in. It is time to stare the future in the eyes and rethink how we will educate future generations from now on.

Here are 6 things business schools will regret in years to come if they do not take decisive actions on them now. It will not be easy as they requires a fundamental change in mindset. But the learning that will come with such a change can only inspire us, our students, and all the other stakeholders we often pin our hopes on.

Regret #1: Let our past take us hostage

Education is a lead sector. Schools have an obligation to equip their students for the future they will encounter. That requires that schools are forward looking, and not backwards correcting. Executive education as we know it today is largely the latter: teaching executives  things they urgently need because they were not exposed to that knowledge in the past. This is remedial work which exposes a deficiency in our educational approach. Better late than never but remedial efforts easily perpetuate themselves especially when they feed a hungry business model.

What should drive us is not our business model but our core responsibility of educating those under our care for the future they will be part of, have to live, and have to be functional in. That future is one of lifelong learning and all schools should enable and support that. They currently do not. As I write in my book, Rough Diamonds, true lifelong learning is a strategic opportunity for business schools to reinvent themselves. If they don’t, reality will force them. Just remember what any good surfer knows: if you want to surf the oncoming wave, you better get ahead of it. Just puttering around and you will only get swamped by it.

Regret #2: Not practicing what we preach

Just go and sit in some of the basic courses taught in any business school. You will hear wise suggestions such as  “think out of the box”, “get out of your comfort zone”, strategize”, “be creative and entrepreneurial”, ” you can’t manage what you can’t measure”, etc. How much of these do we actually practice? How much credibility do we have telling others what to do if we are unwilling and/or incapable of doing them ourselves? How much credibility do we have with our students if we tell them one thing and do quite another?

In education, one of our roles is to instill the values of learning in our students. We teach them about the importance of making organizations, systems, and processes more intelligent for a dynamic future and we are doing it with an archaic, bureaucratic system that is anchored in the past. Do we learn ourselves? Are we capable? How much experimentation is going on to explore how learning processes could be redesigned so that they would secure efficient and effective learning for all? We should learn to practice what we preach. We would all benefit from it.

Regret #3: Not embrace technology for learning

We need to move away from the teacher-centric delivery model to a student-centric learning model. Technology is a tool that can get us there. Technology is not just a tool to spruce up stale delivery or increase its footprint. Technology will increasingly enable a fundamental reengineering of learning processes. Remember the quote by the great physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman : ” To not understand technology is to not understand your time.”

We should unbundle what we do now and experiment with how learning journeys could  be made more adaptive, flexible, and intelligent. Every student needs to know and understand what we convey to them but the industrial-factory model of standardized delivery is a very inefficient way to get there. Intelligent technology can and will enable scalable adaptive learning. There is absolutely no reason why all students should go through the same curriculum, at the same pace, and over the same time period. This is a good sign of an inefficient and suboptimal system.

We are in the business of achieving effective learning and not just securing efficient delivery. Every one of our students graduates with our stamp of approval. Let us make sure that the knowledge they acquire is robust, and that they can creatively and decisively work with it. We should empower students with knowledge and intelligent support systems that truly benefit their learning. In the process of achieving that, we will all learn valuable lessons.

Regret #4: Not devise flexible co-learning ecosystems

Classic classrooms are on their way to become a fixture of the past. The future is horizontal, co-learning ecosystems: students and faculty co-learning in flexible but intelligently-created group settings. We are likely to see individuals, pods, and classes as alternating and mutually reinforcing learning units that are managed intelligently with online/offline delivery of content interwoven into fully-adapted learning journeys.

The accelerators, incubators, and co-working spaces that are sprouting up around our universities and schools should inspire us. There is more effective and faster learning going in many of them than in our classrooms. Those spaces are really co-learning spaces. That should inspire us  to do things different, better, and in the interest of our students and their future.

Regret #5: Ignore our core responsibility

Business schools have plenty of stakeholders: faculty, donors, alumni, etc. These stakeholders are all either tools to be leveraged in the educational process of those under our care now or the result of executing that process well. The education of our current students is our core responsibility. We really should keep our eyes on the ball. If we do that well, the rest will fall into place. If we prioritize wrongly, we risk undermining our core responsibility, put our reputation at risk, and upset every one of our stakeholders. We should get a grip on what really matters and keep a sturdy hand on the wheel.

Without a doubt, we want our students and graduates to feel proud of the education we give them. But we should not breed privilege. A degree from any school does not entitle anyone to anything. Only hard work based on the education and support we give our students entitles them to anything. As I used to tell  students and recruits: “I do not care where you went to school or what degree you carry; what I care about is what you do with it”. Our responsibility is to educate our students for their future and remind them that they were privileged in receiving the education they got and that privilege only comes with a responsibility to do something meaningful and valuable with it.

#6 Not prepare for lifelong learning for all

Lifelong learning is not just a emerging requirement for our students. It will be a challenge for everyone in the school, from the dean all the way down to the janitor. No job will be spared from the impact of rapid innovation, permanent disruption, and technological advancementt. That is the main reason why lifelong learning is absolutely necessary for all. It has to permeate the school’s mindset as well as the mindset of every individual in the school.

Lifelong learning requires each business school to become a learning organization with everybody in it committed and motivated to learn continuously. The illiterate in the future will not be those who cannot read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. That will require a mindset and an approach that are fundamentally different from what characterizes most business schools today.

Let us face it, in the future, every job will be subject to radical changes and/or obsolescence. Because of this, we need to rethink our concept of a job (and career) and the role it plays in education. That is a tall order for business schools and, indeed, every professional school. If jobs or professions become fragile and transient, the core focus should not be on just honing skills/competencies that are job-specific. The focus should be on the unique combination of inherent talent and personality each individual brings to the table. Lifelong learning should continuously hone and perfect that combination for possible deployment in whatever job opportunities arise.

The key for future graduates (and us all) will be professional agility. That requires us to focus on the individual and not on  any profession or job that individual might want to take on. The latter are only practical steps in further perfecting the talent/character combination each of us uniquely has. For tennis stars, tournament play is a strategic opportunity to perfect the combination of natural talent and personality into a maturing entity. In business school (and professional schools in general), we spend too much time growing branches and ignoring the trunk of the tree.

Business schools need to reflect on how they can encourage, enable, and support lifelong learning for their staff and their students. There are ways to create unique co-learning environments. There are also ways to build intelligent support systems that could guide and support strategically the development of professional agility. Lifelong learning is indeed a strategic opportunity for business schools to reinvent themselves..

Indeed, a crisis is an opportunity to waste. Let us make sure we do not regret wasting the opportunity we have now. The emerging reality is a clear reminder that business as usual is not an option.

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