How business schools respond to a crisis changes the future of global business

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From the coronavirus pandemic to Brexit, the challenges that societies must face are also faced by business schools. Many people have argued that these institutions must respond to such crises and provide expert knowledge and guidance at the time, as well as adapting their provision to suit the needs of businesses in the future. But by producing the leaders of tomorrow, does what happens in business education during a period of crisis change the course of business for the future?

It’s certainly clear that lecturers and experts from business schools are influential.

“Business schools are an incredible source of expertise,” said Matt Symonds, a business education guru and entrepreneur, best-selling author, columnist, MBA admissions coach, public speaker, b-school and university rankings expert. “What a business school observes about gender balance in the C-suite in Norway, has implications for the US or companies around the world.”

Kerry Ruffle from BlueSky Education, a specialist PR consultancy for business and higher education agrees. “Business schools have so many different sets of expertise under their roofs, whether it’s climate change, the economy, finance, AI or the future of tech, so they really are the best-placed institutions to be able to provide this source of information to the world,” she said, speaking with Matt Symonds in The BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast.

In fact, the varied experts from within business schools have been increasingly sought by the media. Reporters have been keen to provide insights and advice for their readers, many of whom are responsible for running their companies.

Faculty have been interviewed on a breadth of topics as a result. For instance, Jonathan L. Simon, Director of Marketing and Communications at The Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, said; “I read some stats that said that COVID has forced us to be five years ahead of where we need to be on e-commerce. These are great stories for journalists to write about, but they need the academic backing, to prove their points.”

Ruffle points out that the fact that many of these academics have researched a topic for 30 years, or they’ve worked in the industry for 10 years, gives them enough authority to be able to make a prediction or to suggest a scenario that may happen without having to refer to six or seven different research papers to back up their point. That demonstrates the real depth of their expertise.

But sharing expertise in the media is only the start of the influence that a business school can have on the future of business. When it comes to big issues and challenges, business schools can really make a difference.

For example, Symonds said; “If financial services, technology, are to ever achieve any stronger gender balance, business schools are going to be a big part.”

“A lot of efforts from business schools, perhaps in the last two decades, have focused on gender balance, but there’s still so much more to do beyond gender. This, I think, is certainly an area where it’s action, and not words. We talk about equality, diversity, inclusion, and how business schools, I think, can really take a lead in this area, and how that will subsequently be reflected in business and in society,” he said.

Sunitha Narendran, Director of Roehampton Business School, offered her perspective as the head of a business school; “We need to give opportunities to everyone. We need to address the equality gap that exists today.”

She was joined in an episode of The BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast by Kyle Grizzell from BlueSky Education, who said: “You’ve got different areas of diversity — you have sexuality, nationality, race, gender, it’s all these important areas that business schools should be looking at.

“A diversity of people is a diversity of thinking, so you have all these different people that might be able to come up with a way of getting through a crisis, or solving a problem, that you wouldn’t have if you had a workforce of people that were all completely the same.”

It seems like many business schools have an opportunity to take the lead here and provide an inclusive environment for diverse individuals.

After all, Ruffle makes the point that these are institutions that make their name and promote themselves on their internationality, their ability to have a classroom full of people from around the world, from different professions, different nationalities, and to bring all that together to allow their students to get the best out of their education.

Despite the impact of the pandemic, business schools have still brought people together by adapting their offerings, going online, and using more aspects of blending learning.

It’s something that Hanna-Leena Pesonen, Dean of Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics, states that business schools could not have planned for, but have done so successfully that it has inspired her to think about what else the industry could achieve.

“I’m coming back to the idea that personally as a leader, universities as a whole, and the whole society, we seem to be able to do a lot in a very short time. Maybe we can be brave? Make some changes, whatever they are,” she said.

It’s a sentiment shared by Dana Brown, the Dean of the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, who said: “We’ve learned new ways of connecting with one another in our community, connecting with our students, and then connecting globally, keeping that reach.”

“I see that, for the next decade, our business school is going to play an important role, collaborating with the local businesses to aid in recovery. I say the word recovery, but I always like to say we don’t want to go back to the way things are, we want it to be better. So, we’re working with the business community to ensure that that happens.”

Brown recognizes that a positive outlook doesn’t mean overlooking how hard this has been for small business owners. With her colleagues at the business school, she’s looking at how to add value and believes the more minds that are on the challenges that we face, the better.

“The thing is that business, it’s a discipline unto itself,” she said, “but it’s also an approach, a set of behaviors and skills that can help in a number of different situations.”

Having long been an advocate for sustainability in business practices and responsible management, Brown expects this to be a core element of the way that businesses operate in the future. “Our intention in our business school is to ensure that our students are always thinking about the purpose and potential of business to make a difference in the world, and always thinking about what the implications are of certain behaviors and practices in business.”

It’s this idea that goes beyond business education staying relevant and understanding trends, that could really assert influence on the future of business.

Business schools are recognising that it’s not only through teaching and the media that they can have an impact as well, ensuring that they continue with events despite the pandemic and going virtual. Ruffle points out that it’s still hugely important that professionals, particularly business school professionals, can come together to share their ideas, expertise and to engage in that wider community.

“You don’t attend business school just to sit in the classroom, you attend to make connections, form a network, and meet people. It’s the same in any business environment, any industry that you go into, those opportunities to step away are absolutely crucial,” she said. “The reliance on tech now has proved that these things can be done comfortably, easily from home. They can attract a bigger audience, and they can encourage greater discussions. It opens the door to people that perhaps weren’t able to attend things in the past that can now get on board and interact with people that they might not have crossed paths with before. As much as there is to be lost from the physical side of things, I think virtual events bring great opportunities.”

Katie Hurley from BlueSky Education has seen it happen first hand. “From my experience with these virtual events, I’ve just seen people actually helping each other and offering their insights and what they’ve experienced so far.”

Regardless of the restrictions in place, it’s evident that business school professionals have still come together to share insights and collaborate, resulting in a real-world impact.

One such impact could even be on a huge issue that’s facing the whole planet: climate change.

“One of the issues we’re all facing, and one that is going to be there when the pandemic washes through, is sustainability,” said Angus Laing, Dean of Lancaster University Management School. “The carbon footprint of universities is hugely driven by business schools, international students flying in from around the world, and I think we have to ask the question as to whether that makes sustainable environmental sense, as well as sustainable in a business model sense. I think the use of campuses, more localised, reduction of the amount of flying, with digital components and, of course, genuinely blended [learning], is creating some exciting opportunities for all of us.”

Laing believes that the turmoil caused by the pandemic is likely to bring some of these agendas to the fore in the coming decade, even more than they have been to date.

From teaching the CEOs of the future to researching better business and ways to protect our planet, business schools are not only staying relevant but they seem to be setting the agenda for the future of business too.

“Business schools actually have a real-world impact, and that includes research,” said Stephanie Mullins from BlueSky Education in the podcast with Laing. “One of the main reasons that business schools come to us is to help get their research into the media, so it’s read by people who can actually make a difference. We get requests from the UN wanting to speak to these academics, we get requests from the government so that they can help advise, and it’s all about raising awareness and making sure this work, which is ultimately meant to change society and to improve it, is actually having an impact.”

It’s evident that business schools really can be a force for change — and their response to the big issues of today will help shape the future of global business.

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