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Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership

How Can Business Schools Adapt and Thrive in Times of Disruption?

  • Eric Morse & Gerard Seijts
  • |
  • Jan 30, 2019
How Can Business Schools Adapt and Thrive in Times of Disruption?

About the authors: Eric Morse is a Professor of Entrepreneurship and Executive Director, Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship and Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behavior and Executive Director, Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at the Ivey Business School.

Our research with hundreds of leaders from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors has revealed general agreement that we are facing disruption that reaches farther, digs deeper, and is coming faster than ever before.  The list of disruptive and interconnected forces is both familiar and daunting: artificial intelligence, machine learning, nanotechnologies, Crispr and genome advancement, unstable political structures, social disruptions, hyper-competition, social media, climate change, and many others.  These forces reach into almost every sector in society.  They are complex, interrelated and at times ambiguous as to their potential for change.  Yet they are or will be transforming many industries and institutions to the core. 

The research has been instructive.  Some leaders call for perspective and suggest humanity has been through change of this magnitude before, claiming that, on the whole, we came through the transformation for the better, and we will do so again. Others suspect their industries are due for disruption but are not sure what action to take.  Finally, still others know disruption is at the door and are skating quickly to where they know the puck will be.  Interestingly, we see many of them scattered on the ice.

The risk for business and society is real: the powerful convergence of broad, deep, and rapid disruptive forces may well overwhelm leaders who were trained to operate in a different world.  Hence, educational institutions and their myriad stakeholders need to be pro-active and consider how we can best prepare Canada’s current and future leaders to succeed in the context of disruption.

What should business schools be doing to educate business leaders who will see opportunity in the disruption and create positive change in this environment?  What are the key questions they need to pursue to make sense of the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous future?  Are there other roles—beyond education, leadership development, and idea-generation—that business schools of today and tomorrow should be embracing?  These are questions we vigorously discuss at the Ivey Business School and we expect others are having similar conversations.

Our research on leading through disruption and the challenges that business schools face has revealed a number of themes that we need to consider.  First, how do we keep pace with what is really going on in business and society?  How do we know where the disruptions are actually taking us and hence find ways to harness them and make the disruptions work for business and society?  The consensus of the executives and thought leaders in our research is that the pace of change is increasing at an ever expanding rate and it is virtually impossible for leaders to know or anticipate the outcomes.  It is evident that many jobs will change or vanish. New jobs will appear. The implication is that people will need to retrain themselves more than once over the course of their career.  Business schools and other educational institutions need to be proactive and capitalize on this development. The challenge for business schools is to quickly figure out the leadership requirements—the competencies, talents, and character dimensions—necessary for leaders to truly and meaningfully effect positive change in their organizations and in society.

Second, as Steve Denning wrote, one might consider that business schools would be hotbeds of rethinking and innovation, with every professor keen to help understand and master the emerging new world.  While there may certainly be the will, there is currently no way to affect change quickly. To what extent do core curricula truly reflect technology advancements, climate change, political and social change, and so forth?  May there be a disconnect between what is currently taught and the ongoing disruptions in business and society?  Our respondents are concerned that many schools and instructors use theories, models and frameworks that were developed and applied in a particular context.  The context has changed dramatically but our models have not.  Are we doing the research necessary to confirm whether these models are relevant in the current context?  Are we developing new models?  Are Universities and governments ready to allow an increasing amount of experimentation in degree programs by those closest to the market change? Or will we continue to be governed by a lengthy process that requires approval at the Faculty, University and Government levels? If so, then we need to ask ourselves if we are truly preparing students and organizations for the challenges of leading through disruption.  There are several innovative programs like QuantumShift, Creative Destruction Lab, and DMZ that have been around for some time, and contribute to the learning of those organizations, but we need to move this type of experimentation mainstream. 

Such complacency – in mindset, process or both – may put business schools at a disadvantage in some of the areas they compete versus non-traditional education players and even consulting companies.  For example, these new entrants advantage is often that their courses change significantly quarter to quarter, depending on what goes on in the various areas of disruption.  They provide an important service in opening up dialogue and pushing boundaries.  If you want to affect deep and comprehensive change in a university program, count on one year— at the least— before it gets approved by the Dean or program director and works its way through the system including the selection or development of course materials.  People may find non-traditional education players to be refreshing because they can turn on a dime.  Business schools need to find ways to become more agile and flexible with respect to the courses they offer, the content within those courses, the methods by which we teach those courses, and the deployment of both faculty and industry experts within those courses.  How to best prepare academic institutions to truly stay on the cutting edge?  Find ways to do things that are on the edge.

Furthermore, executives were very clear that the entire model of business education needs to shift. For example, we heard that organizations will be less worried about degrees (particularly at the graduate level) and more interested in smaller bite credentials and competency-based certifications for their employees.  Indeed, a 2018 FT MBA survey revealed that leading employers from around the world are increasingly skeptical about the degree as a means of educating individuals with the knowledge and skills they need to meaningfully contribute to the success of their organizations.

The third theme centres around the skills and mentality learners leaving our institutions must embrace in order to succeed. The thought leaders and executives we spoke to said it was more important than ever that we develop leadership skills in the learners with whom we interact.  We need to continue to teach our students those skills and capabilities that transcend industries, such as critical thinking, managing complexity and uncertainty, managing team potential, cross-disciplinary collaboration, grit, resiliency, listening, curiosity, and communicating persuasively among others.  Yet context is critically important as well.  Areas such as 5G and next-generation networks, the advancement of autonomous vehicles, and so forth are emerging yet fluid areas.  As Cathy Davidson said, "Universities need to understand they are preparing students for a digital age, and "not in the world of the Model T and the telegraph.""

How do you prepare students to deal with a rapidly changing landscape?  Perhaps business schools should forge stronger partnerships with organizations and industry experts?  These individuals can help students to better understand the context of disruption so that they can be proactive in searching for opportunity.  Academics spend much of their time doing research for academic journals; in fact, at many institutions their careers depend more on research than on teaching and hence, they may not always consider the practical skill sets or application of material that need to be addressed to be effective in the classroom. The brand mantra of the Ivey Business School is real world leadership.  This means many things to many people but among its actionable items – one that is widely shared and deeply held by Ivey faculty – is to be sure that our students understand application and context.  That context is changing rapidly.  As Jack Welch famously said, "if the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near."

There is a risk of obsolescence for all organizations. Years ago, Marshall Goldsmith wrote the book What got you here won’t get you there.  The book addresses the many challenges with organizational sustainability and leadership transitions. The achievements and successes business schools have attained in the past are by no means a guarantee they will remain relevant.  We have seen and heard enough to know that the traditional approaches to business education will not be sufficient to maintain that level of achievement in the future – all business schools need to acknowledge this and find alternatives.  For example, Western University has set an ambitious goal: to be the university that best develops entrepreneurs.  Among other things, the university has embraced the potential on its campus and actively brought together some of its best minds to mobilize the university’s entrepreneurial activity into an ecosystem open to any member of the university. The cross-campus network allows any member of the university to gain entrepreneurial skills, foster innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration and provide and/or receive support for new ventures at every stage of development. This raises a fundamental question: How do we get faculty across the institution to think deeper about the disruptions, think about them holistically, think about the implications, and think about the building blocks of a more modern education? 

We have found that there are no easy answers on how to best adapt to this new reality, so we continue to ask the tough questions.  As a public institution, we have the latitude to go through this process more or less in the public eye — a liberty, we understand, that most organizations do not have. We will openly and broadly share our findings so other organizations can learn from our experience. We will explore new ways of delivering on our educational promises. And, we will experiment with how, when, where and what we deliver and we will do so more rapidly than ever before.