The pandemic will affect executive education and business schools too

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Since the advent of digital, disruption has been the main theme in business. Covid-19 was the culmination of this era, bringing business-as-usual to a standstill and forcing firms to acquire brand-new capabilities. What we are seeing now is the beginning of even more profound changes.

Before the pandemic, new technologies were seen as powerful tools to help businesses play the game better. Covid-19 ripped several pages out of the rulebook, as leading innovators found ways to leverage technology that defied assumptions about what could and couldn’t be done virtually and its potential affect on the physical world.

In order to be successful in this new era of digital transformation, leaders must write and master new management rules. This will require them gaining fluency in emerging technologies and their affect on business and society. Needless to say, they should also prepare for further disruptions in the years ahead, perhaps due to climate change, political unrest and increasingly activist regulatory environments. Tackling these challenges unassisted could be daunting. Business leaders need a strong, dedicated partner invested in their success.

Academic institutions with expertise in both research and teaching have a unique ability to catalyse change through education. Their staunchly objective, data-driven analytical methods, which are honed to a razor’s edge through frequent exposure to academic peer review, amount to a degree of rigour not usually found outside academia. At the same time, the interactive exercise of conveying ideas and gathering real-time feedback from thousands of executives from diverse industries and geographies ensures enduring contemporary and practical relevance.

A major cultural shift will ultimately train, motivate and inspire the executives

Executives will need an intellectual sparring partner as they confront an uncertain future. Their education should be a process of pushing and prodding participants out of old habits and comfort zones. This will mean, among other things, finding weak spots in their current strategies by using structured thinking that compels learners to discover opportunities within disruption. It can also consist of challenging them to add new and more intricate skills and capabilities to strengthen their technological arsenal and bolster strategic agility.

In this way, educators can help participants define their organisation’s future in a way that is equitable, sustainable, while creating long-term value.

Firms are now in the increasingly unfamiliar position of having to consider social impact alongside profitability, and manage the ensuing trade-offs. Public discourse often unfairly holds firms solely responsible for the unintended consequences of technology. An example could be threats to personal privacy posed by some of the innovations powering smart cities.

Academics can facilitate a more productive and less punitive dialogue around these issues, accustomed as they are to viewing society through the lens of business. The diversity of backgrounds represented among business school faculty members – from economics to psychology and sociology – can help put these discussions in a cohesive and comprehensive context. The impartiality of an academic setting can also accommodate outside expert perspectives, be they from urban planners or venture capital investors, without compromising the spirit of inquiry.

Digital classrooms were innovations imposed on us by Covid-19. After the pandemic passes, higher education will likely develop in a manner that incorporates the innate strengths of both physical and virtual paradigms. The possibilities for executive education are especially exciting.

Digital technology empowers educators to transition from providing learning products to enabling life-long learning journeys. Collective experiences delivered in the classroom will continue to be crucial. With the hybrid model, however, there comes the ability for individual participants to customize how they build upon the foundational knowledge acquired during in-person courses, setting their own pace of learning and selecting asynchronous or simultaneous modules as it suits them. It is time to make learning and personal development tailored to an individual’s needs and desired outcomes.

Research-based institutions cannot pull this off in isolation. There will have to be well-functioning ecosystems behind the scenes to facilitate learning journeys. Education providers will need to openly collaborate with technology providers and digital platforms. For faculty and administrators used to a more siloed way of operating, this may prove challenging. Educators will have to learn and grow outside their comfort zone as well.

Like just about every other business in these volatile times, executive education must. A major cultural shift will ultimately train, motivate and inspire the executives who are responsible for shaping our future world. It’s a big change. But research-based institutions have what it takes to make the leap, thanks to the rigour and relevance embedded in their DNA.

Sameer Hasija is Insead’s dean of executive education

Updated: April 17, 2021 12:59 PM

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