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Pandemic Pivoting in Management Education

How a small higher education nonprofit navigated the pandemic through innovation and collaboration—arriving at a different-looking future.

Image: iStock/Mykyta Dolmatov

Events of 2020 spawned creative problem-solving like only a crisis could. While educators were propelled into action to meet the needs of learners, so too were higher education organizations motivated to continue meeting the needs of educators. At a time when business school priorities grew slim and focused, but when connecting meant more than ever, we knew we needed to quickly pivot to ensure that our members could still benefit from the learning and community-building that they’d come to rely on in past decades.

For 47 years, the Management & Organizational Behavior Teaching Society (MOBTS) has been home to educators who care deeply about learner experiences and outcomes. Founded in 1973 by faculty at several prominent business schools who believed there was more to their roles in academia than purely producing research and that effectively educating students did indeed matter, MOBTS has built itself up over the decades to become a preeminent teaching society for educators across management and business disciplines.

For those who have been to an MOBTS conference, you have experienced a culture that lives and breathes the spirit of transformative learning and experimental teaching. An MOBTS conference is almost a living entity that feeds off of vibrant and dedicated teacher-scholars who continue to breathe new life into it year after year. MOBTS is inherently experiential in nature, and when we think experiential, we typically think physical, brick-and-mortar education.

The Pandemic Pivot

March 2020 put a halt to that in-person contact in many places throughout the world. COVID-19 cast educators into a digital realm that many had dabbled in but few had the expertise required to provide the instantaneous and monumental shift from physical to virtual that was being asked of faculty worldwide.

As with most higher education organizations and academic leaders, MOBTS had that initial and warranted question, “What are we supposed to do now?” However, it quickly became apparent that all of the impact we had achieved over the prior five decades—all of the insights, guidance, and experiences from our two journals (Journal of Management Education and Management Teaching Review)—had been laying the foundation for this very moment. It was critical that we continue to bring together a group of some of the most gifted management educators in the world to share their knowledge, provide support, and reassure peers staring down from the edge of a virtual cliff that everything would be alright.

For 46 years, MOBTS has hosted our annual conference on a university campus. In March 2020, we took a risk and dove headfirst into executing a virtual conference that would come as close to replicating the experiential engagements and reinvigorating takeaways that we knew we may be missing for some time to come.

It was unanimous across MOBTS leadership that the organization commit to everything in its power to provide a synchronous conference environment, replicating the engaging and empathetic spirit of MOBTS as much as we could from a virtual landscape. With such commitment, the organization designed and implemented a four-day synchronous event in June comprising highly interactive sessions, professional development workshops, and pedagogical discussions.

While many organizations canceled their summer conferences, postponed their events while they found their bearings, or went fully asynchronous with greatly reduced engagement, Virtual MOBTS 2020 (vMOBTS) charged forward with six concurrent sessions for each time slot over the course of four days. By the end of the conference, vMOBTS 2020 had over 3,500 live engagements with its conference attendees within synchronous sessions and thousands more during live interactive breaks, using socially engaging interactive software.

It was, unquestionably, both the most taxing and rewarding endeavor for MOBTS in recent memory.

Expanding the Virtual Reach of MOBTS

Throughout the last year, our two journals collaborated with SAGE Publications to curate a series of articles that would benefit educators in the new virtual environment. SAGE ungated the articles for the entire management community, and beyond. The ungating and sharing of these articles led to record days of engagement for MOBTS and our journals, further cementing our belief that MOBTS was most needed to help members move forward together during these difficult times.

Following vMOBTS 2020 and our partnerships with SAGE, we sought a more virtual presence to further support our strategic priority of expanding the organization’s reach. Approximately twice a month MOBTS hosts a rotation of the following events, accessible on our Virtual Hub:

  • Inside the Manuscript: This series explores in greater depth the impactful articles published in Journal of Management Education or Management Teaching Review.
  • Panel Discussions: These talks bring together leaders and experts on relevant and timely topics in management education. For instance, in August 2020 we hosted a Deans Panel to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on academia from a hiring and budgetary perspective.
  • MOBTS Fireside Chats: We gather around the virtual campfire to discuss a variety of topics, to provide support for one another, and to see old friends and meet new ones.

Further, on the heels of our International MOBTS conference (held biannually around the world) in Christchurch, New Zealand, at the University of Canterbury and our vMOBTS 2020, we recently opened our first affiliate chapter—MOBTS Oceania—which will host an inaugural virtual conference in January 2021.

Through our international expansion and increased reliance on virtual engagement, MOBTS and the University of Surrey entered into an agreement for the University of Surrey Centre for Management Education PGCert to draw on MOBTS member expertise for developing experiential learning opportunities, facilitating discussion and debate, and challenging students across a variety of topics. This collaboration will take place virtually with PGCert students both in the United Kingdom and China.

The New Normal

MOBTS 2021—our 48th annual conference—will once again be virtual. Like many, MOBTS hopes and believes academia, and the world, will be operating face-to-face again come 2022. However, while we look forward to returning to the norms associated with physical conferences, we also recognize that our industry has been thrust so deep into this virtual world that there is no way to fully back away from it, nor should we.

Rather, organizations such as MOBTS will now have to determine the appropriate formula for creating the optimal experience for those engaging both physically and virtually. We’re quite proud to have taken the leap we did, to have faced the challenges presented by COVID-19 with a willingness to innovate, and to have come out not just for the better but with a greater appreciation for how our mission serves our academic community. Now it is on us and all other organizations to carry on the momentum of change in 2021 so as to best serve our memberships.

Micheal Stratton, President, Management and Organizational Behavior Teaching Society (MOBTS); Dean, J. Whitney Bunting College of Business, Georgia College & State UniversityMicheal Stratton is the current president of the Management & Organizational Behavior Teaching Society (MOBTS). He is also a professor of management and dean of the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville.

Brandon Taylor Charpied, Executive Director, Management & Organizational Behavior Teaching Society Brandon Taylor Charpied is executive director of the Management & Organizational Behavior Teaching Society (MOBTS), leading the organization in its general and conference operations since 2010.