Collage of virtual conference participants at AACSB Deans Conference 2021 Presenters and attendees of AACSB's virtual 2021 Deans Conference share ideas for advancing business education to benefit learners and society.

Developing Leaders for Future Impact

Business education leaders from around the world gather to explore new ways forward after a year of pandemic impacts.

The 2021 Deans Conference convened more than 500 heads of business schools to engage in robust, round-the-clock knowledge-sharing and networking. Sessions involved interactive discussions on the forces most strongly affecting business education today and, more importantly, how we are reacting to those forces. The shifts necessitated by COVID-19 dominated conversations, which centered on three key themes: flexibility, the future of work, and creating impact. These discussions established that although higher education has been rocked by the pandemic, our ability to innovate and adapt has never been more evident.

Manifesting Flexibility

The pandemic has made it clear that business schools will need to become adept at delivering programs online—but that doesn’t mean that moving to an all-digital model is the best solution. Some deans argued that a “hyflex” model that blends physical and online learning will be the best approach going forward. But to make that model successful, deans will have to take advantage of benefits offered by both face-to-face and virtual approaches.

Hyflex programs can be particularly useful for schools that want to give students international exposure. The pandemic made it difficult, or sometimes impossible, for students and faculty to travel, as some countries were under lockdown, some required quarantines, and some were not issuing visas.

At ESCP, which has locations across Europe, students have to study at multiple campuses before they graduate, but this requirement was difficult to fulfill during the pandemic. As the school made more remote learning options available, students actually benefited from greater exposure to multiple cultures, said Frank Bournois, dean of ESCP Business School. They had the chance to immerse themselves in the cultures of different physical spaces, but they were also able to interact digitally with faculty and students from a wider range of campuses.

Digital options can work particularly well in executive education, noted Joanne Li, dean of FIU Business at Florida International University in Miami. Unlike undergraduates, professionals have little trouble focusing in online environments. Digital options also make it easier to market an executive education program to an entire company, as opposed to marketing it to individuals. Digital options allow professionals to continue lifelong learning without interrupting their lives. And schools can quickly revamp their executive education portfolios to make sure they are offering courses that are relevant to today’s market, including trending topics such as logistics management and artificial intelligence.

Both Li and Bournois emphasized that business schools must find a way to articulate the value of creating international experiences for students, with the goal of turning out leaders with global mindsets.

For many, the shift to digital learning has exacerbated a decline in mental health, which the pandemic had already negatively affected. Sufna John, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said that “although we all may be in the same storm, we aren’t in the same boat.” Her work unveils unique mental health risks for students, who are more financially, mentally, and socially vulnerable than adults in the workforce.

Isabelle G. Bajeux-Besnainou, dean at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh, said the return to “normal” for business schools will be slower and more intentional than the forced transition during COVID-19. She pointed out that hybrid formats are here to stay, as the educational environment needs to mirror the new workplace, which is also becoming a mixed virtual and in-person space as a result of the pandemic. She asked, “How do we rebuild meaningful interactive college experiences? That will be our main challenge going forward.”

Teaching for the Future

The future of work—and how business schools must be ready for it—is of particular interest to business school deans. In the session “Teaching the Next Generation: Management in the Digital Era,” members of Curriculum for a Digital Era (MaCuDE), one of AACSB’s newest affinity groups, outlined their efforts to help business schools embrace digital transformation.

MaCuDE’s recent survey of academics finds that digital topics have migrated from graduate studies to undergraduate studies at many schools. However, the survey reveals that most curricula are more focused on teaching the technical aspects of technology (how to use different technological tools) than on the strategic aspects (how to use technology to create value and drive growth).

At some schools, the shift to a digital curriculum remains at the “label level,” in which “a major in marketing” becomes “a major in digital marketing” in the course catalog, said Michael zur Muehlen, associate dean of graduate studies of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. To truly embrace digital transformation, he said, business schools should move their digital curricula beyond label-level changes to instead integrate digital topics more deeply throughout their programs.

That process should rely on feedback from industry, said Milla Wiren, research manager at the Centre for Collaborative Research at the University of Turku in Finland. She noted that, according to another survey that MaCuDE conducted with employers, the industry is looking for “different types of boundary spanners who have technical acumen but who are also brilliant with people.”

And while some respondents to the survey emphasized that “digital everything” would be of utmost importance in the future, others more heavily emphasized the importance of soft skills, or “metaskills,” such as communication, creativity, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, empathy, and teamwork.

“Ethical thinking was repeatedly highlighted” by employers, said Wiren. Respondents also emphasized the importance of “learning and unlearning,” which she described as “the ability to forget what we have learned that is old and relearn the new.”

Similarly, Heather McGowan, future-of-work strategist and plenary speaker, noted that we have a “learn-to-work" pipeline problem. According to McGowan, our traditional approach to work and skills development creates a myopic view of one’s capabilities. We ask children at a very young age what they want to be when they grow up, forming an “occupational identity trap” and reinforcing a singular view of human potential in society, which is no longer in sync with our fast-changing world.

The life span of humans is much longer today than it used to be, while the life span of companies is much shorter. But whereas technical skills have a two- to three-year shelf span and quickly depreciate, human skills appreciate over time and are transferable across jobs and industries. Gowan noted that “no one skill is as important as the drive to learn more skills.” She emphasized that business educators need to instill this thinking in tomorrow’s leaders. To keep pace with the speed of change, they must ask, “How do we let go and learn fast?”

Creating Impact

Many business schools looking for ways to create societal impact have turned to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a way to measure the success of their efforts.

An associate professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, David Steingard, has developed a reporting tool called the SDG Dashboard. The collaborative, interactive tool allows schools to input their efforts on each of the 17 goals and track how their teaching, research, and outreach activities align. Other business schools can also participate in the dashboard. Such widespread participation, said Steingard, provides an even broader view of how schools are supporting the SDGs around the world, allows them to identify collaboration opportunities, and enables them to benchmark their own efforts. The university made a presentation about the dashboard at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos.

The dashboard is particularly useful for schools undergoing the accreditation process because it provides a quick but detailed overview of school activities, explained Joseph DiAngelo, dean of the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s. DiAngelo said the dashboard is particularly useful at helping schools meet Standard 9 of AACSB’s business accreditation standards, in which schools are asked to “demonstrate positive societal impact through internal and external initiatives and/or activities, consistent with the school’s mission, strategies, and expected outcomes.”

Other schools are also seeking ways to integrate the SDGs into every aspect of their campuses. Catherine Cassell, dean of the University of Birmingham, believes the SDGs help schools articulate their vision and purpose, while also offering schools a different way to assess performance. Because the SDGs are known locally, nationally, and globally, she said, they create a universal language both on campus and with outside stakeholders.

Birmingham Business School has focused its efforts on the mission of responsible business. Within the curriculum, it has identified how existing classes are covering the SDGs, and it has added optional responsible business modules to all programs. For instance, information about carbon accounting has been added to accounting classes.

The school also is promoting responsible business research, and Cassell noted that it has secured funding to support research around the SDGs. In addition, the school is working with Business in the Community, a platform that connects responsible businesses across the U.K., to develop a “responsible business tracker” that will help businesses determine how responsible they are.

Building a vision around responsible business helped the school focus its work, said Cassell, “but we can’t do everything at once, so we target certain areas.” For instance, the school was already doing a lot of research on responsible business and gender equity. “We started thinking about what we’re doing as a school and what we wanted our vision to be going forward. What was part of our heritage, and what were people already working on, that we could incorporate into our vision?”

Adds DiAngelo, “Business schools need to show that business has an impact on the world, that it’s making the world a better place.”