Reflections on the Future of Business Schools and Elephants

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Guest post from Prof. Johan Roos, Dean and CEO of Jönköping International Business School, Sweden.

Johan Roos
will moderate the panel discussion "What’s Next for Management Education" during the 2015 EFMD Conference for Deans & Directors General in Barcelona. Andrew Hill, Associate Editor and Management Editor, FT, and a group of distinguished panelists will reflect on what business schools do in different regions of the world in relation to the current world situation.

elephant building surreal pen ink drawing by vitogoni d5rnr84DURING the course of in 2013-2014, as the Dean of a Swedish business school I participated in three educational programs devoted to exploring and assessing the status of higher education and what university presidents, deans and senior-levels administrators can do to improve our future.  One conference was an 18-months-nine-weekend program offered by The Association of Swedish Higher Education. Another was a 1-weekend seminar at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education for experienced university presidents. The third was the week-long leadership in higher education program offered by the Oxford Academy for Education and Development. In reviewing these learning experiences as part of my preparation for the upcoming 2015 EFMD Conference for Deans & Directors General, I had three insights that may help many of us strategize for 2015 and beyond.
Insight #1 – Higher Education today is like the parable of the 3 blind men and the elephant.
We all know the tale of the blind men who want to understand what an elephant is. One blind man feels the elephant’s leg and so thinks it is an animal that must look like a tree. The other blind man feels the tail and thinks an elephant is a thin and wispy animal. The third blind man feels the trunk and believes that elephants are like snakes.

In the same way, over the course of my three programs, I felt that I was in the company of blind men and women trying to figure out what higher education should look like in the future. Each of us had a very different sense of the ailments that are currently challenging us.

•    Some very thoughtful colleagues believed that the loss of professorial control over courses and curricula to centralized planners in their schools constituted a major blow to good teaching and rapport between students and faculty.
•    Others focused on how the growing demand for measurable student “outcomes” was pressuring them to abandon the teaching of thinking and analysis, for a focus only on vocational competence development.
•    Still others worried about the growing financial pressures on higher education, especially among state-owned schools that are facing budgetOpportunity cuts and pressure to reform their operations. My heart went out to several university leaders in African nations whose deepest concerns were finding clean water for their schools in parched countries, or staying safe from marauding terrorists 100 miles from their gates.

As I reflected on these problems, what became clear to me was that every one of us was sensing some type of elephant, though we interpreted it differently. We all felt problems looming ahead, even if each person was struggling with challenges that are local and on the plate directly in front of them. But to me, what was worse was that nearly everyone saw their challenges in a negative way, more like a crisis than an opportunity. There was a pall of fatalism dominating the soul of the gatherings, and it was disconcerting.
I am an optimist and I hope that I can inspire others to adopt my position that change is possible, that we can walk into the future with great ideas to guide our institutions to higher goals and serve the purpose of a better world.

Insight #2 – There is an elephant in the room—and it’s a good thing.
As for bringing insight #1 home to myself, I realized that when it comes to business education, we are looking at the proverbial elephant in the room that we don’t want to talk about but it is actually a great omen of change. Of course, we all know that business schools are in need of serious reconstructing, but I suggest it is now time to see opportunities that we have in front of us rather than denying the crisis.  We have remained ensconced in the same paradigms of thinking, teaching, and researching as we have done for more than fifty years, while the world is changing around us.

We are seemingly deaf to the outside global business world telling us that they require a new type of education for business students, yet we have the tools, minds and ability to develop many great new ideas. We have been blind to building new programs and curricula that take into account how the business world intersects technology, science, engineering and medicine, yet these are perhaps the most fascinating areas of growth for business schools. We act defensively about the pressure to find new ways to teach and learn, yet MOOCS could be our silver lining to an efficient, imaginative and responsible blended lifelong learning approach that could also create a renaissance of the classical high touch, high value tutorial system of education. In short, let’s look at the elephant in the room and see it as reminder to innovate rather than run away pretending it is not there.

changeInsight #3 – We need to make changes of an elephantine nature.
Three programs hardly form a pattern, but it was impossible for me not to see that the tasks in front of us are enormous. To keep my elephant metaphor, the problems we face require action of elephantine proportions, ranging from a complete overhaul in how we prepare students for higher education, to what types of curriculum and programs we offer them, to what relationship their business education has to do with working in the real world of business. These are all potentially large paradigm changes to tackle, but they will help us reinvigorate the ultimate purpose of higher education grounded in freedom of thought, integrity, quality, and responsibility.  Such reconstruction will take time, great effort, and patience, but it can be done.  I suggest that 2015 is a good year to start because 2014 is already gone.  Elephants or not, it is time to get to work.