A Good Time to Experiment…Boldly

Administrators, Thought Leadership

Business school leaders have been through a stressful Spring semester. A positive start to the second decade of the new millennium rapidly deteriorated into a scenario which few had imagined was possible, let alone planned for. In response to the growing Covid-19 pandemic, strict confinement restrictions were imposed by many governments and all non-essential activities were suspended. With student health and well-being  rising as most important goals, business schools leaders had little choice but to suspend on-campus teaching and send students back to their homes.

What could have been a chaotic disruptive change actually happened much more smoothly that what most had anticipated. Faculty, including those who had long resisted online teaching, moved their teaching to new video platforms such as Zoom with relatively little pain. While students sorely missed the in-person campus experience, most adjusted relatively well to live-virtual teaching. Most business schools also set up major initiatives to support the transition of faculty and students to online learning. Indeed, business school leaders deserve our thanks for having managed a difficult transition to large scale online learning.

As summer starts and the focus shifts to the reopening of economies and of our campuses, business school leaders are realizing that the process of opening up safely may be harder and more trickier than the act of closing campuses. Significant uncertainty remains about the further spread of the Covid-19 virus. The USA and Europe have successfully flattened the curve but these regions risk increased numbers of infections as their economies open up over the next weeks. At the same time, the virus is continuing to spread exponentially in many emerging markets, including key countries such as Brazil and India. There is also a high risk that infection rates could increase significantly in Africa in the coming weeks and months. One lesson that we have learned over the last months is that in the absence of a vaccine, no region is safe if the virus is spreading rapidly in another region.

Despite progress, a Covid-19 vaccine remains several months away, most likely 12 to 18 months away. In such a scenario, business school leaders have to formulate multiple scenarios for the fall semester and possibly the entire next academic year. While some universities and schools have already decided that they will hold the next academic year online, others are keenly observing Covid-19 trends and waiting to decide their precise course of action. Multiple scenarios are often being formulated – one business school dean mentioned that he and his management team had formulated 7 scenarios of possible responses in the fall. For each scenario, business school leaders have to decide on multiple decisions including the amount of blended teaching to include, the type of courses to move online, the maximum number of students to allow in classrooms and the seating arrangements to be used for teaching. Life is certainly not easy for business school leaders and they can hardly afford to rest on the laurels of having managed a successful transition to online teaching a few months earlier.

Many faculty are hoping that once the Covid-19 pandemic fears go away, we can return to our good old trusted ways of in-class teaching. Many business school deans are hoping that travel fears subside and international students enrollment figures rapidly return to their pre-Covid highs. In short, many are just waiting for life to return to the “old normal”. However, this is a misplaced expectation. An expectation that is almost certain to be proven false. This is an important conclusion from the interviews of business school deans and CEOs of businesses that Dan Le Clair and I have been conducting over the last 6 weeks on their views of life after Covid-19 (some of the initial interviews are available on the GBSN website at: https://gbsn.org/worldaftercovid19/). Unanimously, the interviewees have told us that they see Covid-19 as a major global tipping point. They have told us that they see the world changing significantly for all key stakeholders in the years ahead – governments,  businesses, universities and society. While the contours of the precise changes in our professional and personal lives are not yet clear, we have to prepare for possible major changes.

What does this mean for business schools? This means that as we struggle to rise to the challenge of successfully reopening our campuses safely and restoring our program activities, we also have to experiment about what will change in the months and years ahead. As teaching moves into blended formats, we need to experiment about what works and which new formats remain to be discovered. What most faculty have done this Spring is to have simply moved their in-class lectures to a video platform. Few have taken the time to rethink the learning experience for their students in an online format. Can we learn from literary and arts festivals where innovative approaches are often used to engage with large numbers of people? Can we learn from film and television productions about how to create effective online experiences?

At the program level, we also have to ask some hard questions. Though the MBA has proven to be remarkably resilient over the last few decades, is the current format and structure the right one for the future, a future where mobility is very different and virtual interactions are more commonplace? We have often built the business models of our schools based on certain high priced programs. Are these price points sustainable? Or will we have to rethink our program structures and price points radically? On a different dimension, we have to question how business education is best delivered. Is the current campus structure the best option? What else is possible? Can we learn from the experiences of other sectors which are going through a radical re-evaluation of physical space, such as commercial real estate? The list can go on much longer. The questions are hard. The answers are not obvious. Nevertheless, we have to ask the questions. Good leadership is about asking the right questions. The only way to answer these hard questions is to engage with people to come up with possible responses and then to experiment.

Business school leaders should identify the important questions for their organizations as they face a post-Covid future. They should engage with key stakeholders and plan for controlled experiments to evaluate which answers may point the way to the right direction. An open mind will be important to consider all relevant options. Organizational agility will be critical to pivot when necessary and act on the desired action plans.

Now is indeed a good time to experiment, and to do so with conviction and urgency. The real test for business school leaders will not be how they survived the Covid-19 crisis but how they prepared their schools for the future.


Soumitra Dutta is a Professor of Management at Cornell University and the Chair of the Board of Directors for GBSN. Previously he was the Founding Dean of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell and Chair of AACSB Intl. He is also the President of Portulans Institute and co-chaired the Global Future Council on innovation ecosystems for the World Economic Forum.

 Email: sd599@cornell.edu; Twitter: @soumitradutta; LinkedIn: soumitra-dutta; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soumitra_Dutta