It has been about a week since I returned from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. It takes a few days to recover from the hectic pace of speed-dating type of meetings, chance encounters in the corridors with business titans, listening to global leaders opining on the state of the world and a large number of competing cocktails and dinners each evening. I still have a long list of to-do items from last week that need attention.
The Davos meeting has been criticized for being an exclusive meeting of global elites who are disconnected from the reality of today’s society. While there is some truth in the criticisms, I can attest based on my seventeen participations in the Davos annual meetings over the last two decades that the meeting has only grown in appeal and participation. There are many good summaries of the 2019 Davos meeting available online such as on the WEF link. In this short note, I would like to share a couple of my key takeaways from the meeting and reflect on their implications for our world of business education.
My most notable takeaway is the strong emphasis being placed on the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) and how it is positioned to transform all aspects of the world around us. The overall theme of the 4IR permeated all aspects of the program. For example, there were many sessions on how the 4IR was impacting globalization and whether it was enhancing or reducing globalization (the consensus view was that it was increasing globalization despite current headwinds). I was invited to moderate one such session on how the 4IR was impacting the achievement of the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the group quickly converged on how technology will have to play a key role in scaling up solutions to help achieve the SDGs.
Also of striking significance this year at Davos was the prominence given to diversity and the younger generation. Each year, the Davos meeting has a small number of program co-chairs who have typically tended to be industry or government leaders. This year, six of the seven program co-chairs were a diverse group of young people (see https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/12/meet-the-co-chairs-of-davos-2019/) and Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft was the only traditional business leader in the role of a co-chair. In response to some of the criticisms raised, the Forum has over the years started including more diverse groups within its community such as by creating the Young Global Leaders (below the age of 40) and the Global Shapers (below the age of 30) groups. These younger people were given a prominent voice in sessions and it was a pleasure to interact with them during the breaks and other discussions. The voices of diversity (the Co-Chairs for the Davos 2018 meeting were all women https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/12/meet-the-co-chairs-for-davos-2018/) and younger people is growing inside the WEF and I am keen to see this evolve and develop further.
Being an academic for three decades now, I could not help wonder whether we are as a community taking the impacts of the 4IR seriously in what we do and how we plan our future. Yes, technology is used to varying degrees in our schools and yes, many of us have even created some elearning programs. But have we as a profession really used technology to scale up our offerings to meet the vast global need that is currently unmet? Given the global shortage of trained faculty and educational infrastructure, can we hope to meet the SDG goal 4 (“ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”)? I realized from the discussions at Davos that scaling up existing solutions (for us, educate several tens of thousands as opposed to a few hundred) is a key to success and we have be bold to push the frontiers here. Scaling up will require us to rethink our mission and mandates and adopt more flexible faculty and program delivery models.
In our business schools, we naturally deal with diversity and young people. Seeing how the WEF leverages these groups of diverse young leaders, I wonder if we are doing enough to deal with diversity and to give voice to the younger generation in shaping our institutions. Many of us tend to look at young people as “students” who have to be “taught”. While this is indeed part of the relationship that defines us, we have to open up our minds to also treat our students as equals, as important members of our community who need to be given a prominent voice in shaping and charting the future of our institutions. Some elements of this are happening, but I suspect that this is largely in an ad-hoc manner. I know from personal experience that significant culture change is needed to make these changes. For example, at Cornell Tech in New York city, faculty and students engage in an open and continuous dialogue to improve the course – comparable to agile software development processes. Transferring these processes of open sharing and criticism has been difficult to the mother institution in Ithaca. Diversity on all dimensions, especially gender diversity remains a challenge in most business schools for both faculty and students. I think that we could and should do better on these important aspects.
I am pleased that we are able to share and discuss these important issues within the Global Business School Network (GBSN). We all share a common purpose and I encourage us to share our good practices to help each other and to do our bit to support the UN’s SDGs.
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 also co-chairs the Global Future Council on innovation ecosystems for the World Economic Forum. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @soumitradutta; LinkedIn: soumitra-dutta; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soumitra_Dutta