Digital Relevance in a Covid-19 Disrupted World

News from GBSN

GBSN’s mission is to improve access to quality, locally relevant management and entrepreneurship education for the developing world. What does “relevant” look like in our world today when almost every GBSN member university is closed due to the coronavirus?

Teaching live in front of students, presenting at conferences and meeting with stakeholders to present research and ideas are just some aspects of business education that has been completely upended. To still be relevant today, everything has pivoted to digital.

These current times underscore the need for academics to leverage digital channels to communicate their research and ideas.

Teaching

GBSN hosted a webinar entitled Online Teaching in Times of COVID-19. One of the points made is that students are much less tolerant with online lectures than they are during face-to-face interactions, so it is important to divide content into short chunks.

For academics who are used to communicating across digital communications channels – whether it be writing an 800-word thought leadership article, crafting social media content or disseminating a short explainer video – dividing content in smaller segments for online teaching is not such an onerous task. Such individuals are accustomed to communicating to online audiences that are frequently distracted. They know how make their points succinctly and in a way that solves a particular problem. Academics who don’t make it a point to “translate” their academic journal articles into various forms of short communications are more likely to struggle in deliver compelling online learning experiences.

Over the years, I have worked with 10 different business schools / executive education providers. Dan Ariely of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business is by far the most talented professor I have worked with who is adept at sharing his ideas across all communications channels. It should come as no surprise that his online courses over the years have been big hits, generating hundreds of thousands of views and many five-star reviews.

An interesting reference point is the Thinkers50 global ranking of top thinkers. The ranking consists of many academics and is communicated as “the essential guide to which thinkers and which ideas matter now.” Adam Grant and Dorie Clark are two additional examples of individuals who made the ranking and also deliver online courses that have been well received.

Disseminating ideas

During these strange times, individuals are spending more time online than normal. While online, they are seeking out insights and analysis on how to grapple with this once in a lifetime situation.

Academics are consistently viewed as among the most trusted and credible sources of information, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Many business schools and individual academics have served as these relevant voices of analysis through new online content initiatives related to COVID-19. As a membership organization, GBSN is doing its part through the webinar series, articles and a LinkedIn community group.

But there are individual academics and institutions sitting on the sidelines. It is difficult to be relevant in this case. For this group, use the Thinkers 50 as a benchmark.

“They are all fantastic communicators – that has enabled them to get where they are,” said Thinkers 50 co-founder Des Dearlove. “It is partly an attitude mindset. These people were all smart enough earlier in their careers to realize that if they were going to influence the world, media and communications skills were important to sharpen and hone.”

“If you want your message to be heard and your work to have an impact outside the confines of a narrow audience of academics, you need to take charge of getting your ideas out there so they can be heard and part of the discourse,” added Clark, who has held appointments at various business schools over the years and is currently ranked #48 on the Thinkers50 list.

Those from the developing world should particularly heed this advice. Scanning the latest Thinkers50 ranking, the overwhelming majority are from North America and Western Europe. There are a handful of thinkers from Asia and none from Africa, South America or Eastern Europe. In general, many websites of schools in the developing world don’t put as much emphasis on thought leadership and analysis.

Becoming digitally relevant

A school can change a culture from being on the sidelines to digitally relevant. Leadership, faculty and a school’s communications department can collaborate together around three key actions as a starting point.

  1. Rethink the system. Many professors don’t feel that public communications efforts are rewarded. Some actually feel that these efforts are punished. Can digital communications efforts be accounted for in the tenure process? Or can public communications activities be rewarded as part of citizenship efforts? Those are two sure ways to move the needle to improve an institution’s digital relevancy.
  2. Deliver training. While speaking at an Academy of Management communications session a few year ago, I asked the 200 or so professors in the room how many had been trained during their PhD studies to communicate their research to academic audiences. Every hand went up. I then asked how many had been trained to communicate the ramifications of research to external audiences. Every hand went down. That’s why I believe schools should offer ongoing digital communications training, either led by the school’s communications departments or an external facilitator.
  3. Recognize digitally relevancy. This can be done in various intangible ways such as highlighting contributors in internal communications and recognizing them in meetings. Institutional channels – like the school’s LinkedIn account for example – should proactively amplify an individual’s thought leadership efforts.

Let us remember that in the midst of uncertainty is opportunity. The disruptions of today can serve as a call to action about the value of business schools and academics using digital communications to share their knowledge with the world.


 

Kevin Anselmo is the founder of Experiential Communications and a consultant for GBSN.