There is little doubt that we are in the midst of a war — the world on one side and an invisible enemy on the other. I am in awe of the first responders, physicians, nurses, scientists, frontline workers, grocery store clerks, truck drivers, and delivery personnel. It is their heroism and the collaborative work being done in labs, think-tanks and businesses that leave little doubt that we will win this war, which has devastated our world. The cost is unimaginable. Lives lost. Livelihoods destroyed. Businesses bankrupted. Education disrupted. Economies shattered. Healthcare stretched. People traumatized. The question after we win this war is what awaits us.
Looking back to the lessons of history yields important insights about what we in business education can expect in the aftermath of this pandemic. In particular, post-war lessons are especially informative since their message is clear — nothing will be the same as it was before. Even as past wars devastated populations, new world orders arose from the ashes of destruction. And, winners and losers emerged.
A NEW BUSINESS SCHOOL ORDER WILL FORM
For those of us in business education, there are three important lessons to be learned as we look at the aftermath of this war on COVID-19. First, some long-standing assumptions about business education will likely be destroyed. Traditional ideas about the classroom and teaching, for instance, could become casualties. Second, a new order will emerge based on the core strengths of business education — creating impactful knowledge; developing the next generation of ethical leaders and innovative thinkers; and making a difference in lives, communities, and the world — unfettered by the shackles of bureaucracy, time and place. Third, there will be winners and losers. Those who embrace the new order will succeed, while those who cling to the old will not survive. My arguments for each lesson follow.
First, history teaches us that wars, especially the larger they are, destroy paradigms. Even as the war against COVID-19 is being fought, there are literally no classes being held in traditional classrooms worldwide. Nearly every business school, and indeed nearly every school from K-12 to the Ivies, has moved its classes online. The idea of a traditional classroom has changed overnight. As has the very idea of teaching itself. Students are zooming in to classes. Instructors are recording tutorials. Teams are working in virtual breakout rooms. Labs are being taught in immersive environments. Consulting projects are being presented with members across the country (photo above). And through all of this, the learning and teaching processes have never stopped even as classrooms remain locked. The longstanding assumption that learning best (or only) happens in physical classrooms is disintegrating. And we are collectively building the new paradigm in record speed with the eyes of the world upon us.
Second, if the past is prelude to the present, at the end of this war, a new order will emerge. This new order in business education will take two forms — the embracing of some existing ideas and the dismantling of others. In particular, the core strengths of business education will become even more valuable: creating impactful knowledge that solves big problems by going beyond traditional boundaries; developing leaders who think innovatively and act ethically by working on real challenges and opportunities facing organizations; and making a tangible difference in the lives of people around the world. At the same time, this new order will shatter the shackles of institutional bureaucracy, the constraints of time and the limitations of place by rethinking the role that each should play.
THERE WILL BE WINNERS AND LOSERS
We see remarkable evidence of this new order even in the past few weeks as business faculty rush to work with their colleagues from medicine, science, engineering, and the arts to address the biggest problems of the day. We see students working arm-in-arm with faculty on how businesses can help fight this pandemic. New models of drug delivery, new ways of thinking about healthcare systems, new ways of producing personal protective equipment, and new distribution methods are all emerging from this real case unfolding in real-time. There is no going back. The impact of this knowledge discovery and dissemination is and will be too important to retract.
The new order will also break the shackles of institutional bureaucracy, typically an artifact of many institutions of higher education, including business schools. If a school can move at lightning speed to move its classes in the middle of the school year from one format to another, why wait for months or more to have a change approved? Similarly, the constraints of time and place — codified in class schedules — once represented an immutable doctrine that ruled students, faculty, and staff alike. Now, it warrants a “meh.” While it will not go away, its iron grip has been weakened and will continue to in the new order.
Third, as with any war, there will be winners and losers. Those who embrace the new order will not just survive but succeed. And, make no mistake, those who go back to business as usual will not survive. The world has changed. The war against the virus has ensured that. You cannot go back to VHS when streaming is the new world order. You cannot go back to rotary phones when smartphones rule the world. So, what will make a business school a winner in the aftermath of the war against COVID-19?
FIVE TIPS FOR WINNING
Here’s my take:
- Embrace the new order. This mandate does not mean keeping all classes online all the time. It does mean that the flexibility of online delivery is here to stay. Business schools that do not deny this reality by misinterpreting the current situation as a temporary inconvenience will thrive in the new order. It also means that business schools have to reconsider fundamental issues related to faculty, staff, and student success beyond the demands of the physical classroom.
- View time and place strategically. As The Byrds song goes, “To everything … there is a season (turn, turn, turn) … and a time to every purpose under heaven …” there is a time for everything.
- Ironically, there is a time for time itself. Synchronous interaction between the instructor and students, even more than being collocated, is key to learning. While asynchronous content (books in the old, old days!) can assist in learning, it cannot substitute for interpersonal interactions, which are vital to the learning process.
- Similarly, place has strategic value. Some activities such as a study abroad experience, lab work, field projects, leadership development, and experiential exercises require that they be done on location. Other activities, such as complex problem solving, mentoring, support services, networking or even walking across the convocation stage can be done virtually but don’t offer the full experience. Thinking through what should be done in situ, what should be done online, and what should be done in combination is important.
- Fit is key. Not everything can be done online all the time. And, not everything should be done online all the time. However, if the present is any indication, the traditional wisdom of what can be done online has been upended. Business schools that find the right fit of what can be done online, what should be done online, and how time and place are part of the portfolio will emerge victorious when this war is over.
I have no doubt that the world will win the war against COVID-19 despite the terrible toll this pandemic has had and continues to have. At the end of this war, the world will be a different place. Nothing will be the same. That includes business education. The new world order will require new ways of thinking. Not everything that worked before will work again. Those business schools that embrace the new order by thinking strategically about how they can combine technology, time, and place to; a) create impactful knowledge; b) develop ethical leaders and innovative thinkers; and c) make a difference in communities across the world will emerge as winners. And we need business schools to win so they can help the world win.
Laku Chidambaram is the Associate Dean for Academic Programs and Engagement and W.P. Woods Professor of MIS
for the Michael F. Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma.