What the Post-COVID-19 world could look like for business schools

The post-lockdown context for businesses could provide great opportunities for the work of business schools, but could also cause them serious problems.

On the one hand, organisations of all kinds will need business schools more than ever: to support their flexibility around changes in short-term trading conditions, to reinvent themselves where needed - and generally to become more resilient to future changes in market conditions.

In particular that means looking closely at the strategic value of transformation (forced or planned); the balance between the financial and social costs of investing in 4.0 technologies like workflow management, automation, autonomous systems; and the use of Artificial Intelligence and the pay-offs from more robust operations longer-term. Companies will need to be exploring all of the vulnerabilities exposed by the global pandemic and learning, whilst adapting as the future is anything but stable: the length and complexity of supply chains and the benefits from near shoring, smaller, localised sources of resources and manufacture; the potential for more co-operation and collaboration locally. What we have seen and learnt from COVID-19 is much of the downside of global, complex supply-chains as then a link break, the chain fails.

The other side of the story is how the lack of cashflow will make university input and support look like a luxury. The question will be whether business schools can make themselves essential, and how. Now is the time for initiatives like the Small Business Charter to reaffirm their place.

A dramatic escalation of COVID-19 measures during March meant that schools came face-to-face with the same supply chain pressures as most other organisations, but perhaps held more back by a lack of digital capacity and capability - having to suddenly morph operations to suit changing conditions. The necessary skills needed at quick speed, for online delivery and assessment had to be assembled or learnt quickly. Plans for financial sustainability put in place, taking into account the situation of chronic uncertainty, and the nature of students as consumers suddenly interested in the potential for fee and accommodation refunds. All, done with decisive, clear and compassionate leadership.

This has all been important for schools in their direct experience and appreciation of the problems being faced by the great majority of commercial enterprises. But what’s going to be needed now is business school curricula rooted in the practical essentials needed for emerging from lockdown and finding a new kind of ‘success’ based on resilience - perhaps even a stronger sense of responsibility to the society they are a part of, which has provided them with a level of protection. Social and economic value is now being asked and, needs to be demonstrated like never before.

That will include: helping HR to find a variety of arrangements to keep staff working and engaged and motivated; a culture of leadership and management that is compassionate, in tune with what is likely to be a different kind of business culture; as well as leadership that’s equipped with the vision to deliver a strategy for business continuity, recovery and adaptability. The use of IT has become, and will continue to be, more essential a part of work practices and demanding new management skills but done while ensuring we don’t lose synchronous engagement. Financial management for maintaining operations with interrupted cash flow. Awareness of the issues faced by staff more likely to be working remotely. Marketing to people with a new perspective when it comes to spending priorities, wants and needs.

The culture of business schools will need to change in line with the wider commercial and organisational environment. In particular that will involve a readiness to ditch old ways of thinking, the comfortable certainties of business, to be capable of being partners with companies in their exploration of new ways of working and new markets, in taking risks, and in helping new generations of students to have the necessary resilience and range of talents in themselves to be part of the adventure ahead.

By Professor Zahir Irani, Pro-Vice Chancellor, University of Bradford