As coronavirus upends the world, business schools are racing to adapt the MBA curriculum for their upcoming intakes to satisfy fresh demand for skills and knowledge in a changed world. “We have had to respond quickly to Covid-19 to ensure our students are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in a rapidly changing business environment,” says Barbara Manzanares, director of the MBA at London Business School.
Her students this year can enroll in a new “Economics of a Pandemic” elective that was developed in direct response to the crisis. The course covers the cash flow crunch that is creating insolvencies, job losses and a slowdown in consumer spending. Participants will discuss a range of policy interventions including monetary financing and government spending to restore growth.
Manzanares has observed a newfound thirst for content addressing issues brought to the fore by the pandemic. She is far from alone. Insead Business School in France and Singapore has launched a new series of courses on managing the disruption of Covid-19. This includes a new MBA course on advanced negotiations that deals with the particularities of high-stakes discussion over Zoom.
Urs Peyer, dean of degree programs and associate professor of finance, highlights the ethical dilemmas that are increasingly being raised by students in the classroom. Discussions include how governments are propping up the wages of workers with concerns about mass redundancies once this stimulus is wound down.
“At some point the free money will run dry and businesses need to think about restructuring the workforce,” he says. “Dealing with downscaling is a big managerial challenge, but one that we are well equipped to support.”
He also stresses the importance of self-care in an ambiguous environment, in particular a renewed focus on risk management. “Students have to be agile and adaptable otherwise they will be forever frustrated,” says Peyer. “Many are discovering how important it is to find happiness and meaning in their careers.”
The balance between hard and soft skills taught at business schools is being more closely considered. How to raise resiliency is a widespread theme among MBA providers, as well as improving technology skills such as data analytics in the rapidly digitizing economy. “The crisis has reinforced the importance of flexible [as opposed to industry specific] skills,” says Tolga Tezcan, professor of management science and operations at London Business School.
With the jobs market roiled by coronavirus, he adds: “Those who started their business school education with a narrow career goal in mind might now find themselves forced to revisit those plans.”
Broader changes are afoot
Over in Canada, the Schulich School of Business has created a range of free webinars called “Shaping the Post-Pandemic World”. Among the key themes discussed is the need for “localized” supply chains to reduce the risk of disruption, especially among retailers amid increased food insecurity.
Echoing peers, professor Ashwin Joshi, director of the MBA at Schulich, says societal demands are driving a shift from authoritarian leadership to a more empathetic management style in which all stakeholders are considered. “Bilateral leadership is the smart thing to do, because the likelihood of being wrong in a fast-changing crisis is high. Employees want to participate in the decision-making process because they feel especially vulnerable,” he says.
The shift to remote working and the broader implications for technology investment and the travel, real estate and construction industries is another prominent theme. The UK’s Cambridge Judge Business School is giving a lot more space in the curriculum to management in the context of remote teams and its implications for leadership.
“The office as we knew it has been transformed. This affects the social fabric of organizations,” says Thomas Roulet, deputy director of the MBA at Cambridge Judge. “Some things are easier to do when you have physical access to colleagues, so it takes an effort to maintain positive human connections and organizational culture.”
He adds that many businesses are cutting the cost of office space, which will likely lead to a permanent change in working practices.
Many business schools are hoping for an impact beyond campus and have developed webinars that are freely available. Trinity Business School in Ireland has partnered with industry to create a free series of seminars for businesses to rebuild in a recessionary environment, for instance. “In the current crisis, we felt we had a responsibility to help our communities — an eco-system that we benefit from,” says the school’s dean, Andrew Burke.
But how much will business really change?
It remains to be seen just how much the business world will change because of the pandemic over the long term. Michael Flynn, director of executive education at Trinity Business School, says coronavirus mostly underscores an acceleration of existing trends, including a shift from Friedman-style shareholder capitalism to a broader focus on creating value for all of society. This change has been gathering pace since the 2008 financial crash.
“The pandemic has highlighted the need for a more equitable and sustainable economy,” he says. The workshops will focus on creating a sustainable recovery, taking into account ethical considerations, such as tackling the climate emergency and creating an inclusive society.
Academic opinion is also split on how much of a fundamental shift is occurring in the MBA curriculum, which has been designed to be resilient to crises over a long period of time. “Changes dictated by the pandemic are more likely to center on the way we deliver our program than on the curriculum itself,” says Fran Johnson, associate director of MBAs at Alliance Manchester Business School in the UK, which has put together a webinar on preparing a business for a pandemic.
She says the increased reliance on technology for homeworking is leading to demand for more flexible delivery methods at business schools. “The existing curricula will be adapted to cover current issues, but the true value of the MBA is that it equips students with the skills they can apply to address a multitude of business challenges,” she adds.
Roulet at Cambridge Judge agrees: “We believe that students want this newly relevant content given the shift online, but they still seek a comprehensive business education in finance, marketing, strategy and other classic disciplines.”