The velocity of fundamental change in the world has increased dramatically. Not too many years ago, there was no such thing as social media. But the ascendency of interactive digital platforms fundamentally changed the way we communicate not only in society, but in business. We no longer broadcast to and talk at our audiences; we niche-cast and engage with them. Students who graduated from business school prior to 2008 had no idea that the development of platforms like Twitter and Facebook would become integral to communications with their stakeholders. They had to quickly adapt and learn, and that learning curve represents the single greatest challenge for business education today. Educating business students about the ways of the world is no longer good enough. We have to educate our students for a business world that does not yet exist.
As we work to develop the next generation of leaders and position them for success, the rapid evolution of the environment in which we do business means that skill in adapting is perhaps the greatest benefit we can impart to our graduates. They must be taught not only to be agents of change, but also to be more fluid and intuitive in their work and responsive to anticipated change. And on top of that, they have to be conditioned to stay fluid – to adopt a personal culture where they are engaged in learning beyond the diploma. Learning that lasts a lifetime.
Consider, for example, the accelerating drive to globalization where, as the world grows smaller, the challenges grow larger. Globalization may create short-term pressures, while resisting the trend may provide short-term gain – but where will the long-term benefit actually be? We have to cultivate the mindset in tomorrow’s business leaders to support them in navigating these forces and counterforces. We have to ensure they are equipped with skills to consider not just short-term pressures that will be faced in an increasingly changing environment, but to consider the long-term potential impact that change may yield in spite of those pressures.
A generation ago, manufacturing plants looked very different. There were people inside of them. Today, there are machines. Basic computer intelligence is rapidly morphed into automated functional business environments run by artificial intelligence. As we move from driving ourselves to self-driving cars, the implications for managing a business are profound. The resulting gap in the workforce is between those with and without technical skills. With the growing capacities of artificial intelligence, the successful navigation of that gap will be by those who have a combination of good human and liberal arts-based skills in communication, plus critical thinking with a proficiency in technical competence. That is true not only of the workforce, but of the system that educates them.
The biggest risk to business schools is not the rapid pace of change. It is in failing to prepare the next generation of business leaders to cope with that change. Teaching agility and a thirst for lifelong learning is the best return on investment we can provide, and the one by which business education must be measured.
Not long ago, the music industry sold us an entire album when the demand was for only one song. But that wasn’t what the market wanted, and the industry had to undergo a radical change to its model to be more interactive with its audience – to give them more choice. As with digital media where we now choose our sources of content, gravitational pull is with individual choice, no longer institutional convenience.
Disruption in business, always a norm, has taken on new dimensions – and we must match it with disruption in the way we educate. A one-size-fits-all model no longer works. We must be focused on our audience and their needs while remaining sensitive to offering what our market wants and needs. We cannot be focused on what we think we should offer. We need to disrupt our approach to education.
Part of that disruption is in the way we work together. No single institution and no unique approach can manage the extensive driving forces of change. The means by which we facilitate an anticipatory education for tomorrow’s business leaders is through extensive communication and collaboration to help fashion formats, content and agility – hallmark characteristics of the skills that students will require in a rapidly changing world.
Sure, the notion of life-long learning itself is not new. Many practitioners in specialty professions must continually take courses to keep up with new developments in the field. After all, the tax accountant of 2000 is obsolete without an understanding of the latest in tax reform. But what is required today is more than keeping up on the technical know-how. This is about training students to interpret what is happening in the bigger environment and foreseeing its impact on things yet to come. Life-long learning today means being a constant study of the present to ensure a brighter, more successful future.
We teach students to make choices that are good for the long run, not the short-term, and to invest with that in mind. As business educators, we need to take our own advice. If we don’t set parameters and a clear pathway for this kind of disruption, who will? From globalization to artificial intelligence to workplace parity and beyond, there are great and rapid forces of change. We need to be one of them, creating opportunities for all types of students — not only helping schools develop in emerging markets, but also connecting them with schools in developed nations. We must institutionalize listening. To meet the challenge of disruption, we have to be disruptive, fostering an environment where a massive integration and cross-pollination defines business education and positions future leaders to tackle the social, communications and business changes yet to come.
Thomas (Tom) Robinson serves as president and CEO of AACSB International, the primary global accreditor and membership organization of business schools worldwide.