Innovating Change: Final Thoughts on The 2016 AACSB Deans Conference

A wrap up of the 2016 Deans Conference.

But they’ll be fulfilling these roles in an era of dynamic and relentless change, according to the first plenary speaker, John Seely Brown. Brown—once chief scientist at Xerox and now visiting scholar at University of Southern California—emphasized that business leaders need to learn to become “whitewater kayakers” who can read the constantly shifting business and social currents. They also need to “think more radically.” Brown told the audience of deans that they could learn a great deal from studying how people learn in unconventional environments, whether they are monks at China’s Shaolin Temple, competitors in massive multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft, or students in nontraditional learning institutions such as the Minerva Schools.

Brown stressed that the new business environment will require a deep level of cross-disciplinary expertise. “It’s easy to share explicit knowledge, but to share tacit knowledge, you have to work shoulder-to-shoulder with different disciplines,” he said.

Northwestern University’s Sally Blount, the second plenary speaker, also marveled at the pace of change. “In business schools and in business, we’re still catching up with the changes of the first decade of the 21st century,” she noted. As MOOCs and online education options begin to commoditize the core business program, deans will need to ask themselves why their schools exist in the first place. She offered one answer: Business schools provide “the best education for changing the world. We have all the knowledge that exists about building strong organizations.”

Blount predicted that some schools will focus on developing core content for MOOCs and other outlets; other schools will customize and specialize by offering a diverse portfolio of electives. To give students a complete and well-rounded education, she said, schools will need to develop “new models of collaboration.” She added, “The rate of change is alarming, but it’s exciting.”

Those two themes—change and cross-collaboration—surfaced repeatedly throughout the conference, with some sessions focusing on how schools will need to change internally. For instance, in “Expanding Revenue Streams,” Santiago Iñiguez of IE Business School outlined four avenues to growth: organic growth, strategic alliances, mergers and acquisitions, and diversification. He noted that business school deans must still be efficient with money even though they’re managing not-for-profit institutions. “The distinction between for-profit and not-for-profit is not helpful,” he said. “It’s what we do with the profits that defines us.”

Another session emphasized that internal change will be crucial as schools assess how they teach and how students learn. During “Innovative Trends in Teaching Business Programs,” participants described the methods they’ve used to transform the learning experience, from flipped classrooms to experiential learning to faculty workshops that help professors become better teachers. Participants made it clear that one change will be absolutely essential: bringing more practitioners into the classroom to help make real-world learning a key part of the student experience.

But schools must consider more than governance and teaching structure if they’re going to thrive in a turbulent world. Cross-disciplinary collaboration was another success factor cited often at the conference. In “Creating and Managing Cross-Disciplinary Partnerships Outside the Business School,” participants shared initiatives that had been successful at their institutions. These offerings ranged from undergraduate programs to partnerships with schools of law, design, engineering, and natural sciences. Facilitator Srilata Zaheer of the University of Minnesota summed up much of the discussion by noting that schools need to be “pan-disciplinary, not cross-disciplinary.”

Participants who wanted to see specific examples of successful collaborations—as well as other innovative ideas about improving teaching, research, engagement, and strategy—had a wealth of material to review from AACSB’s “Innovations that Inspire” initiative. More than 200 schools detailed nearly 300 innovations for this initiative, and 30 of them were spotlighted at the Deans Conference. Read more about the 30 Innovations That Inspire Recipients. The full portfolio of submissions will be made available in the coming months on AACSB's DataDirect webpage.

Not surprisingly, attendees posed pointed and complex questions of their own throughout the conference: How should schools respond to nontraditional competitors, such as corporate universities or socially driven models like Singularity University? How will they meet the expectations of the millennial generation? How can they change standards of faculty tenure in ways that suit new environments for teaching and learning?

But all in all, deans appeared eager to learn more ways to navigate change and innovate their programs. The conference drew record numbers, with almost 700 deans in attendance. Said AACSB’s executive vice president Dan LeClair, “Many attendees told me it was the best Deans Conference they had ever attended. Deans are excited about the work we are all doing to foster engagement, accelerate innovation, and amplify impact.”

Check out BizEd’s online conference coverage of AACSB's Deans Conference 2016.