By Soumitra Dutta
Innovation—it's more than a buzzword for the 21st century. The ability to innovate is critical to the very survival of all organizations, including business schools. And not only must we innovate, we must do so as the very landscape of innovation shifts under and around us.
Business schools face an innovation climate that is ever-more complex, interdependent, connected, uncertain, and exciting, offering up more opportunities—and risks. In these changing conditions, business school leaders face three key questions in the areas of richness, relevance, and reach.
First, richness—the critical question in this area relates to globalization. How do we as business school leaders balance local focus with global ambition?
In the classical model under which most of us operate, we create knowledge through faculty research, and transmit that knowledge in the local environment. Most students learn in the local environment; faculty live, teach, and conduct their research in the local place. The model has evolved somewhat, in that we are now exporting knowledge to other parts of the world, largely by bringing students from other parts of the world to the local environment to absorb our knowledge. They later disseminate our locally created knowledge in their home markets. Similarly, we send faculty abroad to give seminars—again transmitting our "homegrown" knowledge in global environments.
Yet fundamentally, we must create true global knowledge. To achieve this, we must create models under which faculty members conduct research in foreign contexts. That requires them to physically spend time in other parts of the world, breathing the air, feeling the environment, and developing a deep understanding of the local context. The current practice of "exporting" locally produced knowledge simply is not enough.
The second key question is around relevance—how do we balance academic rigor with business relevance?
The world's top business schools today largely function in an area of high academic rigor and relatively low relevance to the real business world. Faculty researchers in these business schools generate disciplinary research of the caliber and rigor that places their work in the most selective juried journals. They lead their academic peers in scholarly excellence. Yet how often is this newly created knowledge understood and used by managers and companies?
Business school leaders know that the credibility of our institutions rests largely on the quality of our faculty and its research. Media rankings measure our "quality" in part by research published in top academic journals, while we concurrently are experiencing greater pressures than ever to move toward fostering research with greater relevance to the business world. We now must find ways to generate more relevant knowledge, without sacrificing rigor.
The third critical question we face embodies "reach:" How do we balance quality and scale? Most traditional universities offer a high level of education to a restricted number of students. By constraining scale, we ensure quality.
In contrast, typical e-learning outfits provide a lower level of skill to a much greater number of students. Essentially, they sacrifice quality, in order to reach a substantially larger market. The advent of massive, open online courses and other technology-assisted formats suggests that this polarization of business education models cannot be sustained. As business school leaders, we are compelled to re-think our business models, so that they consider how we can effectively combine technology with our core educational competencies. This is the only way to achieve greater scale, while maintaining the quality of the education we offer.
Pablo Picasso is credited with saying, "Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." As a computer scientist, I certainly disagree with his statement, but I also understand his sentiment. Asking the right questions is the only path to finding the right solutions—solutions, whether technology based or not—that ensure that business schools remain rich, relevant, and with adequate reach in a global world.