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Defying Fear to Lead Innovation

February 2014

By Hanna McLeod, Manager, Research, AACSB International

"It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world."—Oscar Wilde

If you were wondering where your business school's dean disappeared to last week, it is quite possible he or she joined one of the nearly 600 individuals attending AACSB's Deans Conference in San Francisco. The notion that the city offers a glimpse into the "next world," as 19th century writer and poet Oscar Wilde suggests, was unquestionably present during this year's Deans Conference in the middle one of the world's innovation meccas. Perhaps partly a consequence of osmosis—the event's location is home to some of the greatest innovators, designers, and forward thinkers in history and present day. This year's discussion was steered toward looking at management education's, as well as management's, role in society a bit differently—with business schools acquiring the helm as the forward thinking leaders.

Similar to how the AACSB Accreditation Standards encourage schools to look for ways they can enhance innovation, engagement, and impact, these three areas constituted an underlying foundation to the various topics addressed during the conference. Encouraging innovation through the development of creative confidence among business students, and business school leadership as well, was introduced during the first plenary and built upon in a number of subsequent sessions. Attending deans were encouraged by IDEO's Tim Brown and Sandy Speicher to move past inhibitions, such as fear of failure or social rejection of their novel ideas. Similarly, venture capitalist Paul Holland emphasized that failure is a component of the creative entrepreneurial process in Silicon Valley during his session with Haas School of Business dean, Richard Lyons. Holland shared with attendees that through the course of a year, his venture capital firm Foundation Capital considers over 3,000 projects of which only 10 to 14 are selected for investment, and of which an average of 40 percent fail. But only through failure do new and better ideas emerge that may blossom into successful ventures. Business schools ought to change their mind frame as well, and learn to be less adverse to potential failures.

This point was only emphasized further by other speakers discussing the changing landscape of higher education, challenged by new types of pedagogies, delivery methods, and operations, as well as developments and demands by employers and society. Coursera's Daphne Koller bluntly responded to an attendee's question on what this means to business schools: "Those schools who deny reality and fail to have a clear value proposition will not survive." With such significant transformations, the value proposition of business schools and universities as a whole, she said, must be greater than solely the degree awarded to graduates. Similarly, during a session led by members of the AACSB Business Practices Council, senior executives of some of the world's largest companies shared with attendees that with the changing world of business, new demands of education providers will follow. Michael J. Arena, head of Global Talent and Organizational Capability at General Motors Corporation, compared the current situation within higher education to trends in industry: "The new disruptors are not the products. It is the new business models that are the real disruptors," which by the number of nods in the room suggested strong resonance by the audience.

Although many of the topics discussed were areas that many deans are well aware of, the act of coming together for discussion, reflection, and mentorship is what truly drove these ideas home. It is through learning from fellow deans' experiences, gathering constructive feedback from industry leaders and higher education game changers, and engaging in AACSB's supportive network for business schools, that members can continue to pursue innovation and strive for the kind impact they aim to create. Surely, some of the delights of this meeting in San Francisco are likely to find their way to various cities around the globe as business schools work to find their place in the next world.