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Plenary Speakers Inspire Business School Leaders to Focus on Choice, Culture, and Curricula

April 2013

By Juliane Iannarelli, Vice President, Knowledge Development, AACSB International

The atmosphere was electric as ICAM attendees streamed out of Tony Wagner's plenary, and it wasn't because the Black Eyed Peas' Boom Boom Pow was playing in the background. Still, it was hard not to recall the link, exposed in a recent study, between playing music with 125 to 140 beats per minute (this song has 131) and motivating individuals to exercise. Attendees clearly had work to do. How to cultivate seven "survival skills" needed by the next generation of workers and global citizens? How to address five contradictions between today's school culture and that which fosters innovation?

To top this off, heads were still pounding from Sheena Iyengar's five questions about choice, which left attendees of the first plenary thinking deeply about their leadership styles and responsibilities. And just in case Wagner's and Iyengar's research and anecdotes weren't enough to inspire action, Bob McDonald, CEO of Procter & Gamble (P&G) and the 2013 Beta Gamma Sigma honoree, drove home the urgency: 900,000 applications globally for 6,000 positions at P&G last year. A "VUCA" (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.

Effective leaders empower themselves and others with choice, said Iyengar. They also manage choice wisely. They recognize choice as an act of collective invention. And, they allow repeated cycles of practice and feedback to turn, over time, into informed intuition. This, in turn, helps to reduce the risk of choice overload—a malady that results in delayed choices, worse choices, and less satisfaction with outcomes.

McDonald called for business schools to begin that cycle of practice and feedback for the next generation of leaders. Create opportunities for students to experience leadership roles within their programs, he urged. Foster a mindset that values lifelong learning. Embrace diverse backgrounds, cultures, and styles of thinking among those who create, deliver, and engage with the curriculum. Evolve curricula to make students more familiar and comfortable with technology, particularly the "visually immersive data environment" that is emerging today.

But that's not all, said Wagner. "The world no longer cares what you know," he cautioned, "but about what you can do with what you know." He stressed the importance of cultivating graduates with the capacity to take initiative and to innovate. Wagner's first task for business school leaders: be alert for aspects of school culture that stifle innovation, such as placing too much emphasis on rewarding individual achievement, compartmentalizing knowledge, and penalizing failure. He challenged business schools to designate funds for R&D, which he called a fancy term for "trial and error."

Importantly, Iyengar encouraged attendees not to leave their or their schools' futures up to fate or chance. "We cannot afford to become reactive to choice," she said. "We have to remain proactive about choice" in order to become who we want to be tomorrow.

The buzz in the hallways between sessions suggested that attendees were motivated. That energy is likely to be critical, given that the questions asked of the three speakers revealed recognition of the daunting tasks ahead. How do we shift our faculty from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation? How do we create the understanding and urgency for change, in order to overcome inertia and risk aversion?

Undoubtedly, at schools around the globe, Iyengar, McDonald, and Wagner will inspire a series of discussions around choice, culture, and curricula. And maybe, just maybe, a few attendees will prepare for the tough road ahead by making some additions to their iPod playlists.