By Dan LeClair, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, AACSB International
"It is just another garden if you don't know the history," the would-be guide called out to me at the famous Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou's largest and a UNESCO heritage site. Limited time meant I had to refuse. But I thanked her for the insight into my work—the history of a business school can be an important and powerful tool, but often not well understood and articulated.
My stop in Suzhou was part of a working trip that also included Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang. I visited 15 business schools and met with deans at countless others. Being on campus afforded the rare opportunity to pause, ask questions, and learn about each business school. My gracious hosts described their schools to me, presenting useful facts, figures, and lists. They told me about their mission and where their schools are going, as well as the challenges in getting there. Many told me about their school's history and, when they did not, I asked.
In my work with business schools, I have found that any data about schools are more meaningful when accompanied by a collection of stories about the past—a history. More than just a timeline, a history offers interpretations, insights into important events, and information about the context. For example, every business school has a story about its founding. It might involve a powerful business person or specific purpose, such as fostering innovation in the community or advancing women in management. Location can play a major role, such as when an industry cluster develops around a university, and might be linked to changes in the business environment, such as a recession or technological advance.
A history need not be limited to the founding. If, for example, the school's current mission doesn't resemble its original purpose, it might be useful to understand what caused (and enabled) the transformation. There are many other potential subjects to address in a history, including the origins of curricula, sources of current traditions, evolution of faculty research, successes of graduates, and more. All of these things help to define a school. As poet Alfred Austin said, "Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are."
So what if you are not planning to host me for a visit? Why is it important to understand and communicate about your school's history? Besides helping a school to know what and when to celebrate, there are three important reasons to embrace the beginning—and the journey—that has made your school what it is today:
Marketing—While it won't necessarily convert an offer of admission to a new entrant, your school's history helps prospects understand your school's unique value proposition, creates a stronger commitment to the brand amongst its constituents, and potentially forms a foundation to develop bonds that go beyond the transaction.
Training and Development—A school's history is reflected and communicated in a shared set of stories. These stories can be a powerful foundation for developing faculty and staff, especially to establish or reinforce the character and culture of a school.
Planning—Don't get stuck on the past, but leverage your school's history to formulate and articulate a vision for the future. History also helps a school understand its limitations, and avoid repeating costly mistakes as leaders change.
I encourage business schools to study their past and share it. Today it's also useful to "make it sharable" by others through video, mobile websites, and social media. Also pay attention to the history of other business schools. Doing so will help in developing relationships, benchmarking, and competition. Take some time, for example, to get to know some of the schools that will be represented at ICAM 2014 before you go.
Rudyard Kipling said, "the glory of the garden lies in more than meets the eye." History is just one part of understanding a school, but it is an important part that is too often not well understood, maintained, and communicated. Create a tour guide for your school.
Follow Dan LeClair on Twitter @AACSBdan