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Pandemic drives business schools to overhaul curricula

Andrea Galeotti, a professor at London Business School, did not realise what he had started when he began preparing a talk on coronavirus for his students this spring in response to growing interest in the pandemic.

“There was a lot of confusion,” he recalls. “It was a mess in Italy, and the UK was not even talking about lockdown. I started to pull together information so people could make sense of it. I couldn’t stop, it was so interesting to learn about, and soon I had 40 slides. I was very surprised to see the reaction.”

His presentation with his colleague Paolo Surico evolved into Leading Through a Pandemic, a range of free online materials which have been widely shared. They sparked discussions with governments to shift policy towards the use of real-time data to guide a more rapid economic recovery, and helped inspire an overhaul of the curriculum for the school’s autumn intake of students, including a course on the economics of the pandemic.

Such efforts are not isolated. At Wharton business school, Mauro Guillén launched a course for academic credit in March on the impact on business of coronavirus, structured around interviews with nearly 50 alumni in senior positions. It was attended by a record 2,400 students from across the entire University of Pennsylvania and its partner institutions. It now offers a collection of resources online.

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Academics disagree on the extent to which the current crisis marks a radical turning point for capitalism, but business schools are rushing to adapt their research and overhaul their curricula to meet the demand for new skills and insights that the post-Covid world requires. Many are offering free advice to those beyond their own campuses, such as Harvard’s Resources to Lead Effectively Amid Covid-19.

Geoff Garrett, the outgoing dean of Wharton who has just taken over as dean of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, says: “The best description of our age even before Covid was uncertainty. Now is a great time for business schools to demonstrate their relevance.”

In the coming academic year, Prof Guillén, a specialist in international strategy, will teach a course on how different companies are adapting to the pandemic. “Students always want the most up-to-date material. They are expecting us to have material that’s relevant for what’s going on now,” he says. “We cannot teach the same stuff or we would be obsolete.”

His case studies include Spotify, which he says has “taken advantage of the crisis to pivot its business model” by developing its own podcasts to boost revenues as the lockdown shifted existing patterns of use.

Other professors cite fresh interest in economic sectors that coronavirus has brought to the fore, such as life sciences and healthcare management. Prashant Yadav at Insead, which has launched a series on navigating the turbulence of Covid-19, says: “I observe a much greater curiosity among students to learn about how vaccines are developed, how diagnosis works, how disease transmission occurs — the same sort of excitement as in the past for financial derivatives.”  

His own expertise is supply chains, where he sees the need for fresh discussion on “short” chains to reduce the risk of disruption. He has observed rising demand for case studies about drug supply scarcity, as well as research on blending market mechanisms with public and philanthropic funding to support pandemic-related production and distribution.

Jean-François Manzoni, dean of IMD, whose Leading in Turbulent Times hub offers articles and webinars, also stresses the importance of supply chains in his school’s revised courses. “This crisis highlights that we need an equilibrium between efficiency and resilience,” he says. “The crisis in US slaughterhouses has shown the dependence on a very small number of high performance suppliers. We need to diversify sourcing.”

A widespread theme among business schools is how to enhance management and leadership in the Covid era, including guidance on risk management. “What this crisis has highlighted is the importance of leaders and how they need to manage themselves,” says Prof Manzoni. “During a crisis, you realise that you are necessary and you have got to be at your best.”

Coping with the adjustment to online working — and the broader applications and implications of technology — is another important theme, says Prof Guillén, while adding that teaching can draw on much existing knowledge.

“There is the question of how you motivate employees doing remote work. People are very happy to stay at home at first but there is a lot of burnout,” he says. “We have 30 years of experience of virtual teams in multinational companies — about working apart, forming teams, and pulling together talent from different parts of the world.”

A re-examination of teaching “hard skills” such as finance post-coronavirus is also taking place. Marwa Hammam, executive director of the Master in Finance programme at Cambridge’s Judge Business School, which offers free Covid-19 insights and opinions resources, says she has been integrating topical examples and stressing expertise in credit, distressed debt, financial restructuring and alternative finance in her courses.

A final focus is the question of wider societal demands on business, reflected in specialist courses such as marketing and consumer behaviour, and more broadly in schools’ strategic approach. Dezsö Horváth, who is stepping down as dean after three decades as head of the Schulich School of Business in York, Canada, has overseen free webinars entitled Shaping the Post-Pandemic World.

He argues that many of the issues raised by Covid-19 reflect a fundamental structural shift already under way since the 2008 financial crisis: a move away from a primary focus on shareholder returns towards broader responsibilities including climate change and diversity. “We’re going to have a very different world which is much more focused on tolerance and on life, not just work and money,” he says.

Prof Surico at London Business School agrees. “We will move to a new economic model in which business and society are more open to trade-offs between efficiency and resilience,” he argues. “Businesses will have a formidable challenge in changing their model to understand consumer demand and the new role of government with a bit less capitalism and a bit more state economy.”

Many academics remain cautious about whether Covid-19 will permanently change the world, but few doubt it is already forcing them to change their curricula. As Prof Guillén at Wharton argues, this crisis primarily represents an acceleration of existing trends. “It has put the restructuring of supply chains, remote work and ecommerce on steroids,” he says. “I don’t agree the world will be 100 per cent different but we will have to run much faster because those trends will be so accelerated.”

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