October 24-26 saw an impressive 438 delegates from 150 business schools in 27 countries gather in New Orleans for the 2016 Executive MBA Council global conference. As the conference theme was ”Redesign & Renewal” in the broader sense, three most interesting plenary session keynote speakers approached the theme, each  from their different personal angles.

Let me develop a few insights gained from the plenary sessions on ways to achieve personal, executive education and corporate innovation renewal:

Dorie Clark, marketing strategy consultant and adjunct professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, shared her experiences from reinventing herself and helping reinvent others. Connecting to all the business schools present, she argued that personal reinvention is likely the most compelling reason for any participant to enrol to an Executive MBA. Business schools need to answer up to that rationale, in becoming ever more relevant. Linking the personal reputation and authenticity to building the “personal brand”, Dorie underlined how others tend to judge us by our past achievements whereas we tend to judge ourselves by our potential for the future. She strongly recommended everyone to make sure you are the one who articulate the critical narrative connecting your past with your future: “Your resume isn’t necessarily your destiny”, Dorie concluded.

Dorie Clark, marketing strategy consultant and adjunct professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

Dorie Clark, marketing strategy consultant and adjunct professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

Alana Dunagan, Higher Education reasearcher at the Boston based Christensen Institute think tank, invited the audience to reflect on business model disruptive innovation and its potential impact on higher education.

Using a telling case study from the US steel industry(!), where all but one of the former incumbents have now been outperformed by nimble competitors, Alana argued business model disruption in higher education is beginning, but is still in fairly early stages. One example: In the US, 25% of graduate students over 30 years now take programs entirely on-line and 45% take some classes on-line. On-line delivery is simply demanded by this segment.

Will program unbundling and micro-credentialing become more common, responding to student needs articulated as: “I don’t need an Executive MBA degree, I just need to learn these 5 things”?

Unbundled or not, Alana Dunagan challenged business schools to identify exactly what students need to get their job done (i.e. skills needed to advance professionally) and to visualize which student segments that likely would never become participants to today’s full 2-year Executive MBA programs. Why? Because these are the ones that will risk becoming customers served by future disruptive offerings, unless established schools move first.

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Alana Dunagan, Higher Education reasearcher at the Boston based Christensen Institute think tank

In this context, Alana raised the eternal question in the business school industry on whether MOOC (Massive Open On-line Courses) constitute a disruptive offering, or not? Her conclusion is that MOOC does not, since customers a) have a low propensity to spend on education, and b) often already have a degree. Hence Alana’s conclusion that MOOCs are yet predominantly for pleasure (and maybe personal reinvention?) and does not truly compete with graduate programs.

The closing day morning plenary session all revolved around inspiration, ideas and implementation of Design Thinking. David Schonthal, Clinical Associate Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and partner at global design company IDEO engaged us all in a highly interactive session (1-on-438, bravo!) on design thinking. What do we mean by “design”? Davis argued that “design is a way of looking at the world through a human-centered lens”. He nicely pursued that thought throughout his presentation, which conveyed a three-step highly structured approach to how a company can 1) understand real-life customer challenges by spending time observing customers up close in their everyday environment, 2) brainstorm a number of innovative ideas on solutions by mobilizing a complementary set of skill sets, based on these observations, in order to 3) make the best idea or ideas real.

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David Schonthal, Clinical Associate Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and partner at global design company IDEO

Using examples from his own practice with IDEO, David emphasized the power of rapid and simple prototyping in the brainstorming phase – be it of actual products, solutions or only their value propositions – as he shared several new products or product redesigns well beyond the expected or conventional. Prototypes are “questions embodied”, focusing questions on the right usability areas.

Early prototype of a surgical instrument. It took seven years from prototype to product launch. Source: @davidschonthal

Early prototype of a surgical instrument. It took seven years from prototype to product launch. Source: @davidschonthal

So, what conclusions from these three keynotes for the Gothenburg Executive MBA?

I share Dorie Clark’s assumption that most of our current and future participants most likely see “reinventing themselves” as a prime driver to enrol at all, setting their own expectations accordingly. To these expectations, we must at all time be able to deliver and measure our performance as a business school.

As far as on-line delivery formats and other disruptive innovations go, we will continue to closely follow the industry development. We don’t yet see full on-line delivery even on the horizon, but blended formats will likely be implemented over time – when a critical mass of our participants begin to demand them.

On our Gothenburg Executive MBA programme, we already include modules like Innovation management and IPR management, spurring creative perspectives to value creation and how that value needs to be captured and protected. Expanding the programme focus into design thinking may very well be a future path of renewal.

Faced with the multitude of Executive MBA programme (re-)design options at hand, it feels reassuring to reflect on the quote David Shonthal shared with us, by chemist and double Noble laureate Linus Pauling: “To have a good idea, first have a lot of ideas”. We will try our best to.

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