‘Digitalisation helps with learning, even at a business school’

Source: Management Scope (11-04-2019); Interviewer: Jurgen van Weegen - Author: Emely Nobis

Even Vlerick Business School cannot escape digitisation. The dean, Marion Debruyne, tells us that the use of technology and the launch of online MBAs calls for introspection: ‘The challenge is to give online education the same depth as traditional learning. And how do you actually build up a relationship with the person on the other side of the screen?’

We have our conversation in the imposing building occupied by the Belgian holding company Ackermans & Van Haaren (involved in activities such as dredging) in Antwerp. That is a practical choice, because Marion Debruyne needs to be here later on anyway for a meeting of the supervisory board. Besides her role as the dean of Vlerick Business School, she has a total of three supervisory positions. Other Vlerick professors also have secondary roles of this kind. Debruyne explains: ‘Involvement in thinking about strategy and the challenges a business faces and participation in decision-making yields a vast cross-pollination of ideas. Besides helping us to keep our minds on theory, it keeps our feet firmly rooted in practice. We take that experience back with us to executive teaching and the programmes we develop. Conversely, we bring a helicopter perspective to the boardroom. As a business school, we create customised programmes for companies and often work together with managers. We have access to all kinds of sectors and companies, and we see what organisations are struggling with and how they tackle their difficulties. So we do not occupy the position of theoreticians or academics in the boardroom. On the contrary, we have a broad knowledge and experience of what goes on in businesses: we can draw parallels and find connections.’

As well as MBA programmes, Vlerick Business School offers pre-experience masters degrees and a wide range of business programmes. If you try to fast forward ten years into the future of management programmes, what does the situation look like?

‘I’d prefer to look at it the other way round: to go back ten years and see what the world was like then. Airbnb and Uber had only just begun and were far from being businesses with billions in market capitalisation. It goes without saying that there will be more gigantic changes in the coming ten years, but it is a bit like driving in fog: we know we need to move forward but the way is not entirely clear. That will sound familiar to any company leader. We will just have to see what direction things take.

One of the big issues is digitisation. We need to incorporate its impact on businesses into our programmes, but also apply it to ourselves and the way we teach. Last year, for example, we launched an online MBA to enable participants to follow the programme flexibly without having to come to the campus at set times. The challenge with that is to ensure that digital education has the same impact and depth as traditional learning.’

Does the digitisation of education mean more than putting all the information online and making online films of classes?

‘That is exactly what we are not doing. Our education is highly interactive and hands-on. For that reason, we also use elements such as digital role play, simulations, exercises and interactive videos online. Participants work at their own pace during the week, but we have synchronous sessions at the weekend when everyone logs in and we can all see each other on screen. The professor acts as a coach in this process, who can respond actively to what people have done in the preceding week, offer tips or draw attention to something that the whole group has neglected.

So it is a very active way of learning that goes far further than the pure transfer of knowledge. You can transmit information in many different ways: that is not the value that digital education adds. Similarly, you don’t learn to drive just by reading the manual. Teaching someone to drive means sitting beside them, correcting and coaching them.

As a business school, we believe that we have only succeeded if participants do something with the knowledge they have gained: start a project, achieve something new at their company or initiate a process of change. You can read as much as you like and have mountains of knowledge, but the challenge lies in putting it all into practice.’

How does your organisation keep up with the underlying technology for online education and how do you make choices in that area?

‘I have set up the VLIC, or Vlerick Learning Innovation Centre, within the school: a centre of expertise in the field of digital learning that acts as our antennae. The VLIC investigates which technology can offer solutions and how, and it helps our professors with the digital transformation, because although they are open to it, they find it challenging. So did I. When I am talking to a group, I gesticulate a lot and put my whole body into it, as it were. So if you suddenly have to sit in front of a screen, teaching becomes a whole different skill and you really have to think about how you can still get the intended effect and build up a relationship with the person on the other side.

Something else the VLIC does - and maybe that is its most important task - is to ask: if technology is the answer, what is the question? After all, I sometimes see us getting hung up on all the technological possibilities but forgetting to ask how we can use that to create value for our customers. In our case: how can we learn to generate even more impact with the help of technology? We always need to keep that question in mind, because otherwise we will just be grabbing at fancy tools that don’t contribute anything.’

If we apply that to the online MBA: where is the added value? It’s great that students have a flexible way to fit learning into their lives, but are you also achieving the desired depth and impact?

‘At any rate we are noticing that the technology enables us to observe and monitor far better. We often put people in groups to discuss a case in our programmes on campus. Because you can’t be present in all the groups at once, what they are discussing is more or less invisible. If we create groups in a digital environment, however, those things are visible and traceable. That means we can focus far more specifically on the discussions and dialogues.

Another benefit is that we can see whether participants have opened their documents at home, how long they spent working on them and whether they have done the exercises. It’s not that we watch them like some kind of Big Brother, but this does lead to more accountability for the person taking the study programme. If there are fifty people in an MBA group, you can hide a bit. Our experience to date has been that that is harder in a digital environment.’

So your first experiences have been positive. Vlerick Business School currently has four campuses: three in Belgium and another in Beijing. Will they become obsolete if the digitisation of learning continues?

‘It is a question I have raised at the school. But I do believe that we will end up offering both options in the long term. Digitalisation is helpful in lifelong learning, because people find it far easier to integrate education into their daily lives. On the other hand, we live in a society where we are constantly being bombarded with information. In fact I always have three screens with me: my laptop, phone and iPad. It is all very fragmented, fast and fleeting, which leads to a great need to turn everything off now and again and switch to deep thinking. People sometimes opt very consciously for a programme on campus so that they can really immerse themselves in a topic without constant distraction. That enables them to buy time for themselves, and also time to seek connection with other participants and share experiences. They see that as an enrichment.

Digitalisation offers us many opportunities and it has added value for the participants, but digital education is complementary to non-digital education and will certainly not be the only form that survives. Our Masters students, the 22 and 23 year olds, make me feel more certain of that. The Masters Programme Manager wanted everyone to put all their screens away during classes, so that students would be actively focused on what was going on in the classroom. Because I want to embrace the digital world, I didn’t actually agree, but I thought it was a good thing to try. When I asked the student representatives a while back how they felt about it, I was surprised by their enthusiasm. They didn’t find it annoying at all, because the volatility and continuous stream of information is a source of great stress to young people. They sometimes deliberately choose to study together in the library as a way of exercising collective self control.’

MBAs used to be the crowning glory of business schools. But now you see that the market for them is declining and the big MBA factories, as I might irreverently refer to them for a moment, are not as highly valued as they used to be. How do you explain that?

‘Times have changed, that’s all there is to it. You used to get your university degree and if you went on to do an MBA after that, it was a one-way ticket to senior management. We need to leave that idea behind. An MBA can be very valuable, but in a rapidly changing world no one can keep on living off knowledge and insights they might have gained as much as 20 years ago. So we take a more relative view now. If you want to keep on leading, you have to keep on learning.’

How do you apply lifelong learning yourself? How do you keep sharp and alert?

‘Last year we created a digital programme for our own staff, on the themes of learning and the science of learning. What goes on in the brain when you are learning, and what does that mean? All members of staff could join in, so I did. It was interesting to explore the very core of what we do here: facilitating learning. At the same time, I was able to experience for myself what it is like to be a student again and get digital education while you are sitting on your cross-trainer. It turns out that the two are a great combination.

I believe it is important to my development that I remain an academic as well as the dean. So I consciously make time for reading and writing. I write a monthly column and the second, updated edition of my book Customer Innovation, with new examples and case studies, has just come out. These things keep me on track as well.’

We have talked about the rapidly changing times and increasing digitisation. What are the consequences of that for leadership today?

‘When we consider digitisation, we are inclined to talk about technology, but besides that it really does lead to a turnaround in the type of leadership we need. The age of the CEO who knows it all, draws up a five-year plan and puts it into action through the hierarchical chain of command is past. We need more participative leadership that is able to mobilise bottom-up initiatives and utilise their strength.

When I became dean four years ago, I built up our strategy in a succession of small steps, with lots of dialogue and input from the people here. I often had to tell myself that I didn’t need to have the answer. My task is to challenge the organisation to keep experimenting, learning and innovating. When Mark Zuckerberg revealed his new vision for Facebook at the beginning of March, he said several times: “We don’t have all the answers yet.” He provided broad points of reference, such as the shift from the digital village square into the digital living room, but not what exactly that digital living room would look like. If people look to you for answers, you need to have the confidence and guts to say that you know what the right direction is, but you don’t yet have all the answers.’

So we are looking at a new kind of primus inter pares: a leader among equals with extra tasks but not with extra privileges. Are you succeeding in fulfilling that role?

‘I wouldn’t dare claim that I have attained perfection. A role like this demands that you have the courage to show vulnerability. You have to learn that. I do hope, at least, that people are never afraid to contradict me and put forward arguments that prove me wrong. Conversely, I hope that I am still open to other perspectives and remain prepared to let others convince me of their standpoints.’

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