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Five years ago, when I became dean of Nottingham University Business School, the inclination among many of my students to view me as a dinosaur was not only painfully manifest, but entirely understandable. After all, the vast majority of undergraduates are in their late teens, whereas I am, well, comfortably past that particular milestone.
What is much more obvious to me now, as I hand over the reins to my successor, is the speed at which we all risk becoming “out of date”. Each of us might continue to contribute very effectively, yet the truth is that most of us soon find ourselves, to some extent, removed from the cutting edge of technology and development.
As someone whose research has long focused on innovation and creative problem-solving, I consider this one of the most perturbing issues I encountered during my deanship. I also believe it is one that deans have a duty to address. It is a concern pertinent to business schools everywhere, because it is illustrative of a worrying acceleration in the uncertainty of students’ future requirements.
I had responsibility for around 2,000 students in the UK, as well as oversight of another 3,200 within the business schools at the University of Nottingham’s campuses in China and Malaysia. Steering the curriculum so that it would best meet their needs in terms of content and delivery was among the most important elements of my remit.
As I increasingly came to appreciate, this is no easy task for any dean. A major hurdle – and I know from attending conferences that the successes and shortcomings with which I became familiar are shared by deans the world over – is the disconnect between one’s own experiences and the environment that students are preparing to face.
This detachment exists even where the rise to deanship, unlike my own, has been meteoric. The pace of transformation is nowadays so rapid, so relentless, that the struggle to remain genuinely relevant to the “real world” is constant. Even many students may find that by their mid-twenties they are slightly distanced from the new actualities confronting teenagers. Dinosaurs are getting younger.
How do business schools guard against this threat? Needless to say, complacency is not an option. A dean’s most significant contribution to the cause may well be to demonstrate that a truly meaningful culture of change, adaptation and improvement – as opposed to mere rhetoric – must start at the top and be all-encompassing.
Alternative perspectives are vital in this regard. Although, I felt authoritative confidence should be a crucial component of my leadership, I surrounded myself with a close team whose members were sufficiently self-assured and curious to provide me – and each other – with much-needed reality checks.
Similarly, the advice, perceptions and outlooks of those from beyond academia can be of enormous worth. In some ways this is the very essence of creative problem-solving: the acknowledgment that answers lurk everywhere. The chances are that every one of us, even if unwittingly, has dealt with a difficulty by redefining it in more expansive terms, discovering an analogous instance where it has been overcome and tailoring the solution to suit our circumstances. There is much to be said for shifting from the specific to the general and back again.
It is also essential that academics continue to teach. It is not uncommon for senior staff to feel their research eminence somehow absolves them of this commitment, at least as far as undergraduate teaching is concerned. Some have lost confidence in their own abilities; others have forgotten the huge value of such work. The more you isolate yourself from the student population, the likelier you are to be seen as a dinosaur.
Perhaps above all, though, business schools would do well to remember the power of radical innovation. I have long believed this, even when I was confined to weighing in with supposedly wise words from the safety of the sidelines, and half a decade on a loftier perch has only reinforced my opinion. I have been able to see much more clearly how business schools serve their students and their stakeholders. I can only conclude that the vast potential afforded by radical innovation remains greatly unexplored and underexploited.
The fact is that the university sector as a whole is stuck in a rut of incrementalism. Multidisciplinary collaborations – not the neatly aligned alliances that proliferate today but imaginative unions that might substantially add to our epistemic base and reshape our overall approach – represent a route out of that rut. Business schools too easily overlook how strongly placed they are to take a lead in championing the radical over the risk-averse.
Of course, most of us will still become dinosaurs eventually. Such a fate is to some degree inescapable in a world of ceaseless change, irrespective of age, experience and attitude. But accepting the near-inevitable bestowing of personal Jurassic status is one thing; openly inviting mass extinction is quite another.
Martin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and a professor of entrepreneurial development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.