Dean’s column: Jean-Pierre Helfer of Audencia Nantes School of Management on Jules Verne

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As a business school dean there are never enough hours in the day: in the morning you feel 20,000 leagues under the sea, by the afternoon it is as if you have travelled from the Earth to the moon, and the sleeping hours are often spent going around the world in 80 ... ideas.

Jules Verne would no doubt be delighted by this modern-day relevance of some of his most famous book titles and, I suspect, not in the least bit surprised. After all, in his novel Paris in the 20th Century, written in 1863 but published only in 1994, he predicts air conditioning, cars, the internet and television in forms uncannily similar to what we know today.

There can be little debate over his status as a visionary, but he was much more. When Verne’s father discovered that his son had chosen the less-than-secure profession of author, he stopped all of his funds.

With the sort of entrepreneurial verve we hope our students will go on to display in their careers, the young Jules Verne knuckled down as a stockbroker, earned his crust and also managed to see his first book published.

This combination of a business profession with a taste for the arts and culture also endears him to me.

I am a firm believer that managers, and deans, are better at their job if they are rounded people with healthy cultural interests outside their place of work: just the sort of profile we encourage students to develop at Audencia Nantes.

Verne was a humanist too, and a keen traveller, which are both attributes that would be a bonus for anyone running a 21st century school of management.

In addition, he was no academic slouch. He had a talent for philosophy, excelled in rhetoric and studied law before taking the literary route. He was even a wily local politician, which would have helped him develop skills useful for the contemporary dean.

To top it all, he was from Nantes, the home of my school. When I arrived in the city, with its Jules Verne museum and statue of the author as a young boy looking out from the heights of one of its hills, it was, for me, in a strange way more like a voyage of return than one of discovery.

My first contact with the author of the books that make up the famous Voyages Extraordinaires came as a boy by way of those magical stories of exploration and adventure that have prompted generations of children to read under the blankets by torchlight.

Those books had – and still do have – the power to transport you; so that the armchair becomes a raft, or the bed a balloon.

Reading these novels at a young age, it is this magic of escapism that keeps you turning the pages. As an older reader, though the spell still works, it is the man’s vision that strikes you most.

What is so impressive about Verne’s brand of “science fiction” (a genre he, along with HG Wells, can claim to have invented) is that it is grounded in the reality of his day.

Although he writes on space travel, monstrous tunnelling machines and the like, the technology used to create these marvels is very close to what the 19th century already had to hand. In this way, he is a visionary with a practical grasp of what is possible.

This is exactly what I try to do in my everyday life: live as if tomorrow were 10 years after, while also accepting today as yesterday’s tomorrow.

Though moon landings to business education may seem like a giant leap, Jules Verne’s vision is of a type that sits well with the dean of a management school.

Running an institution such as Audencia Nantes requires the vision to innovate whilst keeping a firm grasp on reality, thus, as one of our own slogans declares, “making sense of management”.

In this way, initiatives can be exciting, but do not belong to the realm of science fiction.

One example is the Euro*MBA itself – the e-learning programme run by a European consortium including Audencia.

When launched in 1996, its use of technology in the field of executive education on a global scale was something relatively new. Now e-learning is widespread, but the Euro*MBA still flourishes because it is grounded in the reality of today’s business world.

This is no long-distance qualification that leaves participants holed-up alone with just a mouse pad for company.

Instead, each year they attend three intensive weeks of study in different European cities; come face-to-face, interact, learn from each other and all feel the benefit.

Jules Verne would have approved. Not surprisingly, travel was one of his passions and he made numerous voyages on his yacht, stopping off in then-exotic ports such as Lisbon and Algiers while also sailing to not-so-exotic destinations such as Ireland and Norway.

As the great man himself said: “Travel enables us to enrich our lives with new experiences, to enjoy and to be educated, to learn respect for foreign cultures, to establish friendships, and above all to contribute to international co-operation and peace throughout the world.” I could not agree more.

What is not so well documented is the fact that he was a fervent activist for a distinct form of improved international communication.

As president of an Esperanto group, he sought to promote this new and universal language that he saw as a key to world harmony.

In this area, his visionary powers seem to have deserted him: Esperanto has not become the world’s preferred language.

However, the motivation behind his belief is one to which I as an individual, and Audencia Nantes as a school, aspire.

It goes without saying that Jules Verne did not become a business school dean. This is just as well, because if he had taken up such a post he would never have found the time to pen all those marvellous tales.

He does, however, have a permanent place in at least one modern-day management school: my own. Our library is named in honour of Phileas Fogg, globetrotting hero of that Verne masterpiece Around The World In Eighty Days.

Jean-Pierre Helfer is Dean of Audencia-Nantes School of Management

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