Gerry George has a 10-year plan. As dean of Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business, the professor of innovation and entrepreneurship is putting his academic expertise into practice in a bid to build a flagship Asian business school.
“Our goal over the next 10 years is to move us up to be a top 20 school in the world,” he says, “not just in the rankings but in the look and the feel and the quality.”
Prof George, the former deputy dean of Imperial College Business School and London Business School professor, is not the first leader to have a 10-year strategy, nor the first business dean in Europe or Asia to express aspirations of leapfrogging the established hierarchy. But with Prof George and SMU, there is a real sense that it might actually be achievable.
To begin with, though SMU was established just 15 years ago, it is located in the heart of the city state and has an endowment of S$1.4bn, a pot of gold unheard of at any top institution outside the US. Unlike Singapore’s other two local business schools, at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technical University, SMU is independent rather than government run, giving it a degree of autonomy.
Growth will be central to Prof George’s strategy. Already the business school alone — one of six schools at the university — has 4,000 students and 125 academic staff, with plans to grow the latter to 160 in the short term.
Most students today are undergraduates, so there is the stipulation that 90 per cent of the class has to be Singaporean. But with the growth in postgraduate programmes, such as finance, wealth management, innovation and human capital — as well as the MBA and Executive MBA — this is set to change.
Engaging and infectiously enthusiastic, Prof George is already completing the first year of his 10-year reign. Central to his philosophy is the belief that there is a place for Asian business schools that have expertise in the Asian market. Even though the business school was established with the help of the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, he vehemently wants the Lee Kong Chian school to be a regional school, rather than an offshoot of a US institution.
“We have to embrace our Asian identity,” he says. “Why would you be in Asia if you don’t want to be part of it?”
Negotiating across cultures and faith is all part of the remit, he says. “We don’t have to be Asian in our ethnicity, but we have to be Asian in our beliefs. We need to embed ourselves in our context, and be a big part of the community.”
The goal, he says, is to “make ourselves the best Asian business school”.
Though he eschews the US model for business education, Prof George, who is also editor of the Academy of Management journal in the US, points out that the school has adopted many pedagogical techniques pioneered in North America and Europe. Most noticeably these include small class sizes and the case study method — a far cry from many Asian universities that rely on large-scale lectures.
But the school’s commitment to the region runs deep, and the skills needed by those working in Singapore specifically, and Asia more generally, are what drive Prof George’s 10-year strategy.
“We don’t think about degrees, we think about skills,” he explains. “Our current mode of education is based on experiences. If you focus on skills, you get a different discussion.”
Analytical, presentation and logic skills all need considering, he says, as the thirst for big data grows. This will result in a more individualised approach to education.
“Right now we bundle, but we are going to have to unbundle and concentrate on skills, and then we will personalise education.” That will be the basis for building the degree format, he believes, with courses also aligned with professional qualifications.
Today, the Lee Kong Chian school has just 50 MBA students, with a similar number on the EMBA — the MBA for senior working managers. There are also 50 students on the pre-experience Masters in Management programme, but Prof George believes the enrolment on this programme will double in the next three to five years. “In Asia I think that is a huge area for growth.”