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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Rapidly changing business landscape puts new onus on MBA curriculums

More MBA [graduates] going into entrepreneurship, creating their own start-ups or getting into senior entrepreneurial positions at big companies

François Ortalo-Magné, the dean of London Business School, at the Dubai LBS campus. He says MBA curriculums have had to adapt to the digitisation and entrepreneurial revolutions that are changing the face of global commerce. Reem Mohammed/The National
François Ortalo-Magné, the dean of London Business School, at the Dubai LBS campus. He says MBA curriculums have had to adapt to the digitisation and entrepreneurial revolutions that are changing the face of global commerce. Reem Mohammed/The National

Francois Ortalo-Magne, the newly-installed dean of the UK's prestigious London Business School (LBS), is well aware of the impact of disruptive technologies on business and business education.

He says curriculums have changed significantly for business students since the 1990s - often referred to as the “golden age of MBAs” as sectors like finance and management consultancy boomed - with the digital revolution shaking up every aspect of commerce worldwide.

“There is definitely a sense that finance is no longer the main [draw] for our MBA [students] ... now you get more of the disruptors applying for MBAs - from the digital platforms,” he tells The National, speaking at the LBS Dubai campus , which celebrates its 10th anniversary in December, in the Dubai International Financial Centre.

“Consulting does remain strong but what we see is more MBA [graduates] going into entrepreneurship, trying to create their own start-ups or getting into senior entrepreneurial positions within major corporations. There has been a diversification.”

With regards to the digital aspect of MBA education, Mr Ortalo-Magne says the emphasis today is on enabling the leaders of the future to understand the rapidly changing commercial landscape.

“Our aim is to better educate them of the world around them and how digitisation is shifting the context and shifting the way we relate to one and other.

“Interestingly, we [also] see students coming in with those [digital] skills already, what they are coming to us for is the managerial aspect - moving from the engineer who develops these platforms to the ones that lead and develop the company and get the funding and make things happen.”

Another major change in LBS's teaching, he says, is how MBA students are encouraged to take experimental risks – and experience failures – in an adaptable but safe environment.

That, he says, helps create space for what the school calls “playful experimentation”.

“I like this word 'playful',” says the dean. “There is an alumn in Kuwait who told me he learned so much about how to listen through this playful experimentation, in a way that was so different from his business experience - and he brought that back to his executive team."

Another main plank of the LBS offering is learning to understand why things happen and the school’s research facilities play a major role in developing these insights.

“From our researchers [students] can get a better sense of causality versus correlation - in today’s world, understanding when things happen by happenstance versus what happens as a result of [something specific]; what caused what. [Understanding that] I think is really important for the student,” he says. “So by giving [students] the right perspective and mindset I hope by the time they graduate they ask some great questions, which is even more important than that they have great answers.

“With us one of the big differences is ... with our 2-year MBA, the first year is still that grinding learning experience but the second is much more about exploring different electives [sectors] - an opportunity to find yourself.

“But electives are evolving all the time. For example, fintech is something we talk about now whereas 10 years ago no one knew the word,” he adds.

And the dean points out that entrepreneurship, especially in the UAE and wider GCC, is of ever-increasing relevance to students and faculties alike.

“Entrepreneurship is important in this region and, in fact, on Saturday in Dubai we are holding our first event for entrepreneurs [the LBS Entrepreneurship Evening] with panel discussions with leading corporations taking part.” Very much at the top of the agenda will be digitisation and the disruption of the economy, he says.

“We have a thriving committee of alumni here who engage in entrepreneurship in sectors including education, which of course is very dear to this region. It’s actually quite stunning to see how entrepreneurial our alumni are in the region,” Mr Ortalo-Magne says.

LBS is also proactive when it comes to helping to develop student or graduate start-ups that show a definite commercial viability. But is the issue of ownership one that must be addressed?

“It’s a really good question, and we deal with it all the time,” Mr Ortalo-Magne says. “What we do is always complementary to the private market, particularly in a place like Dubai - it’s not like the private market is not working well - what we provide is mentorship, and connections with alumni.

“It happens that we have alumni that are particularly interested in investing in alumni ventures so there will be help.” That, he says, is due to the fact that there is a high level of implicit trust within the LBS alumni family, “the same way you find trust within family conglomerates here”.

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In fact, LBS is directly involved with developing and investing in students' and former students’ businesses.

We have a fund called Sussex Place Ventures that’s being run by alumni with a preference towards investing in alumni," Mr Ortalo-Magne says. Sussex Place Ventures is an early-stage venture capital investor which backs entrepreneurs building software and digital companies, and businesses with strong patent-protectable technology. It invests initially up to £1 million (Dh4.8m) per venture.

“Alumni have come together to create that fund where it is officially owned by the school but it is independent. They run the fund and they invest in each other. So that’s like a formal structure but there are also informal ways in which they help one and other," says Mr Ortalo-Magne.

“One of our alumni, Savio Kwan, was one of the first executives at Alibaba, for example, so you can imagine how much the other alumni talk to him about investing in start-ups.”

Today, the big buzzword in business is disruption but some wonder if that is always a good thing. While Mr Ortalo-Magne admits there are hazards, he says there is much to be gained from the combination of technological progress and new understanding of the way we learn.

“I see [disruption] as a positive but it is always a challenge. What I like about ... disruption in technology today, in education, is it comes at a time of great progress in understanding how learning works within the brain,” he says. "It’s a fantastic opportunity to come forward with new approaches to learning that are better - not just digitisation per se."

"I do believe at LBS we have unique card to play because of the strength of the research at our faculty - we can help people with different perspectives, different mindsets, which is complementary to the knowledge that you get from video, the internet.”

In addition to creating new approaches to management training, Mr Ortalo-Magne has, in part through his stint as the Dean of the University of Wisconsin’s Madison Business School, developed a reputation for fundraising innovation.

“The big shift that I have contributed to in my leadership positions is moving away from fundraising simply based on [alumni] loyalty,” he says, while stressing that such an approach is still important.

Increasingly he has helped forge fundraising efforts based on a wider strategy, “in the sense that it is understanding you are part of a community making a difference to the world and you want to invest in that because you want to contribute to the world”.

Such an approach is well suited to the Middle East, says Mr Ortalo-Magne.

“In this region you have governments who are in many ways investing public money into making a difference, not only the UAE but the wider region. There are really interesting initiatives to create online videos, or translate online videos for the whole Arab world. That’s very similar to the philanthropy that I’m talking about - how can we work together for others.

“You [an alumni] invest in a business school also because it helps with your own brand and because you’re proud to see your school have an impact on the world around you. It’s really moving towards philanthropy as an investment in growing prosperity and the brand of your company. Here [in this region] it is moving towards investing public money into the brand of the country."

While business management is, of course, about running an operation in a commercially successful manner, the growth of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is now an important factor in both MBA education and the wider world, says Mr Ortalo-Magne.

“I think it has become essential,” he says, adding that, as an economist by training, he advocates that firms should maximise profits - but, crucially, that should happen while government is providing the needs of the people, “infrastructure, economic support, environmental protection et cetera”.

However, he points out, today we are living in a world where governments are having real difficulties and many, especially in the West, are not delivering on the provision of public good.

“So when a government is no longer doing this role of aggregating people’s preferences and regulating the economy for the benefit of all - bringing this together for the common good - then who’s going to do it?” Mr Ortalo-Magne says.

This is where CSR becomes a critical aspect of company strategy, he adds.

“That is why today, particularly, many of those giant corporations are becoming socially responsible because they are realising if no one else is doing it they are the ones who can step up.

“I think that’s great for us all that those major corporations are thinking in this way and I think at LBS we want to be the school that trains leaders for the perspective, the mindset for understanding how [CSR] is important and can make a difference.

“We are a faculty at the forefront of research into corporate social responsibility - with hard-nosed results as to how good it is for a corporation to be socially responsible - so we train students to participate in the global conversation directly and [use] our research to bring in the data."

So, in this fast-changing and accelerating world of business leadership, what would be the Dean’s advice be to those considering training to become a leader? It is, perhaps, a surprisingly simple answer.

“Listen," he says. "Listen.”