When BusinessBecause caught up with Martin Boehm, the dean of IE Business School in Madrid, Spain was just emerging from two months of total lockdown. No meeting friends or loved ones; no exercising outdoors; and, of course, no face-to-face business school classes.
The school transitioned quickly online, delivering classes and community activities through a remote format.
But as Spain eases out of lockdown, Martin and IE are proceeding with cautious optimism—”The pandemic seems under control, but it's certainly not over," he says.
The impact on the way business schools deliver their programming could be long term, even permanent, and as such is demanding a radical rethink of how MBAs and similar courses should be delivered. For Martin, liquid learning might just be the answer.
MBA trends and the impact of COVID-19
Martin’s IE career stretches back to 2006, when he first joined the university as a marketing lecturer. He’s seen a steady rise through undergraduate and postgraduate programs at the school, before taking on the role of dean in 2017.
In this time, the business school landscape has undergone significant changes.
First and foremost, there has been a significant move towards internationalization, both in terms of the students and faculty. Many schools draw from a more diverse set of applicants to build true diversity in their programs—at IE, the MBA class is 93% international.
“Students are not only coming from Europe, but from all over the globe,” Martin says.
In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has presented a significant challenge. Latin America, where many of IE’s students come from, is experiencing the peak of pandemic some months after Europe, and its situation remains uncertain.
“Given our hypothesis that the situation might continue, certain parts of the world in lockdown might be affected by travel restrictions, and that could affect our students as well.”
The second major trend that Martin points to, however, presents something of a solution.
There has been a move towards online or blended (online and in-person) formats, a trend which predates COVID-19. At IE, this includes the Global Online MBA and an Executive MBA, both of which have blended formats.
Given the potential travel restrictions on international students, and indeed the uncertainty of whether IE’s campus will still open pending a second wave of the virus, online learning is becoming increasingly important.
“It might go back to full lockdown again, and we might have to switch back to fully online.”
Enter: liquid learning.
The need for liquid learning
The new liquid learning model, announced at IE University (and including the business school) aims to offer a solution to these challenges. Students will have the option to attend class either in-person or online, and the resources and experience available will be the same.
The word ‘liquid’ describes the adaptable approach that the school is trying to embrace. “It's about moving from one state to another, and just trying to figure out what is the best set up for learning and networking to take place.”
Certain changes have had to take place to incorporate these changes. Classrooms will be fitted out to become ‘hybrid’, with upgraded cameras and microphones to improve the experience for those attending remotely. Large screens will also be fitted so that those who are logging in online have a certain presence in the classroom.
There's already an example of this at IE. The WOW Room is a multimedia, interactive learning space, fitted out with screens to transport participants virtually into the classroom.
The outcome of this transformation, Martin hopes, is simple—”It becomes irrelevant if you are stuck in Bogota or New York, or here in Madrid,” Martin says. “You can attend class.”
The aim is also to make sure that the institution is better prepared for if, or when, the country has to go back into lockdown.
“What we have done is try to better understand what are some of the experiences which could take place online, and what needs to take place in a face-to-face setting,” Martin says.
Can teaching work as well online?
Part of this evaluation process has shown that certain things might work better online. Case study discussions, in which students discuss and debate business decisions based on real cases, could be one such example.
Martin ponders the time lost by students separating into groups, finding the right room, starting their discussion, being called back, and maybe delaying to go to the toilet or find a snack.
“Now we’ve realised with a click of a button, professors put them in the study groups, and with a click of a button, they come back,” Martin says.
Will some things be lost? Martin admits that not everything can be recreated online. Those spontaneous moments of chatting to someone after class, or bumping into someone at the bar, are a crucial part of networking, and are what makes the in-person format so important.
“This is why we have to stress liquidity,” he adds.
The relevance of MBAs
Serious changes will go beyond business school, and graduates entering the job market must be prepared for that.
“We are seeing that this current pandemic has really put to the forefront that certain skills were maybe not that important but have started emerging as more relevant.”
Human skills—like communication, empathy, and creativity—are decisively important, as leaders look to distinguish themselves from jobs which could easily be cut or afforded to machines to save money.
Critical thinking skills will remain equally important. “The challenges that we as managers will be facing are increasingly complex. It won't be enough to memorise or study decisions that have been taken in the past, and seeing what did and didn't work.”
All these make Martin emphatic about the value of an MBA in the current circumstances.
“As an individual, one of the best investments you can make is an investment in yourself, in your expertise, in your personal development.”
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