This year, I started my executive development education pathway through an MSc in Business (Leadership and Management Practice) in the Smurfit Business School which is located in Dublin, Ireland. The Smurfit Executive Development is top ranked according to international and prestigious rankings, including no. 1 in Ireland and 27th in Europe in the 2020 Financial Times Executive Education Rankings. And the Smurfit Business School is the only business School in Ireland with the triple crown accreditation (EQUIS (Europe), AACSB (US) and AMBA (UK).)
The start of this business school programme was online via a Diploma in Strategy, Development, and Innovation led by highly research active academics and great lectures. On the first couple of sessions which were online, there was awkwardness and ambiguity not only derived by the early stages of the pandemic (February and March) but also because of the natural challenges of online education. Although I am firm believer of online education, I needed it to experience it to be able to judge. Even though the academic and teaching staff were accompanied online by a programme manager, giving full support to the online implementation of the class and the session programme, it was still challenging to participate actively online given that everyone in particular the native English-speakers were also on the road!
The discussion of the cases and the learning materials via online, showed that debate and deliberation in online education can be achieve when having the required resources. I was happy to experience that because of the uncertainty of the future curves of Covid-19 cases in the months ahead.
Last weekend was held the first in-person session for this executive development programme. As expected, the Covid-19 pandemic dictated the new normality and new norms of interaction for in-person classes. Interactions that are strongly critical in a business school anywhere in the world: Networking.
I was gladly surprised. Every single health and safety measurement you think of were implemented on the Smurfit Business School during the two-day sessions. Antibacterial wet wipes and alcohol were spread out through out the campus. Even inside the classroom. After you enter or exit every door, and around the hang-out areas. A clear set of indications were sent in advance, including asking us to wear the masks at all times. In the classroom, there were clear indications of your assigned seating space which was separated by the two-meter rule from your immediate classmate. This distancing was also implementing in the break-out groups during discussions and teamwork. It was very unfortunate that because of Covid-19 we were not able to ‘hang-out’ on the Smurfit Campus (located in South Dublin, Ireland) which from what I have heard enjoys of amazing facilities and outstanding equipment.
Wearing a facemask at all time was particularly challenging, but it marks the implementation of the new normal. Speaking in another language over a mask was difficult. But precisely, wearing the mask all day, and communicating in another language over the mask, represent perhaps, some of the attributes that leadership must endurance, such as resilience and effectiveness.
At the beginning, I only wore the mask for health and safety reasons. But after the first day, I realised that the facemask has become in another clothing item as well. I saw this reflected in some very fashionable facemasks of some my colleagues. According to CNBC, The Telegraph and the BBC, fashion designers are now making fashion facemasks, pushing the industry and this item to be sold as fast as one thousand units per minute, and having online retailers at the centre of the discussion for having sold millions ($,€,£) through this item not as a protection but as fashion item. The revenue over these items are expected to be high, in particular for producers of fashion items, with all the infrastructure already in place.
Wearing a mask during the whole day in an executive education class was physically challenging, but it places more serious considerations in relation to leadership skills. Communicating ‘more clearly’ and in a more direct manner will also become the new normal. And soft skills as well as other social skills which were at once considered critical for leadership are now under serious questioning.
The ‘New Normal’ for education is still developing, still evolving. And the reality for business School is even more unclear. The business schools are still expected to offer best-class experiences. For educational institutions and in particular for business schools, the student experience journey -including the postgraduates and executive education- needs to meet the expectations from the audiences but also, needs to offer an unique experience not only online but also when in-person classes. For some, affording the space and resources to offer an outstanding experience is not an issue, yet the teaching experience, networking and social interactions are still expected to be part of this outstanding offering from a business School.
In my experience this weekend with Smurfit I was gladly surprised. Even with the uneasiness of the health and safety challenges places by Covid-19, the experience was decent, and the expectations were met. The networking opportunities, inherent when attending a business school, were presented even with wearing a facemask. And inside the classroom, debates, discussions, teamwork, and deliberations were also implemented respecting the social distancing measurements, something I was really waiting for.