Business Education Reform: Learning as Change

Vlerick Business School’s dean, Marion Debruyne, on business education learning and change

The world of business education is changing quickly. Technology makes it possible to move the learning experience out of the classroom and onto the internet. It opens up a plethora of possibilities to create learning through MOOC’s, SPOC’s, online platforms, etc. But while we are looking to find the answer to what the technological future holds for business education, have we lost track of the real question? Have we become too focused on the technology, and forgotten what learning is really about?

We indeed no longer need a classroom to transfer information. And executives are indeed no longer satisfied with listening to experts deliver content in lengthy presentations. Rather, they want to be engaged in the learning process of acquiring new knowledge as active participants of a learning journey.

Learning and change - a question of mindset

People don't resist change. They resist being changed.” 
Peter Senge(a senior lecturer in leadership and sustainability at MIT Sloan)

"The solutions created today won't be the ones needed for tomorrow," says Vlerick's dean, Marion DebruyneLearning, innovation and change are closely entwined in today’s business vocabulary. Yet they carry different notions depending on the perspective of how the words are used. If ‘teaching’ equals ‘learning’, it can be understood as a one-way process that, in theory, a teacher could do without anyone listening. True learning is an active process that requires the attention of the learner. We cannot force learning upon someone. Similarly, ‘change’ cannot be imposed on people, but needs their active engagement. While, in business education, there are many things we can teach about innovation models and techniques, it is vital to nourish the culture of learning. If people resist new ideas, it is a lot harder to bring new innovations to life. When people take charge of their own learning process, development and change, they can innovate and produce extraordinary results.

“The heart of our work is no longer knowledge, it is transfer”

So what does this mean in practice? How do we walk the talk?

At Vlerick, our role as a business school has evolved from being focused on the transfer of knowledge (or knowledge transfer) from faculty to participants to being focused on the crafting of powerful change experiences. This radically impacts our work because the heart of our work is no longer knowledge, it is transfer: The capacity to apply the knowledge to the different contexts that our participants are facing. Our work does not end when participants understand a new concept. They need to be able to apply these concepts to ultimately create their own solutions.

Coming up with one great idea is not enough. The solutions created today won't be the ones needed for tomorrow. This means not focusing on quick fixes, but on building the capacity to learn and constantly find new solutions to challenges. This is what lies at the core of the work of an executive – the capacity for innovation and change. At the end of the day, a business school is not a consultancy so, for example, we don’t create the answers for clients who enrol in our executive edcuation programs. But we have a pedagogical choice between delivering teaching and facilitating learning. Which one do you think will improve business performance more?

Towards better learning

Here are three elements we have found useful in accelerating learning as change at Vlerick Business School:

1. Make the learner the star of the learning process

Whereas teaching puts the professor at the core of the process, learning is where the participant is the focal point. Faculty and staff are only the architect and facilitator of this process.

2. Embed action into the learning process

Learning is visible in the application of new knowledge and new insights. It is visible in the action that individuals and organizations take as they learn. It is visible in the action and initiatives to improve things and explore new opportunities. Learning is a process of trial and error, of experimentation and recalibration, of testing ideas and reflecting on the outcome. This requires that action is not postponed till after the learning, but should be an integral part of it. 

3. Create a risk-free environment of learning

As learning requires action, the learning journey should also embed the attitude of entrepreneurship, the courage to stretch out of the comfort zone, and the risk to apply something new. So it is important that the learning journey creates an environment that encourages action, but also provides a safety net. Powerful learning journeys create a risk-free environment for the first trials of new knowledge, to facilitate the jump towards the non-risk-free real world.

This article has been coauthored by Eliza Hochman, senior learning and development consultant with Vlerick’s Executive Education Centre.

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