Using “Action Strategy” to Transform a Business School

George Yip

George Yip is Emeritus Dean, Rotterdam School of Management Erasmus University; Professor of Management and Co-Director, Centre on China Innovation, China Europe International Business School; and Visiting Professor, Imperial College Business School.

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George Yip reports on his programme of action strategies to transform Rotterdam School of Management.

Professors of strategy and organisation behaviour teach that strategic transformation is best done through a formal programme involving many people in the organisation. But in seeking to transform Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, The Netherlands, from a primarily academic orientation to one that also values engagement with business, George Yip, a new dean brought in from outside, rejected a formal approach. Instead he successfully applied an “action strategy”.

As a long-time professor of strategy and former management consultant, I have taught, researched and applied programmes of strategic transformation. So when it became my turn to actually put this into practice as a dean, I rejected a formal programme of change in favour of what I now call “action strategy”. I realised that most faculty members resist change, and that a formal change process would generate a lot of talk and disagreement rather than action. Furthermore, as both an outsider and a foreigner, I doubted my ability to rapidly achieve change through persuasion in a national culture renowned for its emphasis on consensus gained through long discussions. I also had limited time, with a four-year contract before I would reach the mandatory retirement age. So I decided to begin a programme of strategic actions that, while not secret, did not involve much discussion or approval. I would not start by trying to change people’s views, but work instead on their behaviour. Richard Pascale, then of Stanford Business School, said: “It is easier to act your way into a better way of thinking than to think your way into a better way of acting.”

In thinking about the transformation process that we advocate for companies I noted three key differences between business and academia.

First, in business, organisation members can be rallied around the common objective of financial performance. In academia there is no common objective. Indeed, the most important disagreements in business schools are about what should be the objectives.

Second, in business, the leaders of the transformation effort usually have a large number of sticks and carrots to motivate alignment, including firing and promotion. In academia, the person most at risk of being fired is the dean. Indeed, during my years as Dean of RSM , three new deans of other top European business schools were all forced to resign within two years or less of their appointments. Third, even more than in companies, academia poses many institutional barriers to change. In addition, most organisational rituals and day-to-day routines reinforce an orientation to academic concerns rather than to engagement with business.

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