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Through the labyrinth

How to navigate the maze of teaching digital transformation, by Kyriakos Kyriakopoulos and Marina Gryllaki.

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In industry after industry, dominant, established firms face a tsunami of digital disruption with the odds typically against them. Firms initially snubbed digital disruption or at best grafted digital infrastructure onto their existing processes and systems. But, sooner rather than later, they discovered the uncomfortable reality of being overtaken by nimble, digital start-ups growing exponentially on a global scale.

Just as firms continue to grapple with how to embrace digital transformation, so now business schools puzzle how to teach it. So how can a business school and an MBA programme help firms survive the gales of digital transformation?

First, a key requirement is that an MBA programme goes beyond the bandwagon of superficial changes such as teaching digital skills and tools.

This is because firms embarking on digital transformation need to rethink their business systems, culture and values, and their strategy from scratch if they want to survive the digital challenge.

It is critical, therefore, that MBA programmes adopt an integrative perspective, one that cultivates both skills in digital technologies but, more importantly, a digital ethos in human resources. This digital mindset requires a curriculum that prioritises the teaching of, first, new leadership skills (creativity, servant mentality, agility, resilience) and, second, lean processes to support flexibility and willingness to cannibalise existing systems and procedures.

But it is not only the curriculum. The pedagogy is also at stake. With the fourth industrial revolution shrouded in uncertainty and ambiguity and therefore requiring experimental learning attitudes, MBAs need to pursue an immersive and extrovert learning approach.

Underneath the challenge of instilling a digital mindset, firms need to cope with paradoxical demands for both order and disruption of past success, efficiency and renewal, robust routines and agility, profitability and responsibility.

The traditional curriculum of the MBA, however, is lacking in teaching approaches that foster creative, disruptive thinking, improvisational action and experimentation, all essential to digital transformation in the workplace. The traditional focus of the MBA on analytical methods and knowledge (reflecting a bias to rational, analytic methods favoring incrementalism in current processes) can stifle a digital, disruptive mindset.

While the discussion is confined to adopting online or blended modes of delivery, at the same time we often overlook the need for MBA education to go beyond classroom experience and case studies in order to allow participants to dive into business problems, experiment with different options and learn their way out of the messiness of real problems.

In instilling an extrovert mindset, students can benefit from exposure to non-business disciplines (such as arts and philosophy) to address creatively emerging business dilemmas:

• How you balance the basic need for improving current procedures with the vital need for innovation and disruption?

• How can you develop synergies from simultaneous pursuing short-term efficiency and preparing for long-term competitiveness?

With paradox and tension lurking in business decisions today, managers can learn from non-business fields that face similar dilemmas and complexity. Though on the surface, they appear to be different, creative industries exhibit striking similarities that shed new light on the role of a manager. When exposed to music or painting, for example, students have the chance to experience a new lens to explore managerial trade-offs and decisions in today’s messy environments.

The remainder of this article focuses on a case study featuring the Eurobank MBA in Financial Services and exploring these issues in detail.

Begun in 2003, this AMBA-accredited, in-house MBA has educated more than 220 executives of Eurobank (a major private bank in Greece and the Balkans), making a significant contribution to the development of the bank’s human capital.

This customised programme has been a “natural habitat” for witnessing the evolving needs of the bank. For example, the latest intake’s final project proposals (sponsored by Eurobank units) revealed a fundamental shift of interest towards digital transformation from various different units of Eurobank (digital onboarding, voice of customer methodology in online platforms, online remedial loan services and so on).

It became apparent that the MBA programme has become subject to the very same dramatic challenges both ALBA and Greek banks have faced due to the financial crises of the last decade.

Fighting for its survival in an acute liquidity crisis in the Greek banking sector, Eurobank soon realised that its brutal cost savings in the initial phase of the crisis should give way to innovation and renewal.

The bank quickly re-framed the disruptive forces of the fintech revolution as a great opportunity to disrupt its legacy systems in both back-office and customer-facing processes. The aim of this radical change was to instill a transformative, digital ethos in its human capital who will be empowered to turn internal processes on their heads in seizing new digital technologies in banking.

In the words of the Head of the Learning Division at Eurobank, Stavroula Papadopoulou: “We needed a programme that would be digitally imbued, a vital part of Eurobank Digitalisation Strategy, aiming to reskill and retool a new generation of Eurobank leaders; a programme designed as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than just an opportunity to advance. And a programme that would aim to create new waves of disruptive growth, preparing Eurobankers for the future of work, cultivating adaptive learners with agile mindsets.”

In the process of redesign, the interaction of many stakeholders created an evolving learning journey for participants. The co-creation process between Alba and the customer, the bank’s training unit, has been increasingly iterative with feedback from ongoing students, alumni, faculty and bank managers suggesting new projects, extracurricular challenges and initiatives as well as dissemination and sharing of knowledge within their organisation.

The programme has therefore been organically “disrupted” by new ideas, insights and perspectives from its stakeholders to create a learning ecosystem. This pairs academic excellence with business acumen and corporate wisdom to create, serve and preserve a dynamic learning network and a hub for agility, innovation and adaptability to current needs. This continuous exploration and quest for innovation is built on a long tradition of collaboration and trust between the two organisations – the business school and the bank – that boosts value-creation through strategic learning. In translating, together with the Training Division, the new bank vision into training priorities, Alba has taken bold steps to renew the Eurobank MBA curriculum, affecting 60% of the programme, with new courses related to digital transformation.

A distinguishing feature of the redesign is that it is not confined to introducing digital courses (such as Digital Marketing, Big Data and Analytics) but it adopts a holistic approach: entirely new or revamped courses focus on a) leadership skills required in a digital age (Leadership Development: Agile and Creative leadership; Negotiations in a Digital Era) and b) entrepreneurial mindset (Agile Project Management, Lean Entrepreneurship, Design Thinking in Banking).

A second unique feature of the redesign is that the digital transformation (and in fact the entire programme) is customised to the needs of the bank in its effort to become digital and nimble (e.g., Lean Operations in Banking). A third feature relates to its pedagogical blueprint that fosters an immersive and extrovert problem solving. To achieve an immersive experience, students work in Eurobank-sponsored projects (in the course Lean Entrepreneurship, they set up new ventures linked to initiatives of various units in sync with the open innovation ecosystem of Eurobank, which includes its Hackathon initiative and a start-up incubator).

In instilling an extrovert mindset, students are exposed to non-business disciplines to address business dilemmas in an unconventional fashion. For example, in the course Digital Strategies for Financial Institutions students follow a workshop on improvisation and collaboration with a jazz band outside classroom to experience jazz music live. This workshop centres on how managers can derive lessons from jazz on co-ordination and agility in the face of serendipity. Students are exposed to creating music in real-time. In the process, they become aware of parallels between the role of a jazz band and a management team faced with surprises, learning in real-time outside of prior plans and seizing ephemeral opportunities.

Marina Gryllaki

Marina Gryllaki is Executive Development Director, Alba Graduate Business School, The American College of Greece, Athens, Greece

Latest posts by Marina Gryllaki (see all)

Kyriakos Kyriakopoulos

Professor Kyriakos Kyriakopoulos is Professor of Marketing and Strategy and Academic Director of Eurobank MBA in Financial Services, Alba, The American College of Greece.
Kyriakos Kyriakopoulos

Latest posts by Kyriakos Kyriakopoulos (see all)

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