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by Rajan Saxena
Indian Management June 2021

The post-COVID world, with its new paradigms, has necessitated reimagination and reset of industry operations. Management schools too need to rethink the future of management education and curate a new programme which is skills-based and develops graduates employable and who know how to be at peace with themselves and society.

Today, the world is disrupted by two significant forces technology and COVID 19 - which challenges human imagination and capabilities to fight back. The severity of the ongoing pandemic together with governance failure is felt far and wide across regions, demographics, and socioeconomic sections of the population. While COVID has hit the entire global population and world economy, its impact is felt much more severely in developing nations and densely populated emerging nations like India. Given the heightened uncertainty post the second wave in India, it is not surprising that anxiety and hope today battle each other. It is now certain that institutions, policies, and processes need a reset, and education is no exception to this.

Faced with the suddenness and the gravity of COVID in March 2020, higher education institutions were forced to close their campuses and send students, faculty, and staff back home. There was uncertainty over the duration of the lockdown and what was to be done to prevent the academic term getting washed out. In such a scenario, transitioning to digital mode was the only alternative. For institutions digitalising their academic processes such as course design, delivery, student assessment, internships, and student engagement were challenges.

Management education, nay higher education itself, needed (and still needs) reimagination, innovation, and integration of changes in industry, society, and technology in a postCOVID world.

Impact of Covid

  • Unemployment grows, income declines
    The overall unemployment rate in India, based on moving average of 30 days, was 8.2 per cent as of May 10, 2021. The urban unemployment rate at 10.5 per cent was higher than rural which stood at 7.1 per cent. Further, 230 million individuals additionally fell below the national minimum wage level in 2020-21. To maintain income, many employed in formal sector moved to informal sector. Women were the worst losers and so were the low-income daily wage earners. This might also have increase the dropout rate in higher education, leading to the demand for lowering of fees and deferred payment terms.

  • Work from home
    Since the outbreak of COVID, more people took to working from home—a new normal that will characterise work life. 74 per cent of 317 CFOs, business, and finance leaders expected at least 5 per cent of their workforce, who previously worked in company offices, to permanently work-from-home even after the pandemic ends. TCS, India’s largest technology company, has announced that post COVID, up to 2025, it will ask a majority (75 per cent) of its 4.48 lakh employees globally (including 3.5 lakh in India) to work from home, up from the industry average of 20 per cent today.

    Virtual teams are now a reality. Learning to collaborate and work together on projects as a team in different locations is now an accepted part of work life. Though remote working increases productivity and reduces attrition, employees are likely to feel more alienated or disconnected compared to onsite employees. Leading such teams requires strong communication skills, expertise in goal setting, and defining performance parameters.

  • Time and geography no barriers to learning
    Just as work from home gained wider acceptance in the industry, education and training also went digital. This was essential as campuses remained closed since March 2020. As mentioned above, though initially it was to ensure that learning continued, it was also to ensure that the academic community remained safe. Technology now helped institutions to reach out to student markets which it could not in a campus based education model. It thus provided an opportunity to expand capacity without having to incur additional cost on physical infrastructure.

    Learning at home or anywhere and at any time gave students a greater degree of flexibility. Asynchronous technologies like YouTube or institution website/portal helped overcome digital infrastructure constraints and ensured effective learning, as students could go back and forth on a lecture and post queries to the faculty or the group. At the same time, they could also attend the lecture in real time.

    The faculty challenge in digital model is validating student learning and certifying the extent to which learning outcomes have been achieved. But the social value of learning has got missed. Students have expressed on multiple forums that one of their motivations to join universities or management institutions is peer learning. Technology tools like virtual reality are now in the experimentation stage to provide social experience.

  • Collaboration grows
    One of the most significant effect of Covid and digital adoption is the growth in collaboration among faculty within and other institutions both in India and outside. It is also now possible to get industry personnel and thought leaders to share their experiences with the cohort. The value of learning can today get expanded by integrating industry and global practices. And this can be a visual experience provided by experts. Interdisciplinary learning can now be a reality in India.

  • Digital adoption will grow
    As mentioned earlier, despite the infrastructure gap, digitalisation of economy gained momentum since the 2020 lockdown. In higher education, there has been an exponential growth in new enrolments in MOOCS as reported by Coursera which saw 6000 per cent growth in fresh enrolments in their courses. The demand was fuelled by universities going online to cope with the campus closure. The payment mode also increasingly transitioned to digital options. Pricing was now unit-based and chargeable only on certification.

  • Social distancing
    Maintaining social distance is now accepted as good safety norm. This, together with work from home, has led to a feeling of alienation, thus contributing to mental health issues, especially among the youth.

Life post COVID
The world may not return to a pre-pandemic era. Work practices and consumption patterns would have changed. The pendulum is now shifting. Most expect economic recovery, though not full-fledged, only in 2022. A study of top 500 US CEOs concluded that recovery will be in 2022 and another 27 per cent believed it could be in 2023. 72.6 per cent believed that employment will be less compared to January 2020. 52 per cent CEOs believed that business travel will no more be the same.75 per cent said that the pandemic accelerated their companies’ technological transformation. The same was true for higher education where university faculties and students rapidly took to the digital medium, even as its limitations emerged.

Thus, though, the post-pandemic environment looks hazy, it will have firms and institutions accelerating their pace of technological transformation. Risks related to customer loss, business continuity, demand collapse, and employee safety are only likely to be enhanced. In higher education, all three models—online, hybrid, and campus-based learning—will simultaneously be in vogue. The student would have the freedom to choose any one or all modes of learnings.

The era of reskilling and upskilling
As organisationl functions automate, it will be necessary for employees to reskill or upgrade their skills—technological, managerial, and interpersonal—that will augment customer experience and improve efficiency. The World Economic Forum report on Future of Jobs categorised skills into seven groups: process skills, technical skills, complex problem-solving skills, systems skills, social skills, resources management skills and content skills.

Reconfiguration of learning experience
The pandemic has hastened the need to reconfigure students’ learning experience. Management schools, worldwide, took to digital medium to deliver their courses and conduct examinations, even in the midst of limitations of digital technology. Yet student experience with online education was mixed. Even South Asian management schools adopted technology to deliver courses and engage students digitally. But challenges such as the digital divide in the society, partly due to gaps in IT and energy infrastructure and partly because of non-affordability of devices, have constrained institutions to deliver the desired learning experience. In addition, problems of student attentiveness, screen fatigue of both faculty and student, malpractices in examinations, and online validation of learning still challenge faculty. Hence institutions and faculty need to revisit their learning models in all three modes.

Management education
As mentioned above, workplaces and jobs are rapidly changing. Many jobs will not exist, while most will have parts that will be replaced by technology. Hence, management education should focus on development of core skills, irrespective of the course or programme pursued by the student. These core skills are:

  • Creativity;
  • Logical reasoning;
  • Problem sensitivity and analysis;
  • Decision making;
  • Conceptualisation;
  • Resilience.

In more specific terms, the new age management programme will need to focus on knowledge, performance and uncertainty management skills. Chart 1, below gives an outline of this new age management programme.

Refocus management programme
The programme’s focus has to be on resources, process, and uncertainty management. Resources here refer to the entire suite of human, financial, technological and other physical resources. Given the uncertainty today, firms’ focus will be on conserving resources and also improving their efficiency. In all such situations, the management’s task will be to ensure business continuity.

Supply chain risk assessment and management also needs to be part of the resources and process management. Talent management will be crucial as current competencies of employees rapidly become obsolete. Keeping them safe at all times and ensuring that the workplace environment is safe will be important. Communicating with them on a regular basis for work and their wellbeing will only assure employees that they are not lonely in these times. Hence, from the education perspective, safety management, disaster management, people management including skills of empathy, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness need more attention in management schools. Technology is no more supplementary to the corporate functioning; rather it is at the core of strategy and impacts firms’ competitive advantage. Hence, understanding how technology resources can be used is as important for a manager as acquiring management knowledge and skills.

The process management involves understanding procurement, operations, and marketing including customer service process. Tomorrow, as one teaches these subjects, one would also need to focus on the ‘how’ of each function. It will help improve process efficiency and consequently deliver it smartly to the customer.

Being skills
A lot has already been written on these skills. These are about how one can be oneself. Because that is the only way one can relate to others. People want to connect on a humane level. Some of the skills that can help in the making of a humane environment are emotional intelligence, people sensitivity, communication, empathy, patience with others, genuine interest in others, flexibility, negotiation, proactive problem-solving, and leadership skills. Hence, in designing people management courses, the focus should be on these. Learning skills will further help develop such humane environment. Also, big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) can help individualise response and respond to contingencies in an individual employee’s environment.

Holistic learning
The programme has to encourage holistic understanding of business, society, and the individual. For this purpose, it needs to embed courses in psychology, sociology, and spiritual science. Given the current environment of fear, anxiety, uncertainty and helplessness, perhaps we need to bring these courses in management programmes besides inputs in healthcare management. Sociological skills involve interpersonal and cross-cultural skills that can help students interact effectively with people, irrespective of their background.

Spiritual science is about understanding the soul that energises matter in the physical world. It focuses on an individual’s well-being, contentment, success, peacefulness, and satisfaction. It also helps him to manage his mental health and understand that all physical objects and matter have a beginning and end, but the soul or pure consciousness has no beginning or end. This understanding makes a difference to the individual in his relationships, conduct, and performance. It is a path for the humanisation of the economy and a strategic variable for the diffusion of humanising values in society.

Systems skills
The importance of systems in organisations has been felt by companies of all size today more than ever before. Systems focus requires analysis of how system should work and how changes in conditions/operations/environment will affect outcomes. Such analysis is required across all functions. Based on the above, judgement is required on the most appropriate systems for the organisation. An understanding of costs and potential outcomes will further better the decision. Systems evaluation is also required periodically This involves identification of measures or indicators of system performance and the actions needed to improve or correct performance, relative to the goals of the system. Important systems skills are:

  • Exploring boundaries;
  • Appreciating multiple perspectives;
  • Understanding relationships;
  • Thinking in terms of systems themselves.

Complex problem-solving skills
Most problems today are complex. Solving them requires an understanding of what constitutes the complexity, and this involves an interdisciplinary approach—knowledge acquisition and knowledge application concerning the goaloriented control of systems which contain many highly interrelated elements.

A focus on empirical data mining in such cases is useful. For example, problem of profit maximisation and enhancement of a firm’s reputation need an analysis of human resources, manufacturing, materials, resources inventory, and marketing. Within each of these functions, there are several variables that need to be analysed from the perspective of their positive or negative effect. These variables interact with others to finally influence sales, customer satisfaction, and generate profits. In this example, production is a function of employee competences, resources in stock, technology in play, quality assurance, production site characteristics, and stocks in the market. As one can make out, each of these will involve big data analytics.

Technical skills
In the new world order, a manager cannot succeed if he does not have technical skills and the ability to make decisions based on the data generated by AI or through analytics. Hence, new programme design will need to integrate inputs in coding, AI, machine learning, cloud technology etc. Drones today, for example, have been used in Siro survey, maintenance of law and order, surveillance and lockdown enforcement, delivery of medical and emergency food supplies, surveying and mapping, and spraying disinfectants. This has only been possible because we understood the higher potential applications of drones.

In sum
To conclude, technology and the pandemic have shifted the goalpost in economy and society. New paradigms now require reimagination and reset of industry operations. Management schools also need to rethink the future of management education and curate a new programme which is skillsbased and develops graduates who are not only employable but also know how to be at peace with themselves and society. Life skills together with employability skills will make managers more relevant to the industry in a post-COVID era.

Rajan Saxena is a management educator and institutional builder. He was Vice Chancellor (2009- 2020), Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (Deemed to be University).

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