The World After COVID-19: Views from business school deans

How did business schools around the world adapt to the abrupt changes brought by the pandemic? What inspiring lessons can be learnt?

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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We are viewing a mixed picture of the COVID crisis today. Many nations are relaxing the restrictions put in place over the last year, as others are seeing the resurgence of COVID cases due to new variants. While we see hope and light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, the contours of the world after COVID-19 remain to be decided.

Besides being a professor at Cornell University, I also have the privilege of chairing the board of the Global Business School Network (GBSN), a network of more than 120 global business schools. Founded in 2003 by the World Bank, today GBSN is a Washington D.C.-based, independent global non-profit organisation.

Last year, GBSN’s CEO Dan LeClair and I reached out to deans from schools in countries like Nigeria, England, Mexico, Egypt, China and the United States with an invitation to speak with us. We invited them to pause, look up and ahead; to see past the immediate emergency and to think about what the future of education might look like in a world after COVID-19. Our discussions with these business school deans and some private sector leaders have been compiled into a book that has just been published by GBSN. Three important themes emerged from our discussions:

Human—and humane—leadership 

We were struck by how vulnerable our interviewees were willing to be. Their answers to personal questions, such as how their own leadership might change and what shifts they’d already seen in their own lives, were deeply considered and freely shared. Some were pursuing new hobbies; others found solace in exercise and time in nature. Most were spending more time with their families than they had in years, reconnecting and learning about the people who matter most. But they had not lost sight of those beyond their immediate circles: there was a real sense of connection and compassion with not just employees, but their employees’ families and communities more broadly. Somehow, they held rapid change—that acceleration necessitated by COVID-19—and small, personal moments together. 

Globalisation vs. turning inward

Geo-politics was a crucial part of our conversations. Globalisation and the shifting role of supply chains emerged as strong themes. Asia’s role as a growing power was repeatedly highlighted; some interviewees suggested that Europe could harness the crisis to re-establish itself as a force to be reckoned with, while others believed Europe was going to be left behind by the Asian giants. The United States’ inward turn unsettled many.

Our thought leaders wanted to know whether the world would work together, or pull apart; they were struck by just how sharply and fast the existing lines between the “haves and the have nots” had leapt into focus. Just about a year on, it is sobering to see how much those fault lines have widened, and saddening to realise how much pulling apart has occurred; today we see wealthy nations are racing ahead with vaccination programmes while their poorer counterparts are left floundering. 

Teaching with tech

All the leaders we interviewed agreed that the pandemic had accelerated digital transformation. Suddenly, companies had to co-ordinate work in a physically dispersed environment. The COVID-induced change was profound in education, where technology has had less of impact than many experts predicted in previous years. A major topic in the interviews was the role of platforms, such as Zoom, in ensuring continuity of asynchronous teaching and learning when health restrictions made residential learning impossible. Schools were forced to shift quickly, almost overnight, to deliver instruction, facilitate peer-to-peer engagement and offer project-based experiential learning, all in a virtual environment. Faculty had to learn new digital skills and schools had to develop new models and capabilities.

Read more on the Forum Network: Smart Technology Necessary for Higher Education Reform Success, by Courtney Brown, Vice President, Impact & Planning, Lumina Foundation

Many of the leaders in education and business talked about how surprised their colleagues were to learn so much of their work can be accomplished without being together in the office. Faculty, in particular, began to discover ways of using technology to make education more efficacious as well more efficient. It could also, some interviewees suggested, contribute to more openness and diversity.

Building back better and together

As discussed in many of the interviews, COVID-19 has elevated the need for organisations to work together to achieve important objectives. Many businesses deployed students and faculty to address local challenges brought on by COVID. For example, from the beginning many business schools collected, compiled and communicated about data and information to support policy and business decisions. Students and professors have also worked on projects to help local SMEs pivot online, and to restart the local economy.

The world after COVID is still under construction, but we hope insights from the interviews will encourage and enable us to “build back better together”. Regardless, we believe the true value of these interviews is that they capture the moment: the views during the crisis about the unknown future to come. Our memories are surprisingly short, and it will soon be easy to forget how we felt and the future we envisioned during that stressful time. We also hope the interviews serve as inspiration and guidance to leaders everywhere, especially about managing in a crisis. 

Find more about OECD's work on higher education in the post-COVID-19 context: The State of Higher Education: One year into the COVID-19 pandemic 

Find more about OECD's work on higher education in the post-COVID-19 context: The State of Higher Education: One year into the COVID-19 pandemic 

Find more on OECD's blog OECD Education and Skills Today

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Soumitra Dutta

Professor of Management, Cornell University

Soumitra Dutta is a Professor of Management at Cornell University and the Chair of the Board of Directors for GBSN. Previously he was the Founding Dean of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell and Chair of AACSB Intl. He also co-chairs the Global Future Council on innovation ecosystems for the World Economic Forum.