Building Sustainable Legacies


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Trans-disciplinary learning

The common thread among all of these learning environments is the way a subject is approached and therefore what skills are being developed. The innovative thought lies in fundamentally transforming single discipline teaching into trans-disciplinary learning. Rather than teaching marketing, finance, strategy, human resources separately, students will be looking at finding solutions to existing and emerging environmental, societal and economic challenges. Such dilemmas include water scarcity, pandemics, hunger, migration, social support for the elders, climate change, ocean acidification, CO2 emission control, etc.

This approach is fundamentally different than adding a bit of ethics and sustainability into an existing curriculum. Such approaches merely bolt-on responsible and sustainable considerations to a single discipline foundation; what we need is a full transformation of the curriculum to build-in these notions, turning around education by 180 degrees. As a consequence, subject knowledge is acquired predominantly in the context of a real problem, enabling students to anchor it in real stories.

Trans-disciplinary learning is based on the idea that critical competences such as holistic and divergent thinking, systemic understanding, consideration of multiple perspectives and integral decision-making, are critical for future leaders and need to be trained and developed above and beyond transmitting subject expertise. More explicitly, we believe that teaching disciplinary expertise in isolation may well have been the cause for numerous problems the economic system is currently facing. Developing an understanding for unintended side-effects and consequences in the larger system of any given decision in a specific domain requires fluency with systemic thinking and ability to dismantling complexity.

Rising to the challenge of effectively addressing and resolving global and societal challenges requires an understanding of human and societal developmental stages (i.e. from what perspective do stakeholders look at a problem?) and an ease to navigate between the most diverse fields of expertise (hi-tech, sociology, gen-tech, philosophy, psychology, neuro-science, medicine, architecture, engineering, bio-tech, etc.). Leaders for a sustainable future have learned to work with experts of these fields and are able to build bridges and lead a group of subject experts towards sustainable solutions for the world.

An important element of trans-disciplinary learning is the inclusion of relevant stakeholders in the class discussion and practical field work on global issues. This approach assumes that problems can no longer be resolved by applying single-disciplinary perspective. Such a collaborative approach ensures one of the most critical leadership skills for a sustainable future: fluency and ease in considering and shifting between multiple perspectives.

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Being a part of something larger

We need students and participants – whether they labor in a narrow, disciplinary area or in a broad leadership capacity – to understand that they are an integral part of something bigger than themselves. This realization encourages and empowers our students to embrace their responsibility towards the greater whole. It will also enable students to have a greater awareness of the inter-connectivity and complexity of things. Although it may be impossible to fully understand what happens when one tugs at an edge of the universe; a more holistic, comprehensive and systemic perspective will increase the probability that future graduates are problem-solvers, rather than problem-creators.

This perspective that will lead teachers and students alike to innovative models, frameworks, practices, structures, systems and processes that comprise superior solutions compared with the current global economic and social systems that often optimize locally but in the process create global challenges that threaten the well-being of the entire human race and the planet of which we live. With this perspective and a comprehensive portfolio of knowledge and skills, business leaders (and other leaders) will be able to create a positive impact far beyond what they imagined possible and thus contribute to a world that is optimized locally, regionally and globally on multiple dimensions: economic, environmental, sociopolitical, spiritual and societal.

We need to recognize that unlearning is equally important as learning. What we have learned in the past may represent a serious impediment to being able to become the kind of leaders the world needs. As a result of fractioning business out of its context and separating business functions into separate disciplines, we have created operating modes in business that represent serious limitations to a more holistic approach, whereby business defines its role as contributing to the well-being of society and, by extension, to all living beings in this world.


Issue-centered learning

One of the core pillars of management education for the future is to turn current functional-based, single discipline teaching into issue-centered, trans-disciplinary learning. The development of a question-based, creativity-focused approach that enables critical and divergent thinking is an integral part of this.

Future learning environments will be established both inside a classroom and as collaborative learning platforms for action learning and research (collaboratories) in business and other organizations as well as in communities. The choice among all of these different learning settings depends on what stage a student or participant is in the journey towards mastery. As such different settings are needed for acquire awareness and actionable knowledge than we need for guided practice and independent application.

Embedding business and management education in its larger context is an important way to ensure that students perceive the necessity of engaging multiple disciplines and develop the skills required to successfully apply knowledge. Historically, some business schools have attempted to do this through the case study method. Increasingly, innovative business schools are complementing the case method with action learning projects and in this sense are following the lead of medical schools, and also engineering schools that require field-based, engineering capstone projects.

Through learning and skills development that is conducted within a context selected both for its potential learning value and for its potentially positive impact on the problem being addressed, the role and purpose of business, the state of the planet, and awareness of existing and emerging societal issues is dramatically enhanced. Teaching disciplines in isolation may be an efficient way to transfer knowledge, but it misses the opportunity to develop in students and participants deep understanding of when and how to apply knowledge, and the skill to do so effectively.  Disciplinary expertise is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. It must be complemented by deep understanding and leadership skills if students are going to develop the competencies required to solve complex multi-disciplinary problems.

Issue-centered learning is organized around existing and emerging societal and environmental global issues (i.e. water, health, poverty, climate, pollution, migration, energy, renewable resources) on a global and local scale and ensures that students develop the following characteristics, skills and competencies that complements the functional knowledge they learn and enables them to become leaders for a sustainable future:

  • A global, holistic, long-term and visionary perspective
  • Clarity, focus and intensity of commitment
  • Highly motivated to do good; to do the right thing (ethical thinking translated into action)
  • Highly evolved capacity for creative, critical, holistic, ethical and systemic thinking and decision-making
  • Ability to navigate through uncertainty, ambiguity, setbacks, challenges and problems
  • Action and results oriented. Self-starter with a high need for achievement.
  • Patient (with respect to staying the course) AND Impatient (with respect to being driven to achieve results as fast as possible)
  • Highly skilled in learning by doing; adapting; making and learning from mistakes quickly and inexpensively
  • Integrative; skilled at boundary spanning
  • Skillful in figuring out root causes; determining critical success factors; and focusing on what is most important

An issue-centered education integrates disciplinary knowledge (finance, marketing, strategy, HR) when appropriate in the learning journey of attempting to resolving a specific issue (water, migration, climate change, poverty, etc.).  Conventional wisdom is challenges by uncovering underlying assumptions of the dominant discourse – in any domain. We need to develop innovators who will question the status-quo and challenge current assumptions. Issues-centered learning is critical for ensuring that graduates are able to embrace the larger context within which their organizations operate.


Safe and powerful learning environments

The basic requirement for developing these leaders is a framework that addresses the whole person and that creates the needed openness and support for them. As such, education must provide the fertile grounds that allows for profound personal and professional development. Students and participants, irrespective of their age, will need a serious amount of personal courage to confront their fears, to let go of the views they hold on the world and on themselves and to drop the mask of a so-called educated perspective. Daring to let go of the roles we all hold requires a safe space. Developing and exploring both an inner attitude that is connected to our inner self and an outer attitude that reflects a truly human view of compassion requires a learning environment in which making mistakes is considered progress rather than failure.

Developing a safe and powerful learning environment requires a shift from knowledge teaching to sharing the journey of learning. It forms the entry ticket for transformational learning and involves the ability of the facilitating teacher to hold a safe space within which the greatest potential can emerge. Creating this kind of safe environment requires the facilitator to master the following competencies:

  • Relate to each student with personal authenticity, not pretending to have competencies or knowledge that one lacks. This learning-oriented attitude on the part of a professor can set the tone that it is acceptable not to take the risks that learning entails.
  • Be comfortable with an appropriate degree of self-disclosure, thus paving the way for disclosure on the part of students to more fully discuss the challenges they are facing and the feedback they receive.
  • Make the participants’ needs a priority and demonstrate acceptance of the students’ current abilities both academically and in terms of their leadership development.
  • Live a nonjudgmental attitude as a needed form of support. Be non-prescriptive (as a professor) in class discussions.  Good facilitators do not tell participants exactly what to do, but rather ask (both directly and indirectly) that participants take responsibility for their own development in many ways.
  • Provide a process that places participants in the position of deciding what the information means to them and how to best integrate that into their learning and development. While this process can benefit from coaching and mentoring, it should not be one that gives students all the answers.[1]

 


[1]            King, S. & Santana, L. (2010). “Feedback Intensive Programs” in Van Velsor, E., McCauley, C., & Ruderman, M. (Eds.) Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development, 3rd Edition.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.


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