Author: Dean Mark Taylor


About Dean Mark Taylor

Dean Mark Taylor joined Olin Business School on Dec. 1, 2016. He is one of the most frequently cited researchers in the areas of international finance and monetary economics in the world. He has served as an economist at the IMF and Bank of England; and as an investment fund manager for Barclays (now BlackRock). Previously, he was Dean at Warwick Business School, UK, and a professor of economics at Oxford among other European universities and a visiting professor at NYU. He is enjoying getting to know St. Louis (and its great restaurants). Follow Mark on Twitter at @DeanTaylorWashU.

The definition of a face-to-face meeting will never be the same.

In just six weeks, the world has changed forever, and with that global change, so has the means and meaning of business education. In a post-pandemic world, will we ever return to where we were before spring break?

I don’t think so. I said as much recently in Poets & Quants’ story on the subject. In fact, the change was already happening. COVID-19 just accelerated the pace.

The changes for business schools fall largely into two categories: first, what we mean by international, and second, how we deliver content and experiences going forward. Paradoxically, business education will become increasingly more global, while the need for international travel will contract. Meanwhile, the pace at which both faculty and students adapt to and adopt new tools for teaching and learning will hasten.

WashU Olin Business School is ready.

What ‘global’ now means for business schools

Others have opined more broadly about the future of higher education. As the authors of a Harvard Business Review article wrote just 36 days ago, “Both teachers and students are readjusting and recalibrating in the middle of teaching semesters. The syllabus and course contents are being revised as the courses are being taught.”

And indeed, in a recent Olin faculty meeting, my colleagues acknowledge a steep learning curve—but one they’ve scaled quickly as they employed tools such as video conferencing, break-out rooms and asynchronous discussions. The work is difficult, but manageable. The key, most agree, is maintaining the personal connection with students.

“I just refused to accept that virtual meant impersonal,” Konstantina Kiousis, senior lecturer in business management, told her colleagues. “We thought about how to make the personal connection in this space. This is part of the world we work in. You’re going to be working with people in other countries.”

That is so true. As a fund manager a decade ago, I worked with a team spread among offices in London, San Francisco and Sydney—long before anyone had heard of Zoom and just as the iPhone had gained a foothold. Understanding how to lead a team spanning 18 time zones and two hemispheres was an important skill then and even more so today.

Today, through our MBA global immersion, overseas residencies and numerous study-abroad opportunities, we’ve clearly established Olin as the kind of global business school that equips students to lead across borders and time zones. That won’t change.

Enhancing education, not substituting our value

Yet we’ve clearly crossed a threshold in the past six weeks. The meaning of “face to face” has changed. We’ll continue to find value in overseas travel, experiencing different cultures first hand, seeing plants and machinery, processes and staff with our own eyes. But increasingly, we’ll complement those experiences with virtual engagements that provide global context and hands-on experience—without the jet lag.

Because of the changes wrought so quickly by the pandemic, digital learning has become table stakes. We’re not substituting the expertise and personal contact experienced professors bring. With digital learning, we’ll maintain our edge and our excellence.

In only a few weeks, our faculty has adapted to that way of thinking. Nick Argyres, Olin’s Vernon W. & Marion K. Piper Professor of Strategy, teaches many of our professional and executive MBA courses and shared his previous reluctance to demand outside projects of these working professionals.

“Arranging to get together physically with multiple teammates can be challenging,” Nick said. “Now that I’ve used Zoom, I can see that you can collaborate pretty well on it. I would now consider asking them to meet for half an hour over Zoom to cover basics so we can get to the more advanced material in class.”

More than Zoom

In short order, business education without a digital component will be viewed as second-rate. Ray Irving, director of our Center for Digital Education, sees those signs already.

“Some of the world’s leading universities are frightened about the change,” he said. “Institutions you would never have thought would offer an online MBA are strongly considering it.”

Our investment in the CDE, which only launched in October, was prescient in positioning us to respond to this crisis. But as Ray notes, we had already taken steps to move well beyond Zoom lectures before the crisis overcame us.

He envisions asynchronous content delivery using videos, recording and animations. He foresees a rich range of high-quality resources for students. And he also foresees opening the opportunity to world-class business education to students who might not otherwise be able to access it such as professionals working abroad for NGOs or active-duty military.

“We can cast our net to the world,” he said. “We never want to get away from what we’re about. We’re about education. With this faculty, we can be one of the best in the world.”

In the midst of this pandemic, we have quickly shown faculty and students not only that they can teach and learn in virtual classrooms, collaborating in digital breakout rooms across time zones and cultures—but that they can learn (and practice) valuable skills that will serve them in their 21st century careers.

Students have already said as much. Here’s how Mac Farrell, class of 2023 in Arts & Sciences, described the virtual case competition in Konstantina’s Management 100 course.

“Thank you for providing me with the most unbelievable learning experience I can say I have ever had in my academic career,” he wrote. “This project was the most intellectually stimulating and difficult task I have had to do, but I have learned both individual and team skills that I believe will be valuable not just in college, but for the rest of my life.”

In December 2018, I reflected in this very column on our plans to bring WashU Olin into a digital space—investing in virtual, online learning experiences. Mere months later, we welcomed Ray Irving and Nina Kim, who built a team and launched our state-of-the-art Center for Digital Learning in the fall.

Nina Kim and Ray Irving

Neither Ray nor Nina nor I could have imagined just how essential their services would become—and how urgently they’d be needed. Not even a semester past the CDE’s launch, the coronavirus pandemic forced a full migration into virtual classrooms.

Our world-class faculty, staff and students have been dynamic and resilient in this unprecedented situation.

“We had always planned to engage faculty in developing online sessions,” said Ray, the CDE’s director. “But that plan had been based on a more gradual transition over the next 12 months—not 200-plus faculty and staff in 10 days.”

When Ray and Nina signed on at Olin, no one could have anticipated a global pandemic that would empty university campuses around the world. But Ray and Nina—and the stellar team that they have recruited, including instructional designers such as Kella Thornton—have leapt into action to provide crucial faculty and staff support and training in online learning at this critical time.

CDE team member Charlie Drexler demonstrates the CDE’s green screen studio to faculty.

“Although online learning is new to Olin, it’s not new to Nina, Kella or myself,” Ray said. The urgency to deliver online learning support was. The CDE team moved hundreds of faculty and staff—many of whom had never used platforms such as Zoom—into a fully digital classroom environment.

“This was an all-hands-on-deck situation,” said Nina, the CDE’s assistant director.

Indeed, it was. Almost immediately, the CDE created collaboration resources with the faculty administration team to ensure a smooth transition for students, instructors and staff. The team scheduled training meetings, created a training program from scratch and provided the necessary resources for faculty, staff and students to remain connected—wherever they might be.

“We fully understand this is the worst possible circumstances,” Ray said, “but we were determined to play the hand that was in front of us.”

They have more than delivered. I’m immensely proud of this team, and of our community’s ability to pull together in this extraordinary moment. More than simply creating an environment where online learning is possible, Ray, Nina and their team—along with our outstanding faculty and staff—have provided the space for our school to truly thrive in difficult times.

“We have heard from multiple students,” said Ashley Macrander, associate dean and director of graduate student services. “They say they are truly enjoying the online classes and think everything has gone very well.”

I’m grateful as well for the teamwork and collaboration the CDE has received from the faculty. “The faculty have been amazing,” Ray said. “They have simply got on with the task in hand, worked with us and made this happen—in extremely short order. I guess that’s what you’d expect of world-class faculty but it’s been truly remarkable to see this happen in real time.”

Tom Fields, professor of accounting, teaches Strategic Cost Analysis via Zoom.

In fact, faculty have banded together on their own, creating a faculty learning group spearheaded by Andrew Knight, professor of organizational behavior. That group suggests new and innovative ways to use Zoom features as well as soliciting support and feedback from students, many of whom are technology experts and are gracious in sharing their insights.

Ten days after moving seamlessly into our new way of teaching, I’m proud to say we have 115 faculty teaching 230 classes across numerous time zones to many hundreds of students. We are ensuring that our students will continue to receive world-class education until such time as we can safely bring them back to campus.

I’m grateful for the foresight of our senior leadership team and the National Council for providing the resources and the talent to assemble the CDE. Most of all, I am grateful for the way the faculty, students and staff have rallied together.

We are getting through this like the world-class school that we are.

Pictured at top: Center for Digital Education team. Back row, left to right: Ray Irving, Wes Murrell, Shawn Bell, Emily Furst; Front row, left to right: Kella Thornton, Nina Kim, Charlie Drexler

A few months back, Abram Van Engen unfolded a story before an audience of mostly business school people. The story involved a latter-day businessman stewing over the decision to sell his failing paint mills.

From the Emerson Auditorium stage, Van Engen unveiled the story bit by bit, polling the audience with each newly revealed wrinkle. Should the businessman sell the failing mills? If the buyer knows the mills are failing, is the decision justified? What if the buyer offers the businessman a kick-back? Would you sell?

In his telling of The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells’ 1884 novel, Van Engen whipsawed the audience from one decision to the next. In so doing, the English professor from across the WashU campus not only illustrated the way a shifting narrative changes one’s perspective. More broadly, he and his partner in the presentation, Olin’s Peter Boumgarden, illustrated the importance of cross-disciplinary proficiency for business success in today’s world.

“What can be learned at the intersection of business and literature?” Boumgarden asked the audience. The Olin professor of practice in strategy and organizations continued: “What can I learn about markets by exploring literature and arts?”

Indeed, the 2008 global financial crisis reinforced my thinking on the subject. Working as a fund manager, navigating the crisis for my clients, brought into relief the notion that individuals aren’t motivated solely by hard data, facts and figures, dollars and cents. If we knew economics had much to learn from sociology and psychology, we knew it more keenly after that. Hence the rise of behavioural finance among researchers.

Boumgarden spoke expansively about a WashU programme specifically designed to foster this sort of cross-disciplinary approach to education, Beyond Boundaries—the program that drove Boumgarden and Van Engen to collaborate on their Markets and Morality course.

“Oftentimes we live in our own little bubbles,” he said. “We need some thinking about the moral complexity of markets to understand what’s happening in the world today.”

I’ve written about this in an earlier Desk of the Dean column for the Olin Blog, specifically in the context of a number of cross-disciplinary minors and majors we’ve developed with colleagues in other parts of the WashU campus. As I wrote then, and still believe today, real-world problems don’t come neatly packaged. We must tear down academic siloes to solve the toughest problems, moving from the highly qualitative to the highly quantitative, using our skills of persuasion, backing our viewpoints with hard-core analysis.

“Brands and businesses have long understood that stories push us one way or another,” Van Engen told the audience at the pair’s Century Club presentation in mid-November (if you missed it, it’s worth a watch).

“If there is one thing literature offers us, and there are many things, it’s a slightly different perspective,” Van Engen said. “Narratives give us something beyond an argument or an opinion. The more narratives we come across, the more they reform the narratives we have already come across.”

Pictured above: Peter Boumgarden and Abram Van Engen at their November 2019 Century Club presentation.

Any global business leader understands that international events drive opportunities and influence decisions. Agile business leaders pivot quickly when unanticipated events arise. Business goals remain constant. Strategy and tactics may have to change to meet the unexpected. These are lessons WashU Olin students learn day in and day out. Today, the team at Olin is putting those lessons into practice.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, my Olin colleagues have confronted the challenge admirably. We’re retooling our celebrated global immersion for the next class of full-time MBA students—while accounting for an unanticipated public health crisis.

The result: The MBA students in the class of 2022 will span five cities across three continents in their global immersion, beginning in St. Louis and continuing to Washington, DC; Barcelona; Paris; and Lima, Peru.

Our inaugural class covered St. Louis; Washington, DC; Barcelona; Beijing; and Shanghai, all the while taking classes, consulting with business professionals in-country and creating solutions for real-world business problems.

Given today’s headlines, and because the health and well-being of our students is paramount, we had to make decisions now. We had to pivot, while preserving the important global experience that has quickly become a cornerstone of the WashU MBA—so much so, in fact, that Poets & Quants named us the program of the year for our work.

From the start, we’ve pressed the opportunity for students to gain global business literacy in a variety of economies and markets. We’ve spoken about the agility today’s business leaders require when operating in cultures different from their own. And our students have bonded tightly in a unique and united global experience.

Class of ’22 students will take virtually the same courses their predecessors took, gaining similar outcomes. This time, however, students will experience even more diverse business perspectives.

As well as adding a major European capital and world business center to the itinerary—Paris—we are adding a stint in Lima, the capital city of Peru’s emerging economy, with opportunities to study sustainability concerns and startup opportunities. An economy with local production in textiles and ecotourism. A culture risen from a tumultuous history, where economic development is a priority.

For students who were deeply committed to the possibility of an experience in China, we haven’t left them behind either. When the current crisis subsides, we plan to offer an elective residency in Shanghai—along with other residencies in Tel Aviv and Berlin.

WashU Olin is a global business school. We’ve invested in the program and in our students in order to develop globally mobile business leaders who are nimble enough to confront challenge dynamically.

To be sure, we didn’t anticipate this challenge. But in confronting it, we’re creating a new and exciting version of our global immersion.

Olin MBA students visit Cisco in Silicon Valley in October 2019, thanks to the help of alumni in the company and relationships forged through the Weston Career Center.

Good business is all about good relationships.

As a business school, building strong relationships means 14 companies will hire more of your graduates than they did the year before. A commitment to creating new relationships means another 15 companies will hire your graduates for the first time.

Jennifer Whitten
Jennifer Whitten

Both happened this year. And thanks to the efforts of our Weston Career Center, we saw even more positive results for our students and recent graduates. Internship recruiting is up. New firms are coming to campus to recruit our students. Alumni are engaging with our students in greater numbers than ever.

Nearly two years ago, WashU Olin began a massive overhaul of the WCC and our corporate relations efforts. Now, that work is yielding the results we anticipated when we began.

Dorothy Kittner at the Olin cookout in 2017.
Dorothy Kittner at the Olin cookout in 2017.

“We’ve been much more focused and targeted,” said Jen Whitten, associate dean and director of the WCC. “Everything has moved from a transactional to a relationship model.”

In the past 18 months, Jen and her team have consolidated the career center and our corporate relations operation so they work hand-in-glove. Jen, along with Dorothy Kittner, associate dean and director of corporate relations, have deployed Olin team members to the east and west coasts of the United States, into Europe, the Middle East and Shanghai.

Those moves acknowledge the common interests we share with corporate partners. Building those relationships means we gain insight into career trends and specific job opportunities for our students and alumni.

“Having the ability to collaborate in real time with the WCC really helps to connect the dots,” Dorothy said. At the same time, these moves create new opportunities for recruiters to gain exposure to our talented students.

“We are really running on all four cylinders—and then some,” Dorothy said. “We’re helping employers rethink their strategies, creatively adapting to new ways of meeting students—bringing students to them, for example, or connecting them through live-streamed interviews.”

Indeed, our students regularly take career treks focused on technology, finance, accounting, wealth management and consulting—with access to big-name players in every industry.

Meanwhile, Jen and her team are empowered to “break down barriers,” persuading recruiters who have never visited to make a trip to Olin. “What’s the best way to plug you into Olin?” she asks. “We’ll figure it out.”

As any sound business would do, we leveraged external experts two years ago for insight into the next steps for our career center. Boston Consulting Group conceived many of the strategies we’ve implemented in corporate relations and career services. An interesting byproduct: BCG is now active on campus, working hard to further engage.

Placing corporate relations professionals in the field establishes that WashU Olin is serious about creating relationships. Empowering those professionals to proactively break down recruiting barriers builds those relationships. Encouraging those professionals to leverage our strong alumni network within those companies further cements those relationships.

Conventional wisdom has always been that without at least 200 MBA students, a business school cannot attract recruiters to campus. Jen has shown that conventional wisdom is wrong. We’ve had more employers engaging in a broader range of recruiting events than ever before. And we only see growth in the future.

Pictured above: Olin MBA students visit Cisco in Silicon Valley in October 2019, thanks to the help of alumni in the company and relationships forged through the Weston Career Center.