The evolution of business schools: HEC Paris

Written by
Emily Sexton-Brown

10 May 2016

10 May 2016 • by Emily Sexton-Brown

When you started working at HEC Paris, what were the core components of the EMBA? 

I started working at HEC in 1997 and, more specifically, worked as Executive Director of the EMBA in 2004. At that time the themes in the EMBA covered all key corporate functions; marketing, finance, operations, IS, accounting and HR, as well as a comprehensive view of strategy design and implementation, and the development of managerial skills.

Was there anything missing within the EMBA you felt needed to be implemented when you started?

The gaps identified in the EMBA programme were mainly an overview of macro-environmental trends (geopolitics, macro-economics, social and political global issues in a fast-changing environment), and a focus on leadership development (including self-awareness, team dynamics, organizational change, ethics and CSR, etc.). We also added cross-functional topics in order to develop students’ ability to connect functional areas and avoid working in silos. Examples of these include; ‘financing corporate growth and business developments’ which combines finance and strategy, ‘developing intrapreneurial spirit within large corporations’ which brings together strategy, innovation and HR, ‘change management’ which focuses on both strategy and organizational behaviour, and ‘facing consumer crises’ which combines marketing, communication and leadership.

Did students have different expectations then compared to now?

Expectations have changed a lot over the last 20 years. Nowadays, more people intend to change jobs during their EMBA and so levels of stress are higher, fewer people are sponsored by their companies and now are funding themselves through their education, and an interest for entrepreneurship as a career path is growing.  As a result, participants are more demanding in terms of the quality of their lecturers and, more specifically, in terms of the relevance/immediate applicability of the knowledge acquired to their jobs. Finally, examples and illustrations provided in the curriculum have to be more and more accurate and up-to-date.

 Have you sensed an attitude shift throughout students and faculty members, if so, how do the attitudes compare now to back in the late 90s?

The attitude shifts I have encountered include;

  • The increased globalization of perspectives – there is a less regional focus and a more international mind-set as more people have travelled, lived and worked abroad or have interacted within international teams
  • More digital savviness amongst both students and faculty members
  • An increased sense of environmental and societal responsibility in students’ communities, although this topic can be considered as purely reputational
  • The ability to effectively manage through complexity and uncertainty has become essential
  • The level of professional stress and number of burn-outs experienced by EMBA students in the course of their professional life have significantly increased.

As a result, more international diversity in concrete examples, more professional attitudes in the way we communicate and use digital tools, as well as a more balanced view of business perspectives are expected.

Have teaching styles adapted much, since the 90s, if so, how?

Students expect shorter, more intense sessions, and a larger use of multimedia and videos. As a result, digital devices and tools are more often used (webinars, collaborative platforms etc.) throughout the curriculum.

Furthermore, as much more information is available through internet and social media, it is important to have students focusing on analysing and developing critical judgment in the classroom. Teaching requires a less top-down approach and more often adopts a facilitating approach to encourage discussion, debate and exploration.

As a result, the "learning by doing" approach is very often favored by our lecturers as a preferred means to encourage appropriation of knowledge and skills by the students, via project-based teaching strategies, the use of games and simulations, tutored groups working on real case studies etc.

What was the desired skillset for leadership in 2005 across large organisations? How much had the syllabus changed in a 10-year period? 

10 years ago, the focus was on ‘transformational leadership’, and the intrinsic characteristics of leaders. Leaders were considered as supermen or superwomen, encompassing all possible qualities.

Today, much more emphasis is put on complexity, diversity, agility and collaboration, embodied in the concept of ‘shared leadership’. In a VUCA world, no individual can tackle or understand complex situations alone, and only collaborative teams can produce effective leadership. 

What is the desired skillset now in the present day? How much has it changed from 2005?

Today, leadership incorporates new skills such as open-mindedness and empathy, the ability to make decisions in uncertain and ambiguous environments, ethical responsibility and integrity, a global mind-set, critical judgment, and collaborative skills. And specifically, the ability to manage diverse stakeholders with contradictory needs and expectations from both business and society. Employees and customers are much more informed and volatile, therefore building trust is essential.

Could you tell me about all the significant changes that have happened within your faculty, including what year the changes were introduced?

The first major change is internationalization, which started in the late 1990s. More and more faculty are coming from all over the world, representing the global diversity of today’s business world. The second major change is the emergence of new research topics due to in advances in digital industry and attitudes regarding CSR, including; digital marketing, leadership in virtual communities, the impact of the digital economy on business models, social entrepreneurship, inclusive economy etc.

How much has the advance in technology changed how students are taught?

Technological change has an ambivalent impact on pedagogy. Digital tools put more emphasis on learning design and enhance students’ expectations in terms of learning needs. On the other hand, students have easier access to knowledge and information. As a result, the role lecturers take in the classroom is moving towards facilitation and individualized appropriation of skills and knowledge acquired.

What do you predict will be a needed skill for the future of human resources? Do these skills even exist yet?

The capacity to identify, develop and retain talent in line with future business needs is becoming vital. The war for talents is very fierce and talents are becoming highly demanding of their employers in regards to their working environment, their company’s reputation and their career perspectives.

Do you think executive education will evolve? If so, how?

Degrees are no longer a passport for a complete professional life Lifelong learning is becoming a mere necessity. Technology is offering many more options for learning design. Hence, there will be more blended learning schemes, more customized / on-demand learning, more opportunities for social learning on a massive scale. New entrants will challenge the competitive landscape, enabling disruptive business models to emerge as well as alliances with traditional industry leaders. Executive education will benefit a lot from these major changes in terms of innovation and efficiency.

What do you think is the ultimate aim of executive education?

The ultimate aim of executive education is to promote and support employees’ development to ensure their employability and enrich their careers, and to support companies to grow their transformational capabilities. We at HEC Paris strongly believe in the social mission of executive education in enabling a shift through knowledge creation and dissemination towards a more innovative, sustainable, inclusive, and competitive economy. We aim to develop responsible and enlightened minds capable of inventing solutions to the world’s greatest economic, social, and environmental challenges of the future.