How universities must adapt to train future leaders

Higher education must match the future of work. Image: MD Duran/Unsplash

Knut Haanaes
Former Dean of the Global Leadership Institute; Former Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum Geneva
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Higher education must adapt to meet the demands of the future of work
  • Furth Industrial Revolution tecnologies are expected to displace 75 million jobs by 2022 while creating 133 million new roles
  • Universities must embrace technology, action-based models and life-long learning

Education will change significantly over the next decade as competitiveness becomes increasingly driven by learning. Many higher education systems were designed for the needs of the past century and have not yet been redesigned to deliver the skills required for the disruptions ahead.

As the “command and control” work environment is fast becoming obsolete, the future environment will require collaboration and system leadership. Beyond expertise, future leaders will need to nurture and practise agility, a learning mindset and entrepreneurial drive. They must be capable of identifying and sharing purpose and must consistently demonstrate robust resilience – the hallmark of good entrepreneurs – to deal positively with frustrations and challenges.

Universities must evolve in four ways to meet the demands of future leadership needs.

1. Embrace technology

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is strongly reshaping society. It has the potential to offer more inclusive economic growth, social innovation, development and human well-being through technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things. Future leaders need to be intimately familiar with coding and technologies such as AI, robotics and advanced analytics.

In the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the value of any skill declines rapidly so there is also a bigger space for entrepreneurship. A superficial view of technology is not enough to navigate disruptions and to seize the tremendous opportunities of linking technologies and human capital. Organizations need to compete in terms of speed and learning, innovating and creating new capabilities ever faster. Innovation needs to come from the ground up.

Just like in a tech start-up, schools need to innovate directly, experiment boldly and reward ideas that make a difference. Universities must help students learn how to use and apply new technologies. This means creating spaces where students are exposed to applications and practical use, taking them way beyond the traditional “knowledge about” technologies.

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2. Create more action-based learning models

The traditional model of research-knowledge-diffusion is obsolete. Today, we need to expose students to the applications they need to learn. Many schools are moving fast into action-based learning. In terms of leadership, this means moving from “classroom to lab”.

Action-based learning focuses on solving real-life problems. Fundamentally, we need to think about learning more as an iterative process, not only based on the “research-develop-teach” model that underpins most traditional education. Action-based learning drives motivation by being relevant, by creating tangible solutions and by showcasing impact.

There are many types of action-based learning. Medical schools have, of course, always allowed students access to clinics and patients. More of that needs to go into developing future leaders. This can be real-life consulting projects, labs, entrepreneurial tasks, even helping to lead change. Action learning is more than just doing – it needs deliberate reflection (an iterative process of doing and reflecting). What all action-learning initiatives have in common is teamwork, design thinking and that they are inter-disciplinary.

3. Understand the expanded role of business in society

To be more competitive, businesses are taking a more systemic view of their role in society, recognizing their responsibility towards an extended group of stakeholders and not shareholders alone. Business needs to be an important part of the solution in crucial areas such as climate change, social inequality and rising populism.

This requires universities to shape future leaders who can work effectively in multistakeholder systems where corporate responsibility is a priority. There is a need to develop what Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, labels stakeholder capitalism, in which private corporations serve as trustees of society. For example, in his 2018 letter to shareholders, Larry Fink, Chief Executive Officer of BlackRock, wrote: “The public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose.”

Universities should be careful about developing future leaders with too narrow a view of capitalism. Just as excellent companies must be able to combine the pursuit of purpose and profit, universities need to develop talented people who can navigate corporate responsibility, sustainability and the new role of business in society. Universities are well-placed not only to teach this but also to contribute to creating societal impact by ensuring that students develop the mindsets and skills to be adept at combining profit and purpose.

4. Support life-long learning

Learning is no longer a one-off affair. Students in any programme should automatically belong to an ongoing learning network. This is a lasting trend. Schools need to be relevant over the course of a working life, not merely provide platforms for young students.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018, changes from the Fourth Industrial Revolution are expected to displace 75 million jobs by 2022 in 20 major economies. At the same time, however, technological advances and new ways of working could create 133 million new roles, requiring reskilling efforts.

Are universities ready for the future of work? Image: Future of Jobs Report 2018

Reskilling can have a strong societal impact. Our research illustrates how it makes economic sense for business to reskill. In the United States, collaboration can reduce reskilling costs by 30% and that saving would allow the reskilling of 50% instead of 30% if each firm reskilled in isolation. Universities can enable these reskilling efforts through continual education programmes and executive education.

Educational systems of the future

To achieve these four imperatives, the universities of tomorrow will need collaborative and systems-oriented strategies. Maybe surprisingly, large corporations today are more used to collaborating in broader ecosystems than are most universities. The winners of the learning age now upon us will not win in isolation; rather they will win together. Only then can we support a generation of leaders who are empowered to create lasting positive impact.

This article is related to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 21-24 January.

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Related topics:
LeadershipFourth Industrial RevolutionEducationDavos Agenda
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