Jun 2021 Interview with Professor Martin Boehm, Dean, IE Business School Madrid
Prisma Reports (PR): How would you sum up the “essence” of IE Business School and what makes it unique? What values and ethos does IE stand for?
Martin Boehm (MB): Our institution is unique through the values we embody. We focus very much on diversity – and when we talk about diversity, it is not only passports or nationalities or cultures, but also diversity of thought, or better put, different visions of the world. So, this is something that we are looking for in our students, that only they can uniquely bring to the table. Because we really believe that diversity in all its forms is one of the fundamental ingredients for learning to take place. It is essential that they are exposed to different ideas and learn to defend and contrast their ideas amongst other ideas in order to actually grow and advance.
Another pillar is an entrepreneurial mindset, and I believe we were one of the first institutions to focus on this particular theme. I know that these days more institutions are incorporating this into their curriculum, but it has been part of IE Business School since it’s founding. Our institution, in general, not only from a cultural point of view, but, also in terms of our academic offering is very entrepreneurial and focused on developing this entrepreneurial spirit in our students. We challenge all our students to be comfortable with change and, as a consequence, be able to adapt to this constant change.
A third factor is what we call the Humanities, and here I’m not referring to the liberal arts but the humanities in the sense that we strive to develop holistic leaders. So, what we ensure is that our students are not only well-versed when it comes down to the business fundamentals, for example how to do balance sheets and profit and loss statements, run a marketing campaign, but to be continually conscious of societal impact – in addition to the bottom line – and that includes issues like climate and sustainability.
These three pillars are what make us unique. We focus on building a very diverse community, a community that has a tendency to be quite innovative, entrepreneurs trying to challenge the status quo, and finally, importantly, we focus on educating leaders who don’t only think about the financial benefits, or don’t only think about themselves.
(PR): Leaving behind one of the most challenging years in recent history, we all look to 2021 with hope and optimism. What are some of your top priorities as you face the new year at IE… and tell us a bit about how you are using your leadership as Dean to contribute to the ongoing battle with the virus?
(MB): 2021 is going to be special. Of course, at the same time, it is a continuation of what has happened over the past three years. What I have focused on alumni engagement – and this is going to be with us not only this year but for quite some time – in order to rethink how we interact and communicate with our alumni, the kind of services we offer them to ensure they are connected, informed, and engaged, that they are getting something out of the community.
The objective here is that we bring them back to campus in a true sense, that they give back to the community and the institution by mentoring students, offering job opportunities, and so forth. And, while we have already made significant progress in many ways, I think this is something that you can never relax on – it’s important to constantly strive to do better and think of new ways to engage alumni.
Something that has been with me for the past few years, and that has accelerated due to the pandemic, is digital transformation. We, as an institution, were in quite a good position because, when the pandemic broke, we already had experience in delivering programs and classes online. As a matter of fact, roughly 30% of our faculty had already taught online before, while at some other institutions, maybe none of the faculty have ever used Zoom or any other online medium before to teach classes. So, we’re in a very fortunate situation.
Having said this, it’s key that we continue to move forward in online education, to constantly innovate in order to maintain a certain leadership and pioneer position in the industry. As a consequence, digital transformation has been front and center in thinking about how we leverage technology to improve the learning experience for our students, particularly in how we can make it more efficient and distinct as compared to our competitors.
Well before the epidemic, we launched the WOW Room, which was quite nicely featured two years ago in The Wall Street Journal. It presented a new vision of online education that helps us to better engage with students and provide them with a uniquely immersive learning experience. The Wow Room involved setting up an entirely new platform for interaction for our students.
So, all of this attention to getting things right for our students, despite the fact that we basically all had to work from home, which sometimes was quite challenging – especially for those families in which both parents were suddenly having to work from home, with the kids also at home not able to go to school or to kindergarten. That obviously made it very difficult for some of our staff, but we got through it thanks to the amazing support of all the different staff members, everyone did their best to help each other, to support one other.
(PR): Now more than ever before, corporations are valued for their contributions to social development and global sustainability. What is IE’s strategy to produce the socially responsible leaders and managers of tomorrow, which global corporations need?
(MB): As an institution, we are pursuing two major strategies.I’d like to group them in two different categories The first one is through our academic content, for example classes on sustainability or issues related to sustainability. Something that we will be launching is a Masters in Corporate Sustainability, where the content is focused on the issues of sustainability, how to govern this, and how governing structures within organizations must be adapted.
So, there’s the academic content side, but to facilitate this in a more indirect way there are two different initiatives. The first is to collaborate with organizations for academic projects that are represent this idea of sustainable management. A recent example of this is our MBAs working on the Utopica Challenge, which is a collaboration between IE and the El Corte Inglés travel agency.
There is also a typical real-life business project that SUPRACAFÉ created where our students work as consultants. This was also a sustainability challenge, because our students worked with the indigenous people in Colombia produce coffee as a way of supporting their families. Our students needed to think about other possible ways to help the indigenous people find additional sources of income, and to make sure that it elevated the entire community socially speaking. So that was one example where we are exposing our students to business challenges to get real life experience, but at the same time, picking topics that are much more focused on issues around sustainability.
In a similar same vein are initiatives that fall more on the extracurricular side, for instance, the Net Impact Chapter is probably one of our largest student clubs. They are organizing tons of events, conferences related to sustainability, bringing speakers on campus to talk about the pressing issues, for example how to affect climate policy. We are focused on raising awareness around these issues of sustainability while provide our students with the experiences and opportunities to learn.
(PR): Last year’s surge in the demand for online education has prompted schools and universities to further invest in disruptive technologies and in their own digital transformation. Can you tell us how this has impacted IE Business School specifically, and how you are ensuring that your graduates excel as leaders in these areas?
(MB): Clearly technology is going to affect everything that we do. What we’ve done, as a consequence, is to focus on three different aspects.
Due to the fact that technology is becoming more and more important on a global level and that eventually AI will reform the way we work and the jobs of the future, we must help our students develop what we call the ‘human skills’ that make us, as humans, unique in comparison to technology. For instance: creativity. We humans excel at creativity, machines not so much, so it is something that will be difficult to outsource to a machine. The same is true, for instance, with empathy. Technology is going to change the way we work in the future, there’s no doubt about that. So, as a consequence let’s focus on what makes us unique. Let’s focus on what makes us strong and gives us a competitive advantage over the machine.
Step two is we’re seeing that our lives are increasingly governed by data, by information, and we have to leverage this data. So, obviously, another theme is around data analytics, making sure that all of our students have the necessary competency to work with data, to analyse data and be able to make sense out of data – this is series of subjects that is incorporated in all our programs across the portfolio.
And, the third piece is about technology and IT architecture. If you are a manager, if you’re engaged in business, even as an entrepreneur, it’s important to understand what the needed IT infrastructure in order is to operate successfully and efficiently. So, we’re teaching our students the fundamentals about building an IT infrastructure to run an organization.
So, these are the three pillars, the human skills, the data management skills, and then some basic technology skills.
(PR): The global economy has opened the doors for institutions of higher learning to build strong international networks and has created opportunities for students and faculty to bridge continents through strategic collaborations in research and other global outreach programs. How would you describe IE’s global footprint today and what are your international ambitions for the future?
(MB): We are quite global. I call this the import and the export model. The import model is we attract students to Madrid to our campus. And, the export model is those students who are with us, we send abroad to engage in international experiences.
Right now, in terms of the import model, we currently have on campus around 120 nationalities. Most of our programs are 90% international students – looking at our MBA, we are at about 93% international students and 7% Spanish students. That was also true of our undergraduate, which is probably the most international in the world; there we stand right now at something like 75% international students. So, in terms of the import model, we are as global as you can be.
It’s also the case with our export model. As for the number of exchange partners we have, it’s around 100-120 all around the world, with whom we typically collaborate to send students from across the different programs, from Argentina all the way to Japan.
Besides that, we are heavily engaged in global associations. Probably one of the most important for us is the Global Network for Advanced Management, abbreviated GNAM, which is an association of 30 business schools around the globe. GNAM facilitates the exchange at a faculty level, at a student level, and at a global level. In terms of participants, in the US, you would have Berkeley, you would have Yale. In Asia you would have institutions such as HKUST, for instance, in Hong Kong. We have players, from Africa, India… 30 institutions across the globe and all of them are represented. We collaborate there through joint projects as well. What we have is the global network courses, for instance. So, imagine I’m a faculty member at IE, I might be teaching a course and that course is open to all the students from the member schools. Everyone would connect online. And, also, our students at IE have the opportunity to sign up for the global network courses at the other participating institutions.
This truly allows students to mingle with their peers at in all these network institutions, as well as be exposed to the faculty at these institutions.
(PR): From your perspective, how has executive education evolved over the years and how has IE positioned itself as a trendsetter in this highly competitive market… and what exciting novelties in executive education can we expect to see over the next few years?
(MB): Executive education has likely experienced the most fundamental transformation over these last few years and of course during the pandemic. So, what are some of the trends I see?
There is a trend towards lifelong learning, which in general is a positive one for executive education because it essentially means that individuals are increasingly engaged, interested in doing a short program here, doing another short program somewhere else, getting a certificate there, and so forth. So, there is now more thinking of one’s career and education as multiple touch points over a lifetime, where you might want to refresh some of your thinking or learn something completely new.
Again, something that has obviously been accelerated over the past few months in executive education is the shift from face-to-face to online. And here, especially when we look at the world’s top business schools, we have seen that most of executive education was still quite a face-to-face, presential-based experience. Because, to some extent as companies engage in executive education training, it’s not only that your staff get better, or get prepared for certain tasks, but at the same time, it is always an incentive as well. Consequently, I think many organizations were happy to send their employees to a nice location somewhere – to be rewarded and also get that training. However, the pandemic has shifted more of this training online and has focused it more on the training rather than the cultural experience that has typically come with an executive education program.
The third fundamental change is a bit linked to the first point of lifelong learning and it is that in this entire business, or in this entire market of executive education, we see certification providers are now playing a role in addition to business schools. That might be technology companies, consulting companies, etc, and all of them are becoming increasingly engaged in the executive education market.
So, at IE what we’re doing is looking to respond to all these trends. We have shifted much more to online education and have essentially organised an entire category of online programs. We’re also thinking much more about the skills and expertise that individuals need for the entirety of their professional career. So, it should not only be a management program. No, it should be much more specific. It might be negotiation skills; it could be team management skills, communication skills, something that is much more specific, much more unique, but at the same time, we obviously still have a portfolio of moving up the career ladder, being promoted into C level. These are more holistic programs.
We’re also moving into certifications. We’re trying to desegregate, to some extent, some of our degree programs and sometimes even collaborate with some of these companies that I mentioned, like Amazon, in order to provide certificates to our students.
In terms of topics, what is hot right now is everything around mindfulness and digital transformation, but as always around leadership. And, especially when it comes to leadership I’m talking here about new forms of leadership, of how to manage a distributed workforce, given the environment we’re living in right now.
(PR): Final message to the readers of Foreign Policy magazine?
(MB): Over the last few decades globalization, has proven to really drive prosperity across the globe. Unfortunately, over the past few years, I think we have seen fundamental forces who caused the pendulum to swing back. It has led many countries to think about themselves first, close borders and look at everybody on the other side of the fence as the enemy. Keep the borders open. We’ll continue believing in globalization. There are always drawbacks, but I think net-net, what we have seen is that globalization is beneficial for humankind. We just have to believe in it and continue making sure that it can help us to get better.