INSEAD has always been an agile organisation, it’s part of our DNA. We’ve always moved quickly, and as a culture we’re highly entrepreneurial and prone to innovation, particularly in terms of new ways of learning and teaching.
The global pandemic constituted a huge shock to businesses in every sector in 2020. Education, she says, was no different. In this excerpt, she reflects on the impact of COVID-19 on her team, on her clients’ businesses, and on the way that INSEAD has found the agility and adaptability to continue delivering learning solutions to customers – at a moment in time when they very likely needed them most.
Covid-19 lockdown restrictions effectively closed educational institutions and campuses around the world overnight. How did that impact you and your clients at INSEAD back at the start of 2020?
Covid was a huge disruption. Before the pandemic, the majority of our programmes for executives and organisations were delivered at least partially on campus and face-to-face. We have a long tradition of on-campus and blended programmes that bring clients to Fontainebleau and other INSEAD sites around the world. These programmes were the hardest hit by Covid.
INSEAD has corporate clients all over the globe and the process of designing and co-creating bespoke programmes is an intense and involved process. In many cases, we had clients who had booked programmes years in advance and were due to start on campus when Covid hit. These were programmes that we couldn’t simply postpone or cancel. So, we rallied everyone – clients, faculty, programme directors – and transformed these programmes to deliver them in a virtual format. And we had to do it fast – within 24 hours in cases where clients couldn’t reschedule.
How did you do this so fast?
First off, I think there was an immediate and broad consensus that we had to work together and get this done – and we had to be incredibly agile and adaptable in the way that we work.
INSEAD has always been an agile organisation, it’s part of our DNA. We’ve always moved quickly, and as a culture we’re highly entrepreneurial and prone to innovation, particularly in terms of new ways of learning and teaching, new modes of designing programmes and of leveraging technology. The core pieces of the puzzle were therefore already in place in terms of our culture but also in terms of our experience. We had actually moved to serious online content development a few years earlier with numerous customised and open online programmes. We had also built our Go-Live rooms and had been experimenting with Zoom delivery just before Covid hit.
A key factor is also that faculty rallied around the crisis incredibly fast. We have 160 full-time professors on faculty, and they really saw it as part of their mission to go that extra mile in adapting and restructuring our programmes. For many of them, I believe there was also the sheer academic challenge of transforming a learning experience from face-to-face to live online.
Shifting the programmes from on-campus to live online, did you get any pushback or resistance from your clients?
Initially, some of our clients were eager to re-schedule. For many, grappling with the immediate dramas of the pandemic was an urgent priority that eclipsed their learning or training needs.
Over time, though, most of our customers realised that given the huge uncertainty and volatility of the situation, leaders needed the kind of support that INSEAD could give them; and they quickly came back to us requesting us to change not just the format of the programmes we had planned together, but also the content.
Why did they want different content?
Covid was presenting new challenges all the time that companies suddenly had to manage. Here was a crisis unlike any other throwing up all kinds of problems – it was a real-time situation calling for real-time skills and capabilities development; and from INSEAD’s point of view, real-time adaptation of our learning solutions to meet these new needs.
For us it was also an interesting moment in time in the academic sense, and a privileged position to be in. As our clients started articulating their needs, we were able to see patterns – both in the problems they were facing and in the ways that we could help them.
We were getting the big picture. We could see that our clients were grappling with overlapping issues: how to enact virtual leadership or manage virtual teams; how to build the kind of trust or authentic leadership to weather the crisis; how to motivate and retain talent; how to build effective crisis management strategies; when to think about adapting or even re-inventing their business models. Our faculty was hearing all of these things very early on in the Covid-19 crisis, and developing content and solutions in real-time as the situation unfolded. We experimented by rolling out this new content quickly as webinars and master classes for the INSEAD community (alumni, clients, students, staff) thereby receiving rapid feedback which allowed us to develop our content and knowledge further for our clients.
So, the intellectual challenge of responding to a slew of new problems meant keeping a step ahead of these problems through constant contact with real businesses. What about the practical challenge of designing new format or learning methodologies?
Again, this was down to agility. We had to learn as we were going, and we had to learn fast. And that meant trying out different formats. It also meant dropping the idea that you could just replicate the face-to-face experience online.
We learned very fast that you can’t expect people to sit through eight hours of live online sessions, the same way that you might have them on campus. And letting go of that idea freed us up to start experimenting with our clients and trying out new modes of learning online – shorter bursts of learning, mixing live virtual with pre-recorded and online preparation time for a flipped classroom and to get more out of interactive sessions. Monitoring how individuals responded to each format and building that into our own learning.
And how were the clients responding?
I think it’s safe to say that shifting to virtual was a learning journey in itself for most of us.
For learners it was a major change and some were more reluctant than others. Many had doubts about the level of engagement or the social interaction they wanted. But largely, people were surprised at just how well it works and how captivating the virtual environment can actually be. And that’s hats off to our faculty, who also had to adapt fast to teaching online. One thing that has gone down remarkably well universally is our Go-Live room – our virtual, interactive teaching technology. Learners have found it incredibly intuitive and as close to the “real” experience as possible. For our teaching staff, it’s been a rewarding experience – relearning how to teach groups in the virtual context.
There are big advantages also in shifting to virtual. From the perspective of learning, we’re able to distribute programmes over greater periods of time – six hours a week over two months, say – which means participants have time to learn and apply new ideas in real time. And organisations can cascade that learning and those benefits at cost and at scale.
Then there are also gains in terms of cost, time management, and flexibility of design – and these things benefit both the learner and the company.
So executive education won’t be returning to the campus in the future?
Programmes will definitely be coming back to campus as we emerge from the pandemic, our Fontainebleau campus is already fully back in action with participants on corporate programmes and degree programmes.
There’s no doubt that the campus experience brings a richness and a social networking dimension that really advances the learning. Our programmes will continue to be delivered on campus, online, virtually and in hybrid formats.
We have learned so much from this crisis about how to use technology, how to prioritise flexibility and the importance of keeping pace with change. In some senses, Covid stopped our economies in their tracks. But it also speeded everything up. All of us had to adapt and evolve and be agile to manage sudden change. And I think this new tempo is here to stay. We have learned to be faster in our design, extra-agile in our response and – importantly – to keep learning from the experience in order to reap the benefits without reinventing the wheel every time.
We have understood so much about what works in different learning mechanisms and channels and how to blend and integrate them. The future of learning is an exciting place to be.