Ambidexterity strengthens quality management during COVID-19

Assessing the results of a survey examining the impact of COVID-19 on quality management and assurance practices in Nordic and Baltic business schools. By Ulrich Hommel, Björn Kjellander and Claire Thouary

The underlying objectives of the study were twofold. First, to investigate the business schools’ preferred mix of short-term crisis responses and more permanent adjustments based on the conjecture that the pandemic not only strains current operations but also changes more fundamental sector dynamics (e.g. related to the adoption of education technologies). The second and related objective is to see whether response patterns are in any way linked to institutional characteristics and type of regulatory oversight.

Covid-induced adjustments to business school operations are having fundamental implications for educational quality and assurance, whether in the context of dealing with restrictions to campus access, switching delivery pathways from face-to-face to online instruction, implementing social distancing measures and hygiene policies on campus, or virtualising student support services. While initial crisis responses had a strong ad-hoc flavour, many business schoolsa have used the transition into the new academic year to formulate more deliberate approaches that also account for the inherent volatility of the pandemic itself. This survey takes a snapshot of where Nordic and Baltic business schools currently stand.

The survey consisted of 17 structured interviews conducted between August and October 2020. The sample consists of four Finnish schools, three Norwegian schools, six Swedish schools, and one school each from Denmark and the three Baltic countries. 15 of the schools in the study carry at least one international accreditation label. Three institutions qualify as private institutions, while regulatory oversight of the other 14 schools differs according to national policy regimes and intra-school culture. Respondents included six deans/directors, three associate deans of teaching and learning, three senior accreditation managers and five senior advisors to the school leadership. Given the geographic focus of the survey, it is not surprising to find an overall bias towards schools affiliated with the public university system.

Overall, the survey responses paint a positive and encouraging picture. Naturally, business schools are still focused on coping with the short-term consequences of the pandemic, but they have cautiously started to think about the longer-term consequences of COVID-19. The presence of a well-rooted culture of ambidexterity seems to be yielding handsome dividends to business schools in this context, i.e., they are effective in combining the ability to manage the short-term fall-out efficiently with a culture of forward thinking and adaptability. In contrast, tight regulatory oversight with quality metrics enforced by external bodies and linked to a funding model dominated by fiscal allocations encourages a continued emphasis on crisis management and a ‘wait-and-see’ approach when considering the impact of the pandemic on reshaping the academic ‘rules of the game’.

This is illustrated by the perceived self-achievements in online provision before and since the outbreak of the pandemic. When the pandemic started, the overwhelming majority of sample schools saw themselves as being at the beginning of their journey towards online provision (1 or 2 on a 7-level Likert scale, representing an ordinal ranking from very low to very high), a view shared with many European business schools. Those most advanced are either lead institutions of the region with long-standing international reach or smaller players who stick out from their peers and are internationally recognised (although in each case they only have a maximum of 4 on a 7-level Likert scale).

Nevertheless, 15 sample schools rated their advancement in online provision as a result of Covid very confidently (6 or 7 on a 7-level Likert scale) which can only be explained by the pride and exuberance of having succeeded in going online with hardly any prep time. The same positive buzz could be seen in other parts of the global business school community. This response however supports the conclusion that nearly all sample schools are at the beginning of the process of discovering what ingredients they have to put in place to make online education a rewarding and memorable experience for students. At the least, we can see a sector consensus emerging that such development entails more than delivering content via Zoom, MS Teams or similar platforms and the simultaneous use of enrichment apps such as Slack, Padlet or Kahoot.

In this context, it was also concerning to observe that sample schools were not starting the autumn term with an adjustment of strategy in place (or even underway). Schools are either continuing to undertake actions in crisis management mode or are simply advancing existing (but partially ambitious), pre-Covid online / ed-tech agendas. While nearly all schools believe that the disruptive push into online delivery will to some extent be retained, the more sceptical schools tend to be small, operating in a captive market, and more reliant on governmental funding.

An old saying in corporate restructuring is that crises are unique opportunities to reshape and improve a company’s future. The same applies to business schools. The survey responses underscore the fact that ambidextrous schools are able to avoid getting tied up in short-term crisis management.

Sample schools also differentiate themselves in the way they are investing in faculty development. One school with multiple international accreditations reported an expanded remit for the teaching & learning unit to assist faculty with the technological and pedagogical move to on-line delivery, another had already been doing so for a while already. Other schools seem to have relied on more or less formalised sharing of best practice as faculty was moving online as a group. In general, plans for more systematic faculty training during the current year have not yet been confirmed. Again, that puts the ambidextrous schools at an advantage.

A similar picture emerges when examining the business schools’ quality assurance activities more closely. For many schools, adjusting the assessment regime to an online delivery format was the most pressing challenge, and they handled this with pragmatic (impromptu) adjustments of established policies to ensure the orderly completion of the spring term. The autumn term has not been handled any differently in most sample schools, independent of whether students were being forced into online learning due to a second Covid wave or whether they were given the option of online participation within a hybrid teaching framework.

Schools with an international posture and positioning have begun to evaluate the need for policy changes re. quality management, but with still uncertain outcomes; their over-compliance with respect to external quality assurance standards apparently justifies such a measured approach. In contrast, the majority of schools in the sample are not addressing potential alterations of quality management policies just yet or how quality assurance is to be operationalized and resourced going forward. Their ‘wait and see’ approach reflects unaltered external quality assessment constraints imposed by national authorities.

Sample schools have come to accept that COVID-19 is also broadening the remit for teaching and learning as well as quality assurance departments. The lack of physical presence on campus means students are becoming disconnected from the school, their professors, friends and campus life in general. This is all the more difficult for foreign students who have decided to pursue their degree virtually from their home country. Some schools are now responding by paying more attention to pastoral care to manage students’ mental well-being. This also helps address emerging student frustrations that can ultimately feed into lower satisfaction scores.

Further, Asian students often intend to use their studies as a vehicle for entering local labour markets. Schools are finding it much harder to meet placement expectations in an environment with tightening labour markets and far fewer touchpoints with practitioners during a period of social distancing that will cover the entire length of their programme for some students.

In sum, this study demonstrates the importance of combining effective day-to-day management of operations with the ability to step back and reflect on the more fundamental implications that may warrant an institutional response in terms of strategy, asset configuration and competence development. The sample includes a number of schools that have overcome this double hurdle with ease. Organisational theorists call such institutions ‘ambidextrous’ while risk managers use the labels ‘resilient’ or even ‘antifragile’.

An old saying in corporate restructuring is that crises are unique opportunities to reshape and improve a company’s future. The same applies to business schools. The survey responses underscore the fact that ambidextrous schools are able to avoid getting tied up in short-term crisis management. They are comfortable with adjusting their development trajectory to account for the eventualities of the ongoing pandemic. This ability seems to derive from greater investment in international quality standards (to be interpreted as an organisational esprit de corps) and also from being more financially exposed to the pandemic.

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