George Yip, a professor at Imperial College London and former Dean of RSM, has had an illustrious career in academia, business and consulting. He is a champion of the ‘blended study’ teaching and learning method, and has implemented pioneering changes to the MBA programme that have resulted in higher rates of student engagement and retention.
How would you describe your current role at Imperial College London?
I am a Professor of Marketing and Strategy but my main leadership role is Associate Dean on the Business School's Management Board. I'm also in charge of the Executive MBA programme.
What's different about the Imperial College Executive MBA programme?
When I took this over two years ago we had just separated the programme from our Weekend Executive MBA. I redesigned the programme quite extensively for the class that started a year ago in February and the five main differences are as follows:
1. The biggest change is that the programme is now truly blended: we combine monthly face to face sessions with online study in-between.
2. Our students are quite experienced - the mean age is 39 years old and most candidates have around 15 years of working experience.
3. We offer a two year long programme on developing personal leadership capabilities - the executive leadership journey - which is in addition to the academic subject of corporate leadership.
4. We have three internal residencies in the three most important economies in the world where students have lectures in local top universities and visit local major companies. For this, we've partnered with with The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), ESMT in Berlin and Cornell's management School in Manhattan.
By combining these lectures with company visits, students really learn about the principles and the theory about doing business in these economies.
5. Another element of distinction is that, by virtue of being at Imperial College, one of the very best science-based universities, we have access to some of our top scientists and engineers. In the first year, there are eight sessions with scientists exploring big data, robotics, additive manufacturing, cryptocurrency and other technologies of the future.
Can you explain in more detail how the blended study format works?
This format is the best of both worlds as students access the lectures and more formal materials online and then get to apply that in the classroom with the instructor and other members of their cohort. This is really the flipped classroom concept! If we take the example of the strategy course, students will take the lecture about Porter's Five Forces online, do some exercises online and then discuss a case in the classroom with the Strategy professor.
“...the first year of our fully online global MBA got higher student satisfaction than our face-to-face traditional MBA.”
What do you think are the main benefits for students of the flipped approach?
I believe students actually learn a lot more with this format as they come much better prepared when they attend class. In a traditional approach, students don't do much preparation but in this format students have to do their preparation online and engage with the exercises. Our online courses have been developed not just for our EMBA but also for our fully online global MBA and it's very engaging and interactive. In fact, the first year of our fully online Global MBA got higher student satisfaction than our face to face traditional MBA. That just shows how engaging the programme is!
I assume that from a faculty perspective you have to change your teaching style when doing an online lecture. What do you think are the main challenges for faculty?
First of all, you need to do a one time adaptation. At Imperial College London we do it ourselves as we have our own education technology team. I worked for several days with an assigned person to convert all my materials to an online format. After that, I do two online case discussions which is very different from traditional class discussions. In an online class discussion, I speak and ask questions while students type their answers. I've learned that online you can't ask broad questions and have to narrow the questions into smaller topics so that the typed answers are more focussed and easier to discuss. I also have a teaching assistant who monitors what students are doing and answers student questions. Overall, it works surprisingly well.
“When you ask a question in class most students sit back but online people feel more obliged to interact.”
So, from your experience, student engagement and retention is actually better online than face to face?
Yes. I actually had one face to face student from the full-time MBA who took my online lecture and she told that the online format was a lot more demanding. When you ask a question in class most students sit back but online people feel more obliged to interact - we can also monitor their work better and speak with those who are less engaged.
Do you think other programmes at Imperial are going to follow your example and start offering blended and fully online programmes?
We have the technology already in place and already see the developed materials being reused, not only by the same professor, but other professors who might use the material as an online textbook. We also now have one elective course which is being ‘blended’, partially because the instructor has to fly in from New York.
You’ve held several academic positions and also worked as Dean of RSM from 2008 to 2011. What were the main actions that contributed to your success?
I actually had three main academic positions in terms of programme leadership. At London Business School, I was associate dean for the MBA where I implemented some major reforms which I like to think really contributed to the LBS MBA becoming number one in the Financial Times business school rankings for three years in a row.
That was my first major programme and academic leadership experience. A few years later, I became Dean at Rotterdam Business School, Erasmus University. The university heads had given me the objectives of increasing revenue by improving engagement with business, whilst maintaining the very strong academic reputation. But RSM was far stronger in its academic work than in its connection with business so my main focus was to connect RSM better to business.
"I started deconstructing how the rankings were calculated, and if you look at the Financial Times weighting criteria, 40% is based on salaries."
My third leadership position is what I'm doing now and the main success so far has been the creation of this blended programme. I am now only an associate dean, rather than the dean, but for me, the status is not important. I care more about a role in which I can do a good job and cooperate with the rest of the leadership team.
When you look back at your experience at LBS, what were the main actions that positively contributed to making that programme number one in the Financial Times ranking?
I started deconstructing how the rankings were calculated, and if you look at the Financial Times weighting criteria, 40% is based on salaries. If you want to boost salaries, you need to place students in investment banks and consulting companies. In order to get a job in these companies you need to get summer jobs there and these interviews take place between October and November of the first year.But at that point the students at LBS (and most other schools) had not studied finance or strategy. So, one of the major changes is that we've actually moved the required strategy and finance courses to the first term to better prepare our students for the summer internship interviews. This contributed to a higher number of students being placed in investment banking and consulting companies, both during the summer internship and after the MBA. I also created a core course committee to ensure the teaching topics were consistent across sections and there was no overlap between subjects. An MBA is a product and we need to have a consistent product for employers.
As Dean of RSM, you used an action strategy to drive transformation across the business school. Can you tell me more about that?
I had a four-year contract as Dean of RSM which is a limited time frame, so I emphasised action before consensus building. The Dutch culture and academics in general like to discuss things. Traditionally, we teach that in order to drive transformation you have to change people's attitudes first. I realised that I could spend four years discussing things and nothing would happen. So, I instinctually went for action instead.
I started to organise events where faculty had to connect with the business world from alumni to senior leadership in banks. Once I had arranged such events, faculty took charge and engaged. I was applying, without knowing it at the time, what Richard Pascale of Stanford Business School had said: “It is easier to act your way into a better way of thinking than to think your way into a better way of acting.”
"Many people don't understand that an academic career today is less about teaching and more about research - faculty succeed by their research."
I also applied the concept of "a coalition of the willing". Some faculty will always be reluctant, so I focused on getting some of the engaged to create a snowball effect. By the end of my time at RSM, the faculty’s mindset had changed and most recognised the importance of connecting to the world of business.
You started your career working in marketing and product management with Unilever and have held several positions in the private sector. What attracted you to work in academia?
I've gone back and forth three times. I started working at Unilever and then did my MBA. During my very first class in the MBA, I felt a desire to be on the other side. I was initially attracted by teaching and later by research. Many people don't understand that an academic career today is less about teaching and more about research - faculty succeed by their research. I feel that my experience in both the academic and private business sector has been a major advantage; as Dean, I got to apply strategic concepts which is my main area of research anyway, while doing the job.
“BQ, business quotient, and OQ, organisational quotient, were the main skills that helped me succeed.”
In your opinion what are the top skills or characteristics that a Dean needs to succeed?
I've been thinking a lot about this. People talk a lot about IQ and EQ. IQ is less important! Everybody in academia is intelligent, and in fact, the dean should not have the highest IQ as often that upsets the other faculty. A dean needs to be above average on EQ, but that’s still not the most important skill. BQ, business quotient, and OQ, organisational quotient, were the main skills that helped me succeed. A dean needs to know how operate in a large organisation and be courageous to do what they think is right for the organisation and not for their own career.
In your latest book, you talk about China moving from a strategy of imitation to one of innovation. How do you think that will impact the academic world?
The main impact is that Chinese schools are becoming more important and moving up in the rankings. Chinese universities are now able to attract good faculty and conduct good research. Furthermore, Chinese companies are becoming very important in the global economy, so they'll start playing a role in Western business schools. My research is more on scientific and technological innovation by Chinese companies and not by Chinese business schools - but that sort of innovation will impact Chinese business schools as well.
What are your current or future research interests?
I am finishing a follow-up book on Chinese innovation with other co-authors where we focus on unknown Chinese innovation companies and I'll also continue my research on global account management and the link between corporate strategy and customer plans.
What do you think will be the future of business education and the key challenges that business schools will face in the next five to ten years?
There will always be demand for business education but the biggest challenge is that people are less and less willing to enrol in full-time MBA programmes, particularly at second-tier schools. I believe we'll see more part-time programmes and online programmes appearing.
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