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    My job in Higher Ed with Howard Yu, IMD Professor and author of LEAP: How to thrive in a world where everything can be copied

    In this interview professor Howard Yu talks about his role at IMD, discusses his book LEAP and predicts some seismic shift in the landscape of education.
    Last updated:
    December 3, 2021

    Howard Yu is the LEGO professor of management and innovation at the IMD business school in Switzerland, the director of its signature Advanced Management Program (AMP) programme and author of LEAP: How to Thrive in a World Where Everything Can Be Copied. Professor Yu was selected by Poets&Quants as one of “The World’s Top 40 Business Professors Under 40,” and in 2018 he appeared on the Thinkers50 Radar list of thirty management thinkers “most likely to shape the future of how organisations are managed and led.” He has delivered customised training programs for leading organisations including Mars, Maersk, Daimler, and Electrolux. His articles have appeared in Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, The Financial Times, and The New York Times. Yu received his doctoral degree from Harvard Business School. Prior to his beginning his doctorate, he worked in the banking industry in Hong Kong.


    You currently work as professor of management and innovation as well as AMP programme director at IMD. What does a typical work day look like for you?



    I guess I don't really have a typical day because it really depends on the day of the week or the time of the month. There are periods when I'm much more focused on teaching and other times I’ll be more dedicated to writing and research.

    Overall, if I take a month as an example I would probably spend one third of my time dedicated to programme delivery related activities, including classroom teaching, student expeditions or corporate planning. If a company wants to build a learning programme I need to speak to the company executives to understand the strategic challenges they face and plan the programme accordingly. 


    How do you balance all these different roles - professor, programme director, researcher and author?



    This is a great question and a lot of professors feel tension because their research activity is decoupled from executive education or even MBA degrees. But as educators we need to find ways to integrate these activities and the best scenario is when we are able to complement both.

    For instance, it is very advantageous when you are able to ask a research question that most students and executives are interested in. That way you can go off and research or interview executives about this topic and you can use the findings in your classroom discussions.

    If done well this is actually a very powerful mode of working, but if one forgets the importance of integrating both activities then all these obligations become disjointed and leverage is depleted.

    Some schools encourage you to integrate both but other schools have a strong research focus that relies mainly on publication journal topics which don’t necessarily align with the general public interest. This can be problematic.

    "But as educators we need to find ways to integrate these activities and the best scenario is when we are able to complement both."


    What are the main reasons that your students pursue an AMP programme?



    AMP stands for Advanced Management Programme. Essentially, we are targeting senior executives with at least a decade of managerial experience and some P&L responsibility.

    The programme’s average age group is 45 years old, so most of these executives are at the prime of their careers and want to make a major push within their organisations. At the same time they work under tremendous pressure to deliver near term results.

    The value proposition of the AMP is simple: we take this group of seasoned executives outside their day to day operations so that they have time to rethink the way they lead their business and personal leadership approaches while networking with peers.

    As people move up the hierarchy of an organisation, the lonelier they tend to get, but through the programme these executives have the opportunity to bounce ideas with people that are outside their organisation but in a similar career situation. This kind of networking is very powerful! 


    You've received quite a few awards and recognitions. In your opinion, what has been your most important achievement so far?



    It’s always nice to receive recognitions and awards. But for me, personally being able to put together eight years of my knowledge and experience in an overarching narrative and publish my book "LEAP: How to thrive in a world where everything can be copied" was extremely satisfactory. 


    In your book Leap you try to understand the key drivers that make a company successful in the long run and thrive in an ever changing global economy. Can you highlight the book's key findings?



    Whenever I spoke with executives one of the big complaints was that they found that their product was commoditised. They key finding of the book is that for organisations to thrive in the long run they need to LEAP from one knowledge discipline to the next in order to reinvent themselves.

    Nowadays, it’s not enough to simply do things better than others. I examined several big organisations in several industries, from pharmaceutical to FMCG, to understand how they thrived over centuries and continue to be on top of their competition.

    I discovered that pharmaceutical companies in the West continue to lead the market, unlike the automative sector which continues to be disrupted by companies such as Toyota, Honda, and other Korean, Japanese and Chinese companies, despite all the copy cats intruding their market.

    The reason why pharmaceutical companies stay in the lead is because they LEAP across centuries from organic chemistry discipline to microbiology study and today they focus on human DNA and genetics.

    This LEAP from one knowledge to the next is something that I found not just in Pharma companies but in every company that was able to achieve long term sustainability in terms of competitive advantage. 

    How does that apply to universities and the higher education sector?



    I love this question and I was actually speaking about this topic in a recent AACSB conference. If you apply the LEAP concept in higher education, historically the fundamental hotbed for innovation in terms of pedagogy has been face to face interactions.

    Going forward, technology and AI will fundamentally change the way higher education is delivered to students. We've already observed that knowledge dissemination is ubiquitous these days. A case study can no longer be thought for decades. 

    The student debt issue in the United States is a profound one and I think universities could adopt interesting business models going forward. And I'm not just talking about online learning or MOOCs.

    I think there will be a shift from pay-for-service to pay-for-outcome in higher education as well. You already see startups experimenting and competing with the high tuition fee model that universities have. They'd no longer charge tuition fees, but rather students would pay a % back to the institution after being employed. 

    "Going forward, technology and AI will fundamentally change the way higher education is delivered to students."


    How do you think these will impact higher education in the next five years?



    If we use disruptive innovation theory we can predict that the biggest impact will be in the mid and low tier universities. Currently there are too many universities around the world and we face a very fragmented industry.

    The top tier universities will probably continue business as usual because of their brand and  fundraising base. The students that cannot afford high tuition fees or have lower credentials will start looking at some of these new alternatives in the market.

    "The mid and lower tier universities will come under tremendous pressure and start innovating and adopting some of these new delivery and cost structure models."

    Many universities focus on having nice facilities and cafeterias.Those innovations matter but are not game changers. I think the student experience needs to be predefined based on the cost of the tuition fee. Universities cannot disregard the economic reality.

    We will also see a shift in the value proposition of universities. In the past universities were seen as fountains for knowledge dissemination but today knowledge is available everywhere. Universities' value proposition will be more focused around student success and outcomes. 


    My Job in Higher Ed is a monthly series. Take a look at our other interviews.


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