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Warwick Business School: Ambitious Plans For The Future

Poets and Quants

Gazing out of his window, the dean of Warwick Business School looks onto a building site. Next year this will be transformed into £30 million of swanky new facilities as the school’s premises become half as big again – complete with state-of-the-art lecture theaters, seminar rooms, a 150-seat cafe, and a Behavioral Science lab ready for the September 2015 intake.

In the four years that former hedge fund manager Mark Taylor has led one of Britain’s top business schools, he’s shaken up the flagship MBA and other business degrees with innovative content and helped to make Warwick a leader in the digital delivery of education. He is that rare scholar who has distinguished himself in both business and academia. A former economist with the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England, he had been managing director at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, before joining Warwick as a professor of international finance in 1999. Taylor is among the most highly cited academic researchers in the world.

Since becoming dean in April of 2010, he has been trying to make Warwick the leading university-based business school in Europe. Even though many of Europe’s very best business schools, such as London Business School and INSEAD, are standalone institutions, Taylor has set Warwick on a highly ambitious course. After all, Warwick competes in the U.K. against the likes of Said and Judge business schools yet lacks their connections to the ancient world-class universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

THE SCHOOL HAS DONE WELL IN SEVERAL INFLUENTIAL RANKINGS

Warwick Business School, however, is linked to a respected modern university which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015 and WBS boasts some impressive rankings: For what it’s worth, the Financial Times puts the school’s full-time and Executive MBA in the top 25 globally. Forbes has Warwick’s full-time MBA seventh place in its rankings of international one-year programs. Warwick’s masters in finance is ranked as the top of its kind in the U.K., and the school has just bagged a floor of the Shard – London’s most dazzling office block – as a teaching venue.

While some 70 international students study in Warwick’s full-time MBA program, the school’s blended learning option accommodates nearly 500 – and at any one time the business school might have 1500 online students on its books. Like most business schools, it has experienced a surge in demand for online delivery. The Economistranks Warwick’s distance learning MBA top in the U.K.

And that is something that Taylor plans to build upon. He believes that digital delivery will filter through to face-to-face teaching, too. “It’s my firm belief that all delivery will be blended in the future – even residential courses will have digitization of core elements.” Warwick is currently looking into digital innovations such as studying “real time” business scenarios rather than relying on historical case studies.

“Students can follow events on a screen as they happen and think through a business problem rather than follow a fixed case study,” envisions Taylor, who also expects fewer lectures “to bleary kids at 9 a.m.” in the future (the school has a strong undergraduate programme too); with some core elements delivered digitally. “This is by no means to reduce the face-to-face contact, but to make it a far richer experience,” says Taylor. “We’ll be looking at the latest research in behavioural science and gaming technology to understand how to hold people’s attention and get them to absorb information.”

SOME UNUSUAL CHOICES IN MOOCS TO ADVERTISE THE SCHOOL’S DIFFERENCES

Some digital interaction will also school students in the soft skills of managing and working in remote teams – something he realized was in high demand during his years at BlackRock. Warwick has already cut its teeth on MOOCs (massive open online courses), collaborating with the U.K. platform FutureLearn. Last year, the business school launched the first MOOC at the University of Warwick, a course that also says something about the unusual nature of this business school: “The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology.” A third MOOC is in the pipeline – this one will cover big data, and the school offers a respected MSc in data analytics.

Why would a business school debut a course in human psychology rather than accounting, finance, strategy or marketing? Behavioral science is a subject close to Taylor’s heart. During his time at the financial coalface, he observed the markets’ collapse with a critical eye. “It became clear to me that you couldn’t explain what was driving the markets with an economics text book. There were all sorts of psychologies and behaviours afoot. Leadership is about understanding and influencing people’s behaviour – that’s why behavioural science is our unique focus.” And in Europe, Warwick now leads the field in behavioural science – an interdisciplinary subject which incorporates psychology, economics, sociology and finance to understand why people act as they do. Experienced Professor Nick Chater heads Warwick’s research group and he’s also an advisor within the U.K. government’s advisory “Nudge Unit”.

A second MOOC drew on another specific focus introduced by Taylor – creativity. When he took the helm, Taylor was determined to bring creativity into the MBA curriculum, and has successfully forged relations with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust down the road at Stratford upon Avon. This MOOC, “Shakespeare and His World,” draws on original artifacts from the archives and draws parallels between the playwright’s work and leadership today. “Henry V, for example, is really a play about strategic management, how to implement a project, how to deal with setbacks and so on,” insists Taylor.

And when students begin the full-time MBA, they’re thrown into one of Taylor’s innovations during the first week – a creativity “boot camp” in collaboration with theater professionals. They are asked to reflect upon the relevance of creativity to their own business practice. MBAs this year did a course with a professional stand-up comedian to unleash creativity and explore communication. Later in the year, students put on a Shakespeare performance – and routinely give this exercise outstanding feedback.

So what has King Lear or Antigone to do with an MBA? The creative process – be it creating a piece of literature or a business concept – has universal similarities, says Taylor. Likewise, students benefit from dramatic skills explained by professional actors, understanding how to influence a board room or give a convincing presentation. “Students cope with this pretty well,” says Taylor. “They understand the relevance to business and management.” That is why Warwick has redesigned its full-time MBA to put creativity and behavioral science at the core of the curriculum.

THE DEAN PREDICTS A DECLINE IN THE FULL-TIME RESIDENTIAL MBA

While he’s reluctant to toll the death bell for lesser business schools, the surge in demand for online courses will probably have an impact on numbers of full-time courses worldwide. Warwick’s own full-time numbers have dropped in half from close to 150 at the height of its program before the financial crash. “I think the residential full-time MBA at the very top level will be concentrated in a smaller number of business schools in various geographical locations.”

And Warwick’s new London location in the Shard – roughly an hour away by train from its Coventry campus – will boost the school’s international appeal, with a base in one of the world’s top finance centers. “A U.K. MBA still tends to be more international than a traditional North American degree – it equips students for a global career.” It’s from the Shard that part-time masters courses will be delivered, as well as some executive education. Full-time MBA students will also spend a week here, and the school might gather its distance learners for face-to-face modules.

While this London presence might pit Warwick against the likes of Cass Business School London and the LSE (London School of Economics), Taylor declares himself unruffled – and points to the rankings. And though the school might be competing against the likes of Oxford and Cambridge, it doesn’t have the 800 odd years of tradition – nor the lucrative endowments or brand prestige – to back it up. At the end of the day, Taylor’s focus on Oxford and Cambridge is less about competition than it is about distancing Warwick from Britain’s other business school options, from the University of Bath and City University to Cranfield School of Management and the University of Strathclyde.

“So we need to be resourceful, flexible and dynamic; we are a non-traditional type of school,” says Taylor. When trawling through applications, admissions staff look for “confidence without arrogance – the school is elite not elitist. When the university celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, it will celebrate from going from a sheep field to one of the most respected schools in the world.”

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