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Commentary: Action and caution needed, as business schools respond to disruption

Changes in the business school modus operandi have been underway for years before disruption was a buzzword, say NUS Business School’s Ang Swee Hoon and Kulwant Singh.

Commentary: Action and caution needed, as business schools respond to disruption

NUS Business School graduates at their commencement ceremony. (File photo: TODAY)

SINGAPORE: Global competition and rapid technological changes are disrupting many industries. 

Universities, including business schools, also face disruption in many different areas, particularly in our modus operandi, in the kinds of teaching content and delivery of educational programmes, and especially as student and employer expectations shift.

READ: Disruption is coming for Singapore business schools, a commentary


Education has long ceased to be a one-way street for the transfer of facts. The internet and smart technology has put information at everyone’s fingertips.

For students, the internet has become a fountain of information, giving them the tools to challenge long-held models about how the world works, including the body of knowledge on many subjects we teach.

Students will frequently Google to question almost every data point and proposition offered in class. This has led to a sea of changes in the professor-student relationship.

Since no professor can match the internet’s unlimited supply of information, they must refocus and use their wealth of theoretical knowledge and experience in applying information to a variety of contexts.

Their value to student learning comes from providing a strong foundation of paradigms and conceptual frameworks that help students to interpret, understand and respond to developments in their field.

File photo of NUS students attending a lecture in 2018. File photo of NUS students attending a lecture.

Equally important, professors can develop students’ ability to apply their knowledge to discern underlying causes and effects, and separate them from symptoms and noise, for solution identification and application.

In this, there has been a gradual but indisputable march towards developing students’ analytical abilities and judgment, and away from the rote accumulation of knowledge.


Paradoxically, in a world of high tech, high touch becomes even more necessary. Rapport between professors and students to encourage idea exchange calls for humility from professors to engage and learn from students, and marry theoretical understanding with developments in a rapidly changing world.

But successful integration also requires a doubling down on research and knowledge development on the part of professors.

There is a debate that selected local universities obsess over research at the expense of teaching and let university rankings determine their research. This zero-sum view that says one must come at the expense of the other is limiting when reality shows a striking relationship among the best universities. Harvard, Stanford and Wharton are research titans yet well known for their teaching excellence.

READ: Singapore and Singaporeans lose when universities chase after world rankings, a commentary

Research excellence feeds into quality teaching as we develop conceptual and applied knowledge on emerging business, industry, economic and societal trends within Singapore and globally. And the process of research – of exploring and discovering, of challenging our limits of knowledge, and of testing hypotheses and sharing findings – contribute to students’ learning, particularly since this journey also involves them.

A student stands in the entrance way of a building at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts November 16, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi) A student stands in the entranceway of a building at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts November 16, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

READ: Time for Singapore universities to switch gears, a commentary

We bounce research ideas off students and share with them data to develop their analytics skills as students engage in primary and secondary research for their projects. In doing so, they learn to be systematic in sieving pertinent information from the noise.  

Disruption also places fresh demands on the shoulders of students, who must take on the responsibility of independently cultivating a willingness to learn and to be uncomfortably challenged. The emerging two-way street for learning is exactly that.

While these changes have important pedagogical implications, business schools have long used an interactive, discussion-oriented, case-enhanced and applied approach to developing students.

Current practices extend these trends, through using current “live” cases as problem settings and having students consider unstructured information from multiple sources, so that they recognise change and complexity as core business trends.

The nature of teaching and learning in Singapore’s business schools has changed radically, perhaps more so than is commonly recognised. One of us has not set a single examination in any class in NUS Business School in the last two decades despite having taught many different modules as a full-time member of the school.

Instead, in keeping with the focus on developing critical thinking and judgment, a wider range of interactive assessments, such as case studies, developing strategies for firms, group presentations and debates, learning journals and research practicums for firms, are used to encourage learning and application.


While disruption is inevitable, and the opportunities to reach non-Singapore based students multiply, it will take time, experimentation, and much learning to figure out how to harness technology to transform the nature of teaching for more effective learning.

File photo of National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduates. (Photo: Alif Amsyar)

There will come a time when location and distance will be irrelevant in the quality of learning but not yet. Technology has not advanced to the point where virtual interactions are good enough to replicate face-to-face learning and nurturing in a classroom for university courses to be fully digitised.

Only half of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) participants enrolled in a course ever got as far as watching a lecture and only a mere 4 per cent complete their course, according to a study of a million users by the University Of Pennsylvania Graduate School Of Education.


Evolving as signs of disruption emerge will entail that schools innovate in all aspects of education, including content, learning methods, and student experiences. Singapore’s business schools should continue to benchmark their processes and programmes against those of leading global business schools, and consult with alumni, employers and other stakeholders to understand their needs.

Beyond providing the intellectual foundations necessary for success in students’ early careers, NUS Business School reviews its programmes to equip students with the ability to learn, grow and adapt throughout their careers.

Business schools first emerged to provide skills-based teaching, but now focus on educating for careers, developing judgment for success, and building leaders for society. The shift has required development of almost all aspects of our programmes, including the incorporation of the latest academic and practical ideas and concepts.

One outcome from a recent review provides greater flexibility for students to customise their education to meet personal interests and goals, and grow and adapt. 

Students now undertake broad-based foundation studies and as much as 20 per cent of their classes from outside their faculty. They have a wider range of specialisations and electives to choose from, more advanced electives to challenge themselves, and the option of double majors and degree programmes.

File photo of the National University of Singapore (NUS). (Photo: Alif Amsyar)

Practical and experiential opportunities have also increased multiple-fold. Our more senior alumni will envy the learning experiences our current students enjoy.

The launch of programmes such as the Masters in Business Analytics, a joint endeavour with the School of Computing, is evidence of curriculum reviews among business schools. These new programmes aim to expose students to emerging technologies set to become the foundations of the future economy, such as blockchain, data analytics, machine learning and fintech, as well as aspects of entrepreneurship and innovation.


The shortage of professors proficient in these emerging areas is a key challenge.

Business schools and universities are thus reaching out to working professionals to co-teach, and to complement the theory with practical knowledge, beyond traditional adjunct instructors teaching in the evenings. The more progressive universities are able to hire full-time industry leaders to commit to teaching as a career, even if this is not done on a full-time basis.

At NUS Business School, for example, a course on marketing entrepreneurship is taught by a senior Google executive. He is on the cutting-edge of technology and brings with him “live” cases and a wealth of experience and practical perspectives that complement the more academic approach for a well-rounded education. 

Consultants teach our consulting modules, and accounting experts various accounting modules.

READ: University professors must teach more, have industry experience, a commentary

A rigorous yet dynamic curriculum – one that balances strong theoretical understanding with experiential learning, delivered on suitable teaching platforms – offers students an education that puts them in good stead to learn, develop and adapt throughout their careers.


Another challenge facing business schools is to balance theory with practice. Experiential learning is vital to complement classroom learning as it enables students to apply theory.

Many universities see internships that offer meaningful exposure as a solution and have made it compulsory for graduation, and integral to the core curriculum.

NUS Business School, taken in 2014. (File photo: NUS Business School) NUS Business School. (Photo: NUS Business School)

Besides internships, one of the decisions made by NUS Business School is to introduce consulting practicums for students. They consult for companies including small- and medium-sized enterprises for between six months to a year where they get deeply involved in company projects in exchange for programme credits.

Companies, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises, benefit as they are usually short on funding for consultancy and business research. More than 3,000 undergraduates and MBA students have undertaken 1,000 of these projects, involving over 500 companies both in Singapore and around the world.

With the trend towards establishing start-ups upon graduation, some universities take the approach of introducing courses on entrepreneurship. Others, like NUS, build an ecosystem that is university-wide to optimise cross-fertilisation of strengths.

Block 71, the most successful Singapore start-up eco-park is an NUS creation. 

Students can take time off studies to work full-time on their innovations or to gain experience. They can also tap on an established ecosystem of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and private equity investors, as they receive support in the form of start-up grants and on-campus incubators.


While the world is changing, we need to respect the time-honoured principle that history is the teacher of life, and that fundamental principles in education hold true.

On the one hand, more business schools are using “live” case studies that force students to immerse themselves into on-going business events; the incompleteness, complexity, and uncertainty of information and the lack of obvious answers, mirrors the challenges that business leaders face.

But these should also complement the classic cases relevant in teaching students key principles. The combination injects an element of reality in the application of their knowledge.

Business schools organise case competitions and hackathons to encourage students to solve real business issues. 

Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University in Thailand, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and NUS are internationally renowned for their business case competitions. Students are sent to participate in such global competitions for direct exposure to business challenges.

BOC-NUS Case Competion 2018 (Photo: NUS Case Competition Facebook page)

Exchange programmes to leading schools have also become a key element of some business programmes, with a majority of students in each cohort spending a semester or more abroad. Students regularly report that these exchanges are life-changing experiences.

Indeed, business schools and university research have faced extensive technological, financial and pedagogical disruption in recent years.

Local business schools have met these challenges by developing professors’ capabilities, by investing in technology, by working with industry, by raising funds from multiple sources, and by working with students.

This has been a model for how universities will adapt teaching to disruption. We at business schools in Singapore get this.

Ang Swee Hoon is an associate professor in the Department of Marketing and Kulwant Singh is a professor in the Department of Strategy and Policy. Both teach and research at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writers and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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