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Commentary: Disruption is coming for Singapore business schools

Business schools need to foster a spirit of innovation in graduates who face a world of disruption but many programmes remain outdated, says Oon Tian Sern.

Commentary: Disruption is coming for Singapore business schools

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

SINGAPORE: The latest Global Innovation Index ranked Singapore as the fifth most innovative country in the world.

We come up top in many areas including high-tech manufacturing and high-tech net exports.

Tech innovation has propelled Singapore towards realising our ambition of becoming an innovation-based economy, but large foreign multinational corporations (MNCs) have been its primary engine.

For the instincts of tech innovation to be woven into the fabric of our economy requires us to groom local innovators – local talent who can create enterprise solutions to local problems that have the potential for international scale.

Worldwide, research and development (R&D) activities in small, innovative economies are primarily driven by home-grown companies. In Sweden, local MNCs contribute almost half of total R&D expenses while Nokia contributed close to 50 per cent of R&D expenses in Finland during its prime.

People crossing a street in Singapore's central business district. (File photo: Reuters)

As Budget 2019 draws near, the Ministry of Finance has asked for feedback from Singaporeans on how companies and workers can become more innovative to gain a long-term competitive edge. 

So it is timely to examine how Singapore can develop local tech innovators and grow the next unicorn that can reap massive economic growth in an era of disruption.

READ: Here’s what Singapore’s human capital index in a world of disruption should look like, a commentary


Suppose a student wants to learn how to start a tech company. What can he do?

The conventional path for him is enrolment into business school. Yet this option is less than ideal where outdated programmes and case studies will lead him to learn the tepid vocabularies of entrepreneurship from dusty case studies such as Google and 3M, yet fail to develop the instincts needed for breakthrough innovation.

He might also learn business principles like minimum viable product, a risk-based approach towards business which encourages entrepreneurs to commit the least resources needed to build a functioning product.

In this, he might learn that to build a fully functioning four-wheel vehicle such as a car, he should start by thinking about building a two-wheel skateboard to gather feedback from customers before proceeding further.

Yet this paradigm is problematic because it assumes a linear, incremental model of innovation but the gestation journey of most game-changing technologies is often radical and aggressive.

Seeking feedback on a faster horse carriage will not give rise to Ford’s gasoline-powered automobile.

A university student graduation. (Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder) FILE PHOTO: Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The other problem is that traditional business schools, as a microcosm of the university education system, inculcates short-term thinking. Students are subjected to continuous short-term scholastic testing, including examinations, essays and class participation.

Instead of fostering much needed imagination, creativity or a can-do attitude, business schools saddle students with academic endeavours and conditions them to prioritise their resources and attention for the short term.

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

Entrepreneurship, in contrast, requires the entrepreneur to be able to think long term, seize new opportunities and pivot to solve problems.

The entrepreneur will inevitably make mistakes, encounter setbacks and experience uncertainty, and little in business school teaches him how to navigate these challenging circumstances.

Being encouraged to be risk-averse, the business school graduate instead avoids taking risks and fails to develop the killer business acumen vital for innovation.

These same instincts are needed in a student who eventually wants to work in a high-growth tech company, even if he doesn’t want to start his own company.

READ: What a tech education today for a digital workforce tomorrow looks like, a commentary

Some say we expect too much out of business schools, which are also tasked with grooming professionals climbing up the corporate ladder and helping people switch industries mid-career.

But most of us can agree equipping graduates with skills for the future economy must remain a basic goal or business schools risk becoming obsolete.

The alarm bells have sounded. Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing had remarked at an Industry 4.0 panel that the conventional education system alone is too slow to meet the needs of tomorrow.

Chan Chun Sing speaking at an event.

Over the past 20 years, more business schools around the world are offering entrepreneurship modules but it is worth considering bolder changes to these programmes in Singapore.

READ: Are Singapore businesses just not creative enough? A commentary


I have five suggestions for business schools to consider in ensuring business programmes remain relevant.

First, a closer partnership with industry leaders to develop programme components. Mentorship and coaching from industry leaders can move the needle.

Many self-made billionaires around the world have committed plans to help students realise their entrepreneurial potential yet these programmes are still not part of mainstream business school education in Singapore.

Taizo Son, a self-made billionaire, founded Vivita, an early education school that provides a 21st century makers’ space to nurture a children’s curiosity for entrepreneurship. They expose students to the latest cutting-edge technology, including virtual technology, 3D printing and the like.

By empowering students to create, experiment and prototype, Son’s programme propels students to solve problems and make the future.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and an early investor of Facebook, started the Peter Thiel Fellowship since 2011. 

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, US, July 21 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

Each year, he gives 20 to 30 students a two-year US$100,000 fellowship to drop out of college and commit full-time to build their business. His fellowship also provides a network of investors, customers and mentors that fellows can draw on for support.


Second, instead of a model of teaching and passive knowledge acquisition, business schools should design their programmes to focus on practice as core curriculum in developing action-oriented graduates.

Business programmes should be experiential and provide an immersive experience that allows students to develop, launch and operate real business plans. They should aim to get students out of the classroom and into the competitive world of solving real problems.

Business schools should transform themselves into accelerators that aggregates programmes, events, initiatives and business competitions on a common platform for students - in partnership with entities such as Enterprise Singapore, incubators and the start-up ecosystem.

They could hold hackathons, business competitions or pilot studies so that students can pitch and pivot their ideas to fit the needs of enterprises.

Business schools could design their programmes to fit each stage of the business life-cycle, from ideation, prototyping, beta-testing, early-stage venture capitalisation and rapid growth.

A social impact accelerator dinner workshop held at the Singapore Management University. (Photo: Facebook/Lien Centre for Social Innovation)

There are no lack of available suitable partners to business schools.

The Start-up Weekend Singapore (SWSG) Mega Hackathon, a space where diverse talent brainstorm and tackle specific challenges in 24 hours, helps entrepreneurs brainstorm ideas and meet people with different skills, and is a great module for the ideation phase.

StartupX, partly run by SWSG’s founder, recently partnered with Temasek to start The Start, a programme that supports entrepreneurs with high-potential ideas in the prototype or beta stage with funding and coaching, so that they can become a viable company that attracts follow-on investor funding or customers.

Competitions such as the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge or the Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition, with its exposure to venture capitalists, can provide useful testing grounds in the post-beta or revenue generation phases.

In all these, the school should also see itself as an enabler for the student, to provide links to relevant resources, networks and opportunities that support students in building their unique business model and mobilising resources to succeed. Professors would act in advisory capacities as mentors to be consulted on students’ business strategies.

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


Third, business schools must keep case studies fresh and relevant. Instead of dusty old business cases, the school could draw on virtual accelerator programmes such as One Million by One Million or reality TV shows such as Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den, which do a better job in teaching students how to be entrepreneurs with stronger, more recent case studies.

(Photo: Unsplash/Hunters Race)

Fourth, in terms of performance measurement, in lieu of grades, business schools could track students’ follow-on funding or revenue generated through hackathons or business competitions, complemented by annual reviews that track students’ assessment of their own growth and 360-degree feedback from mentors, customers and team mates.

The school should also track the number of projects that become inactive, as well as those at the ideation, prototype, beta, early or growth stage. Students whose projects become inactive could be matched, based on student's interests, to other teams whose projects are growing.


Fifth, let’s rethink admissions. Business schools should select hungry, ambitious candidates who want to turn ideas into reality - and jettison traditional rule-based admission methods based on past performance and grades.

Business schools should assess the potential of aspiring graduates and their proposed project through qualitative questionnaires and interviews, in the same way that many professional degree programmes select students based on their portfolio and field interests.

In this, the school could take a page from the playbook of established accelerators like Y Combinator, Tech Stars and Echoing Green, which select entrepreneurs based on their subject mastery and leadership skills, the innovativeness of their intended project and potential for huge impact.

READ: Confidence to face an AI-dominated future requires preparing Singaporeans for jobs not yet created, a commentary

The school could then try get students who might have common or complementary ideas to team up.


The Times Higher Education has plans to launch a new way of ranking universities next April. It would capture the quality of jobs landed by graduates, contributions to economic growth and global partnerships forged.

The initiative is in line with Singapore’s push to measure an institute’s worth beyond the narrow measurement of research publications and is a step in the right direction.

Where even the ranking agencies have recognised that old methods of signaling which educational institutes have a better value proposition, it is time for business schools to step up and rethink its role in an age of disruption.

Singapore must strive to grow our pool of local tech innovators and company founders, and business schools must transform themselves to aid this goal.

Oon Tian Sern is the founder of Acceset. He is also recipient of the Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2018 and associate with the Philip Yeo Initiative.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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