A Conversation with Marion Debruyne - IEDP
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A Conversation with Marion Debruyne

Dean of Vlerick Business School


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Innovation and the Learning Journey

Two main themes emerge from IEDP’s conversation with Vlerick Business School’s new Dean, Professor Marion Debruyne.  First that innovation, as the essential driver of business and economic growth, needs to be at the forefront of executive education and secondly that life-long learning is critical. For leaders to think in innovative ways and to create cultures of innovation in their organizations they can no longer rely on past assumptions or on a master’s degree they took twenty years ago, they need to embrace new learning and new thinking.

Vlerick Business School, the autonomous management school of Ghent University and the Catholic University of Leuven, was founded in 1953 by André Vlerick an influential Belgian politician, economist, and entrepreneur. The School has four international campuses in Brussels, Ghent, Leuven (Belgium) and Saint Petersburg (Russia), along with a cooperative program with Peking University's China Center for Economic Research in Beijing (China). The School offers MBAs and Masters in Management, as well as both open programs for practicing managers and custom-designed programs for individual companies, delivered on campus and increasingly at companies’ offices around the world. The School has over 17,000 alumni in more than 100 different countries.

Marion Debruyne, whose book 'Customer Innovation', won a prestigious CMI Management Book of the Year 2015 award, sites innovation as the critical factor when considering the future prospects for business globally. Her book considers how by combining customer-centricity with innovative power companies can create a completely new outside-in approach to the market, where the value chain and the way a company does business is the result of understanding customer needs and innovating business models, products and services to meet them.

This requirement to innovate to meet customer needs is ever more prevalent, she says, in a modern ‘knowledge economy’. The European economy in particular has increasingly become an economy where the raw materials are ideas and knowledge. An innovative corporate culture is the key to enabling organizations to leverage these raw materials to create competitive advantage and positive change.

She notes that there are two schools of thought around how to foster innovation. First is the belief that ‘innovation’ essentially comes from the creativity naturally embedded in every individual. This leads to the conviction that innovation can be stimulated within organizations by creating the right culture and by opening channels that release innovative ideas from employees and individuals in the organization’s stakeholder network. Secondly there is the belief, illustrated by huge recent market changes, that game-changing new business models and products only come from ‘disruptive innovation’. Contrary to the first school of thought, this conviction assumes that disruptive innovation is unlikely to come from within the organization, where individuals are limited by current preconceptions; rather innovation needs to come from separate external sources or from ‘intrapreneurs’ working outside the organization’s usual mores and systems.

Debruyne takes an all-inclusive view. She sees both schools of thought being valid. Innovative ideas sourced from individuals across the organization bringing small incremental improvements to performance that can have a big cumulative effect. At the same time organizations should be ready to embrace disruptive innovations sourced internally or externally to gain competitive advantage. 

The essential prerequisite is a corporate culture that welcomes innovation. This means a willingness to take risks, and a tolerance of failure across the organization. New products usually fail and competitive advantage rarely lasts long, says Debruyne. As well as the need to tolerate failure organizations need to be agile. This means an agility to accept the constant ongoing change implicit in taking on innovative ideas. As traditional ‘command and control’ hierarchies are not conducive to organizational agility, to promote innovation business leaders need to encourage adaptive agile organizational cultures.

How can business school executive education help organizations and individual leaders build corporate cultures that are conducive to innovation and open to change? Marion Debruyne is optimistic because as she points out these are interesting times for the whole education world which must now innovate itself to embrace new technologies bringing new formats and new ways to transfer knowledge. At a time when Michael Porter can be watched for free on YouTube, innovation is unavoidable for business schools – many of which are deeply involved in finding new ways to engage with and deliver and support executive and organizational development.

Debruyne believes that one important way forward for business schools is to adjust their focus away from the mere transfer of knowledge, which can be facilitated through new online delivery technologies, to the more difficult but crucial aspects of how to apply knowledge and how to act on theory. Fundamental to this, she says, is the need for leaders to embark on a learning journey which will enable them not just to gain new knowledge but to understand how to do something useful with it. This journey can be facilitated by business schools though a blend of classroom and on-line learning employing a range of different channels to suit the individual and their organization.

One feature that is essential in the learning journey is to take on an international mindset. Consequently Debruyne, who would be visiting China twice herself in the few weeks after this interview, is committed to internationalizing Vlerick Business School. This is a continuation of a process exemplified by the opening two years ago of a new campus in Brussels – located only steps from major international banks, consulting firms, multi-nationals, governmental and non-governmental organizations. Furthermore, 80% of the past 115 custom programs Vlerick have delivered have been to clients that are internationally active, and the School’s 50 full-time faculty –representing 12 nationalities – increasingly travel globally to deliver programs.  

Announcing Debruyne’s appointment earlier this year the School’s chairman, Roch Doliveux, said "She brings impressive credentials, an amazing energy, a solid international experience and mindset, a deep understanding of the Vlerick Spirit…” Asked to define the Vlerick spirit Debruyne points to the principles and ideals of the founder Baron Andre Vlerick who as a government minister was instrumental in building the successful Flemish economic development after the War. Vlerick saw the essential need to leverage academic insight to help companies and business growth. Today this deep engagement with companies extends from the traditional Belgian Mittelstand to major global multinationals.

The strong sense of connection between academic research and practical business application is central to the Vlerick spirit and very much what Debruyne personifies. She has spent the last ten years as Professor of Marketing Strategy and Innovation at the School where since 2012, she headed the Masters programs. Prior to that, she spent five years in the United States where she was connected to the Wharton School, the Kellogg School of Management, and Goizueta Business School. Alongside her publications in academic journals, she developed strong ties with the corporate world by means of various chairs and in-company training programs. She is also on the Boards of Directors of Kinepolis and Recticel.

Marion Debruyne says her “glass is half full” and this optimism bodes well for the School, which will face many challenges in future both in innovating new ways to engage with clients and from a range of global competitors including not only other schools, but media companies, consultants, MOOCs, and others that that have recently entered the executive education space.

One recent challenge is the need to address the generation of potential young leaders who do not necessarily see their future as working for a major corporation. (Interestingly Vlerick’s population of Executive MBA students are increasingly self-financed.)  Here again life-long learning is key, as is the need for self-management, in order to succeed working independently, or for an NGO, or for a Start-up.

To enthuse young leaders who have this outlook, Vlerick are launching ‘Journey to Your Dreams’ < www.vlerick.com/dreams > a video series that broadcasts stories of recent alumni who are turning their dreams into reality, alumni that Debruyne describes as “unusual suspects.” One ex-student, for example, is working with public transport in Benin, one is the artistic director of a theatre company, and another the founder of a personalized on line shopping service for men – unusual stories but an exciting departure for an innovative business school.

This article was first published in Developing Leaders: Issue 21

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