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The Purpose of Answers

Oxford’s Educational Approach for the 2020s: A Conversation with Andrew White and Caroline Williams of Oxford Saïd Business School


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‘Purpose’ has become one of the great challenges that organizations—particularly the largest ones—have been struggling to clarify for themselves over the last half-decade.

The search for purpose is driven partly by the on-going ‘war for talent’, where salary and job-title are no longer sufficient incentives to attract the best qualified people—and partly by the growing awareness that the world is facing significant problems, and that for strong organizations not to play a part in addressing them is ultimately bad for their brand, their customers, and their future.

This has become increasingly clear during the Covid-19 crisis. Companies that have prioritized the wellbeing of their employees; that have made special efforts to support elderly and vulnerable customers, small suppliers and business partners; or that have been able to repurpose production lines and services to contribute directly to the fight against the virus can look forward to increased loyalty from their stakeholders. The substantial minority that tried instead to capitalize on the crisis by raising prices; that forced employees to work in unsafe conditions or sacked them unceremoniously; or that have continued to pay large dividends and bonuses will pay the penalty as customers take their business elsewhere.

There is a growing sense that we should seize the opportunity to reshape the world for the better as we manifestly failed to do after the 2008 financial crisis

More importantly, as we look beyond the immediate emergency to the future, there is a growing sense that we should seize the opportunity to reshape the world for the better as we manifestly failed to do after the 2008 financial crisis. The unanticipated benefits of the lockdowns imposed in many cities and countries – the drop in air-pollution and rise in community spirit and appreciation of public healthcare services – are changes that few people want to see reversed. Businesses with a strong sense of their social purpose and responsibilities to people and planet will have a major role in redefining what we value and how we function as a society, as well as in tackling global challenges such as climate change.

Andrew White, the Associate Dean of Executive Education at Oxford Saïd, is clear that business schools, more than ever before, need to be championing the value of education as a pathway to solving the societal challenges and corporate transformations facing all of us. “This is why education and a place like Oxford matter and why the classroom is such an important place. In creating a safe space for these kinds of strategic discussions, we are about the development of people, and why that matters. A space like ours can be free from bigger conflicts of interest. So, if I'm coaching you, I'm coaching you—and I've not got half-an-eye on a commercial opportunity that might sit behind that,” he expounds.

Oxford University’s Saïd Business School has been working with the likes of the World Economic Forum for well over a decade in trying to build solutions and momentum for global issues. This has recently taken a more central form in their purpose-driven mission ‘World Challenges: Oxford Answers’, where the school is leading the way in bringing the world-class expertise that Oxford University as a whole offers, to specific challenges and issues that the business school’s organizational clients are facing.

This is a significant step change from the way business schools operated in the past. As White notes, “Programs we did a decade ago introduced executives to new ideas around concepts like water conservation and neuroscience. Today we bring real application of these insights to our participants to help solve their particular, specific challenges.” He also sees that business schools by themselves have certain limitations, as well as unique convening opportunities. “We recognize that a business school is no longer sufficient by itself to educate leaders today, but it is an amazing platform to do that when it sits within a university ecosystem.”

Leaders today are being asked to address the challenge of climate change, the challenge of digitization, globalization, and diversity and inclusion

He understands that today business leaders of the largest organizations are being asked to react to an array of issues that far exceeds the remit of what would have been seen as their responsibility twenty, or even ten, years ago. “Leaders today are being asked to address the challenge of climate change, the challenge of digitization, globalization, and diversity and inclusion—and all of this on top of business performance, which is still as important as it's always been.”

One of the under-acknowledged benefits of business school executive education is its ability to bring diverse groups of change-makers together in a single space for extended periods of time. It is difficult to conceive of other opportunities where senior executives get the chance to engage in structured conversations with both peers and experts away from the noisy and disruptive demands of everyday work. The most prestigious conferences and summits tend to be more presentational than conversational, so content is gathered, and networking done, but the chance to really explore thinking and dig deeply into issues with facilitated expertise on-hand is usually missing—and this is precisely what Oxford Saïd is offering. As White puts it, “Oxford Answers is a place where you come to find answers from pluralities of people. It's about the convening power of an institution like ours. We provide a platform that bridges the university’s extraordinary range of expertise—but it is also about the diversity and breadth of people we are able to convene.”

Caroline Williams, Head of Open Programs at Saïd, highlights the Oxford Initiative on AIxSDGs as an example of this. The initiative aims to help policymakers, especially those operating within the sustainable development space, to tackle the United Nations’ SDGs more effectively, by identifying global problems that AI may help to solve, and recommending tools and best practices for doing so. The initiative draws on content and faculty involvement from seven different research centres across the university.  Unsurprisingly this includes the computer science department, but also the Oxford-Man Institute (for Quantitative Finance), the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, and the Oxford Health Department—so bringing together a diverse range of insights and perspectives. As Williams points out, “We’re not just looking at artificial intelligence in that program. We're enabling those people who are working in a particular environment to come together and foster some very innovative discussions—and they are finding that this is really pushing ideas forward.”

The school’s flagship Advanced Management and Leadership Programme (AMLP) which has been running for 35 years, exemplifies how White and Williams are constantly pushing the design of these core and established programs to align with the needs of today’s best practice. White explains the key value they can bring is in linking these global issues to the particular—more localized issues—that affect participants and their organizations day-to-day. “The program begins with us asking every person to deconstruct their current leadership challenges. What challenges are they facing today? What are they struggling with? What’s led them to this point in terms of successes and failure? From there we go into 21st century challenges, for an understanding of the macro-environment. We then ask what are two or three of these challenges which are really going to drive change in your world, that you need to understand?” he says.

We then bring it all together and say, ‘what kind of leader do you need to be when you go back into the workplace?

This leads seamlessly to ‘scenarios teaching’. Having established the issues that will impact peoples’ businesses the most, and looked at how they will play out in the face of new global dynamics, it is important to identify some of these scenarios in more detail.  From here, participants can understand not only how the business can react effectively, but critically what the program participant’s individual role needs to be in leading the required change to enable this to occur. “We then bring it all together and say, ‘what kind of leader do you need to be when you go back into the workplace?’”

This applied solutions—or Oxford Answers—approach, is several layers of sophistication beyond the traditional delivery of a diverse range of content that occurred in some custom programs at the school a decade ago. Then, programs merely sought to inform executives of wider issues their organizations looked set to encounter in the years ahead, but stopped short of developing solutions to those challenges. White sees this progression as a reflection not just of the school’s development but also of the way that business has become less introverted. Issues which once motivated activists, predominantly, are now championed by a far wider community. “Climate change is no longer something that sits solely with environmental activists. It's transforming the way investment happens, the way businesses strategize, the way technology is implemented, the way people consume. You can't ignore it, it's a fundamental part of how you strategize. If you get it wrong, your business could fail. Likewise, things like digitization, or the challenge of demographics in certain countries, or water. These things no longer sit in the purview of CSR operations, they are absolutely fundamental to how companies strategize and therefore we have to weave that content into a process of how we develop leaders and how leaders think about how they lead and the strategies that they create and implement.”

Nonetheless, both White and Williams are keen to establish that there is a difference between what they are doing—which is educational—and the creation of a fully detailed strategy for businesses to adopt, as a consultancy might do. The focus is to get participants on the programs to better understand the territory and contexts they are operating in, and a framework for leading appropriate change in response to that. “It’s about understanding the boundaries of our vocation. What we do as educational people as opposed to taking them through a fully-fledged consulting process. We give them a map to go on the journey,” says White.

Williams builds on this idea, “A lot of the solutions businesses need already exist. We may bring some of them to their attention, but many already know what is out there. The challenge is how do you actually change corporate strategy in order to be able to incorporate some of these very abnormal solutions, like turning algae into crude oil or manufacturing water-soluble carrier bags?”

To create these changes requires courageous leadership and a lot of what Oxford Saïd is doing is around building trust in leadership

Leadership is the critical part, she asserts. To create these changes requires courageous leadership and a lot of what Oxford Saïd is doing is around building trust in leadership, which is critical to getting this done. “If you're going to have a significant transformation, it will cost; there will be investment, and there will be periods of uncertainty that the organization needs to plan for. We've really got to get to the heart of the leadership in those organizations to be able to ensure that they are equipped to take this forward.”

In the AMLP a third of the activities that the participants go through are their own case studies. “We actively encourage them to present and put their organization's challenges forward in order to be the focus of the learning—while we as the academics step into the facilitation process. And it's not that we've stopped teaching, it's just that we're using their materials as the primary focus of the activity,” White explains.

Caroline Williams cites the example of an Asian lingerie manufacturer who, focusing on the first of the 17 SDGs—which is the goal to end poverty in all its forms everywhere—wanted to ensure that his female workforce were able to keep their wages and not have it instantly ‘shared’ with the rest of their families (principally fathers and husbands) on leaving the factory. This required him to set-up a digital banking and payment system for them. Williams notes that this presents a further senior management challenge, “It’s not only a challenge of implementation, but also ‘how do I persuade my board that we should be looking more in this area and serving these kinds of elements?’”

The attraction of the Open Programs is that you also have a broad range and depth of expertise amongst the participants. In the digital payments for the Asian factory workers example, there were finance sector participants in the group who were able to add to the conversation as well as the faculty. “You suddenly get conversations and guidance from participants that would never be unlocked in the normal course of events, because they're all going through a very intensive process, reflecting these issues in a structured format and space,” she says.

For White this is all about the school developing executives’ horizons so that they can raise their already successful careers to higher and broader levels for the betterment of a wider set of stakeholders. He gives an example of a recruitment consultant with an autistic child, who while on the program explored how organizations not only might recruit more people with autism and benefit from their particular skills, but also how to make workplaces more appealing to them, with less bright lights and noise. On returning to Australia this inquiry brought the participant to the attention of the government and so to advising them on a project. “This is the type of thing we're asking people to do—not to leave their job, but to understand what it means to be a different type of leader. To understand what's important to them, what's important to the society around them and how they can lead at a higher level. It's not just about what they talk about in Oxford, it's all about what they go and do when they get back into the workplace.”

There's got to be some grit in the oyster, and by that I mean there's some level of discomfort or dissatisfaction with the status quo

These issues and challenges do not simply float to the surface though. White is clear that the school has to be very careful about who joins programs—and this is not the old academic issue of suitable levels of previous educational attainment or experience, but more on what challenges they can bring to the discussions. “There's got to be some grit in the oyster, and by that I mean there's some level of discomfort or dissatisfaction with the status quo, both within themselves and within what they're doing, and within their organizations. On certain programs people don't get in unless they can demonstrate this. Then we fast-track the answers process by giving them space and time away from the intensity of their day-to-day operations to think about what they need to do, and how they will get it done. Finally we bring in the faculty expertise who can leverage their research—through the prism of conversations—and illuminate potential solutions.”

The Oxford Answers theme is heavily founded on the research centres and expertise that Oxford can offer—but also the mixing of inputs from a diverse range of sources to come up with innovative thinking. “The research is a huge part of it. We try to understand and interrogate issues from many different perspectives. We're not suggesting that the leadership challenge, for instance, will be resolved by leadership academics alone. They themselves reach out in order to try to understand what other perspectives may reframe the challenge at hand. That's where Oxford Answers is really quite fascinating right now,” concludes Williams.

Oxford also brings this distinctive mix of ingredients to its growing portfolio of online programmes, which combine provocations and new knowledge delivered asynchronously by leading academics with intensive and real-time support from experienced tutors. Conversations take place between participants in online forums on a virtual ‘campus’ over a period of six to eight weeks. “Participants tell us that the experience is different, but just as powerful as that of the on-campus programs,” says Williams. “What it loses in intensity and depth it gains in fluidity and immediacy: participants can try out ideas within their organizations and refine them in collaboration with the wider group.”

These ‘collective content programs,’ as White refers to them, encapsulate well Oxford’s educational approach for the 2020s. This is a new approach; of tackling systemic, global issues through answers evolved through discussion, combination and cross-fertilization of thinking and expertise. It draws on Oxford’s long tradition of intensive tutorial-based dialogues and the very latest in research and expertise. It is Oxford Answers, both as a noun and a verb.

Learn more about Online Programs at The Saïd Business School  


The Saïd Business School is Europe’s fastest growing business school. An integral part of the University of Oxford, it embodies the academic rigour and forward thinking that has made Oxford a world leader in education.

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