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Smurfit Business School: Adapting to face the challenges of Covid-19

‘Many executives have been saying to us that continuing learning has been a lifeline’

In common with all executive education providers around the world, UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School has had to rise to the challenges posed by the restrictions placed on business as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"The overall market for executive education globally has been challenged since the onset of the pandemic," says Smurfit School director of executive development, Helen Brophy. "But larger schools have been affected to a much greater extent than schools like ours. Part of their approach is to bring people in from different parts of the world but that has been severely constrained by the restrictions on international travel."

There is no going back. We all have to adapt to a new normal and that affects leadership and management

UCD Smurfit School is part of the Unicom network, the global consortium for university-based executive education, which has carried out a number of flash surveys on the impact of Covid-19 on its members.

"Travel restrictions certainly did have an impact on the larger schools," says Brophy. "Harvard might have 70 people in a classroom with 40 of them from overseas. It was different for us. Our open programmes mainly have people based in Ireland. That allowed a lot of people to stay on the courses. A lot of people are also on accredited programmes; they are here for qualifications as well. The feedback has been very good. Course participants are saying that it's good to be able to keep learning during the pandemic."


Indeed, for many it has meant more than just learn. “Life has turned upside down for people,” she notes. “It has made the things that people can control and continue doing a lot more valuable. Many executives have been saying to us that continuing learning has been a lifeline for them.”


Some programmes which involved travel have been impacted, of course. “Most organisations have adapted to that now. Businesses and companies have become more accustomed and acclimatised to the virtual world. Things have changed a lot and we are never going to go back completely to the way things were pre-Covid.”

The Smurfit School was quite well prepared for the changes. “We were one of the first in Ireland to use Zoom,” Brophy points out. “I have been a fan and champion of Zoom since 2015. A partner of ours in the US was already using it back then so it wasn’t new to us. The ability to run classes online was new to a lot of people though. You have to be agile and adaptive and aware of what the client is looking for. As long as the content and the learning are the same you can organise online classes that reflect the in-person experience.”

The school took the decision last year to remain online-only until June 2021. “We communicated that very clearly to our clients. We hope to return to in-person programmes in September but that is dependent on the vaccination programme, of course.”

The experience of the past year will influence how executive education is delivered in future. “We are looking at our five-year strategy at the moment,” she says. “We have to take into account how the workforce will change and how remote and flexible working will be part of life from now on. All those things thrown up by Covid-19 have to be considered. There is no going back. We all have to adapt to a new normal and that affects leadership and management.”

At a practical level, the school is planning to launch a new range of live virtual programmes to run alongside in-person programmes. “Some people might not have thought that would be possible pre-Covid but many are now saying they actually prefer it. Virtual programmes mean they don’t have to leave home to attend, for example.”

The way business is done will change too.

“You would have to question if all the business travel done pre-Covid was necessary. A lot of business can be done virtually, and many organisations are saying they don’t want to go back to the old ways of doing things. Sustainability and climate change are playing a part as well. Lots of people are saying they don’t have to get on a plane to go to a meeting. That’s been a good learning from the pandemic.”

Those changes will increase the need for executive education. “The need for learning is accentuated by things like this. The challenge for business schools is they have to adapt with the way the world is changing. There is a need for fresh management approaches. How do you lead and keep teams energised and motivated when you are not seeing them every day? Our programmes will help executives adapt to those changes. I am very positive about the future despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times