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IE Business School’s Lee Newman on Making Education Relevant to the Times

“Young people have a strong sense of purpose…. We need to start thinking really hard about how to link business education to a larger purpose and provide those kinds of connections [for them].”



IE Business School's Lee Newman speaks to JAPAN Forward about the future of business education.


In a rapidly changing world, there are many challenges facing universities, educators, and students.

Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning, universities have to fight to stay relevant. In turn, students are asking themselves more than ever what jobs are worth pursuing.

Yet, there are institutions around the world that are trying to do things a bit differently. One such place is IE (originally meant Instituto de Empresa), which emerged as a business school in Madrid in the 1970s.

In October 2021, and then again in March 2022 we spoke to the newly-minted Dean of the Business School, Lee Newman, to discuss some of the issues facing educators, and what is the future of education and business.

He tells us how he wants to appeal to students in Japan, and in the Asian Pacific region more generally, home to sixty percent of the world population. Students from this area of the world currently represent approximately ten percent of the student body, and Newman says “we would like for this to grow.”

Appealing to Japan specifically, he says: “To me, one of the big important topics for business now is bringing together the principles of great design with business. It’s a different way of thinking, it’s much more creative,” adding,“ I think that Japan has a lot to add to that.” 

Students in IE Tower in Madrid, Spain

Bringing Different Skills to the Table

If one stops to think about it, universities are a concept going back centuries, carrying the idea of going to a place and learning from a professor how to do things.

“Education historically was about content,” explains Newman. “Your professors had unique knowledge and would share that with their students by professing.”

“But that was when knowledge was unique,” he concludes.

What’s changed? With ballooning university fee costs and readily accessible knowledge everywhere, universities are rapidly having to face the challenge of staying relevant.

The question then becomes how to bring an added element to the learning experience.

Newman explains how skills have become much more important. A business school can bring those to students through teaching accounting, finance, strategy.

Drawing from his background in cognitive science, Newman is also behind the creation of IE’s School of Human Sciences and Technology (HST), which includes more tech-related subjects.

“HST is a way to move out from the business school, going deeper into elements of science and technology,” says Newman.

The courses include subjects with direct links to business, but not necessarily business per se: psychology for consumer behavior, programming, data science, business analytics, automation industry, and others.

In December 2021, Ikhlaq Sidhu was appointed as the head of the IE School of Technology, after having been Chief Scientist and Faculty Director at the University of California Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. 

Going forward, the IE School of Technology will be home to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses. Moreover, the IE Business school will see more scientific business courses than ever before, such as marketing, education, talent development, and digital business. 

In particular, Newman extolls the importance of the plans he has for behavioral sciences: “Behavior is everywhere at IE, because business and behavior is important for us.” Courses with this focus include wellbeing in the workplace, consumer psychology, and more. 

Thinking About the Student Experience

But, of course, when one thinks of skills, even the process of learning skills has become more accessible than it used to be, especially with online learning and platforms such as Coursera. 

What are other things that the university can bring?

Newman envisions focusing more “deeply on the student experience” under the umbrella slogan of working on the “next best you,”  especially skills that lead to “transforming human beings fundamentally.” He explains the importance of molding the students to be better equipped for their future: “Their mindsets, their ways of thinking, through their ability to learn and their ability to adapt, and to have the behaviors that will make them successful when their skills and knowledge are outdated.” 

These durable "deep" skills, he explains, are divided into "behavioral" skills, often called soft, and “thinking” skills which include problem solving, creative thinking or critical thinking. “Right now, you learn [deep skills] in a very implicit way, but there are explicit ways to train [those skills],” says Newman. 

Explaining how it works, he says his aim is to create “game changing experiences, where the rug gets pulled out from under you and you either realize something about yourself, or [about] other people.”

IE Business School has historically tried to stimulate students in their very diverse student body. The school boasts over 66,000 alumni from 165 countries around the world.

“You have six people. One is from Japan, one is from America, and so on, and somehow they're supposed to get along, delivering a marketing strategy and pitching it to some potential investors,” explains Newman, painting the image of a typical classroom at IE.

“Oftentimes, you have a little bit of that chaos that diversity can sometimes create. That’s when things happen,” he exclaims.  

The idea is that working with people who are different from you can reinforce the learning process and lead students to learn from each other.

Newman argues that he wants to put students in the situation of making the most of this unique environment. As he puts it, “You need turbulence and friction to have these game-changing moments.” 

He illustrates three ingredients to make this happen: diversity, an intense challenge, and a short deadline. 

“IE is such a diverse place, and the idea is to take advantage of that and create these game changing moments. That’s going to be key in how we design these [student] experiences going forward,” he concluded. 

Effects of COVID-19

One can’t talk about changes in education without mentioning the impact of the pandemic. 

IE, like many universities, switched to online learning. But, unlike many others, it had already started working online many years earlier.

“We've been fighting this kind of uphill battle for decades, to try to convince those who are reluctant that you can actually learn a lot and have deep relationships and work in teams and not be physically present all the time on campus,” says Newman. 

The dean of the business school predicts that the changes brought from the pandemic are here to stay. He argues, “Given the flexibility that people are experiencing in the pandemic, I think schools and companies now need to reconfigure.”

In addition, Newman points out a phenomenon which he thinks is intensified by the pandemic, namely that “young people, they have a strong sense of purpose.” 

Therefore, he says, “We need to start thinking really hard about how to link business education to a larger purpose and provide those kinds of connections that I think many students want.”

RELATED: IE Tower University Campus Gives Peek into the Sustainable Future of Education

Business With Purpose

Newman himself has worked at financial giant McKinsey, and in several companies before going into academia.

With that experience in his background, he sees the new generation of students coming through the school as very different from his own.

“We were the greed generation, the me-generation like the movie Wall Street. That was the time [to] make money, get a top business job, prestige, fun, travel,” said Newman.

In contrast, he continues, “The newer generation, they see themselves embedded in such a larger psychological ecosystem than we did.”

Newman illustrates how, even when new students are geared towards investment banking, they are still interested in taking courses on sustainability and social innovation. He gives the example of a class that has a micro-credit project in Ghana with only eight spots, but which is massively oversubscribed. 

IE views the school’s role, and the education industry as a whole, as a job of appealing to young people who are conscious of themselves and want to be a force for change, but are initially put off by the “business is evil” mantra.

Newman shares how, going forward, the business school is adopting “business with purpose” as a core element of the brand. They are making it an obligatory component of the curriculum and providing career pathways where students can choose that as their main focus. 

Newman’s message to prospective students is to think of business as a profession: “Like a medical doctor has an obligation to patients, the business world has an obligation to people, to each other, to the environment.”

“If I'm a bad manager, sending people home angry and frustrated and ruining their personal lives, that's not right,” Newman says.

“Business can be a force for change, it can be an amazing way to have incredibly positive relations that shape other people's lives,” he concludes. It is an exciting prospect.

Find more information about IE Business school here, and below:

At IE Business School, we offer a technology-based learning ecosystem, training the leaders of tomorrow to make positive change through innovation, a global vision, an entrepreneurial mindset and a unique focus on the humanities. At IE Business School, we evolve with you. We are committed to providing a world-class education tailored to each of our students. Your goals become our mission while we help you reach your next level of success, with personalized programs inspired by the next best you. Your education is not a one-size-fits-all journey; at the forefront of our purpose-driven programs are your individual goals and aspirations. We fit the program to you—not you to the program. We embrace your unique talent and potential, celebrating different ideas and backgrounds across our international network of future leaders. IE Business School is built on innovation, entrepreneurship, and most importantly, you. Whether you’re based in our Madrid or Segovia campuses or even studying part-time, you’ll cultivate a global mindset.

Author: Arielle Busetto

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