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How COVID-19 led business schools to put theory into practice

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A real-time taste of massive disruption and the accelerated adoption of virtual technology could be a boon for today’s project management students. By Conrad Heine

“This pandemic has touched on almost every aspect of work and personal life, and project management is no different,” says Dr Carlos Sato, course director for the MSc in project management at the University of Sussex Business School.

Nor are business schools immune from COVID-19’s effects. They are just one part of a higher education sector hit hard by the pandemic – but, as key revenue earners for their parent institutions, they carry a certain status.

Radical new operating models are being created in real time

With face-to-face teaching not an option, business schools have found their hands forced on a hotly debated topic: the virtues of a shift to online teaching.

“When we held our annual conference in November 2019, one of the themes was the strategies of member business schools as they contemplated digital learning,” says Professor Robert MacIntosh, chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools.

“None of us would have been confident in saying that we could effect a wholesale mid-year switch to online delivery. And yet, by and large, that is what we have all done. The pandemic has given our sector uncertainty in spades and has produced radical new operating models, created in real time.”

Professor MacIntosh outlines further challenges: COVID-19’s effect on the massive recruitment, research and revenue uncertainty around Brexit, the need for faculty to up their game on online teaching, and more. “The whole sector has been put through the wringer.”

An opportunity to teach students about managing a virtual project team

In project management terms, business schools do enjoy a key advantage – the support of a well-established institutional framework.

Susan Smith, associate dean at Sussex, points out that the school (with 4,657 students, including 2,002 international students, and a 280-strong faculty) was able to address the project management challenges within the context of the wider systems of the university. “The business school doesn’t operate in isolation.”

With virtual learning environments a well-established feature of higher education, the business school was able to move its existing student base and faculty online, knowing that the university’s own project managers would be at hand, and that vital functions like student welfare and IT support were covered.

And as Sussex has project management on the curriculum, Dr Sato even manages a positive spin on the pandemic’s challenges: “One of the benefits of moving to the online model is that it creates a good opportunity to teach in a real sense how to work with and manage a virtual project team.”

‘The world was not well prepared’

It seems, then, that what business schools can best offer in project management terms is some insight into how project management may evolve as a discipline. Dr Sato expands: “A lot of what we teach is designed to give participants the skills they need to adapt and respond to disruption and changing circumstances. Clearly there is specific learning from the COVID-19 crisis that we are looking to incorporate into the course.”

The current disruption reinforces the idea of project management embedded in an end-to-end innovation process, he adds. “That starts with the selection of the ‘right’ ideas/projects, moving through execution/implementation and ending with the delivery of value or value capture.

“The sector is thinking a lot about agility, innovation and value. This crisis has reiterated the importance of early-warning signs and the cost of ignoring them. Generally, the world was not well prepared.”

Putting theory into practice

At Sussex, Dr Sato suggests, the global reaction to the pandemic will be a topic incorporated into the MSc course. “I have learned about some large infrastructure projects that were affected by the pandemic and how the use of agile/scrum methods helped them to deal with high uncertainty and change. There are discussions now around innovation and the need to make things differently, and also taking the opportunity to learn from a crisis.”

In particular, projects for the development of vaccines and ventilators are likely to feed into the MSc course. “The Mercedes F1 team setting up Project Pitlane to design a new breathing aid is a great example of ingenuity, creativity, innovation and agility in action.”

Dr Sato hopes the same urgency and energy can be applied to further challenges – including climate change.

“The importance of adaptive project management has come to the fore. We teach adaptive and agile, but the pandemic has left us to consider how much emphasis we should give to them and whether there is a need to change teaching methods to reflect this.”

Steeped as business schools are in case studies and debate about ‘agile’, ‘nimble’, ‘VUCA’ and more, COVID-19 has offered a real-time case study and a test for their ability to put project management theory into practice.


Visit APM qualifications to find out more about online courses, from the fundamentals of project management to more advanced learning.

Brought to you by Project journal


Image: Maglara/Shutterstock


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