This is Part One in a four-article series documenting UNICON’s Team Development Conference 2020, with Parts Two, Three, and Four found here.
As we approach the ‘first anniversary’ of the World Health Organization officially announcing the emergence of a new pathogen—Covid-19—that would alter the course of history forever, it is timely, as well as wholly revitalizing and encouraging, to attend a conference so clearly intent on using this moment of universal travail as a platform for positive change in the world.
As UNICON Board Chair Lise Hammergren notes, “We find ourselves in the midst of a global challenge, which has greatly impacted our industry.” And yet here the industry is—convening via a clever cocktail of the latest virtual learning technologies and digital collaboration tools—for what is the most inclusive and global UNICON conference to date.
Held annually, UNICON’s Team Development Conference has always served the executive education industry well, by, as Hammergren puts it, “bringing people together to share knowledge, explore best practices, and to take what we learn back to our schools.”
This year, given the circumstances, and given the enormity of the challenges facing the sector—business, and society as a whole—there are some acute and important differences. Firstly, in delivery, with this the first UNICON team development conference to be delivered completely as virtual. For an industry that has spent the past 10 months rapidly innovating whole new suites and portfolios of virtual programs, this is hugely significant, with attendees rightly looking to the hosts for a demonstration of absolute excellence in virtual delivery. There are weak-spots in virtual learning as we know—how are they being handled at the leading edge of delivery?
In terms of global reach and access, this is the most inclusive UNICON conference to date. This year a newly conceived tiered pricing structure has encouraged much wider participation, with 27 different countries represented, close to 500 registrants across Operations, Business Development, and Director level tracks, and with a 68% female and 28% male gender make-up.
If, for executive education professionals, experiencing the latest in virtual learning is a source of inspiration and fresh ideas—as it surely is—then it is the big, over-arching themes, questions, and intellectual challenges of the event, which provide the mental invigoration that is so sorely needed right now, to motivate the application of those ideas back at work.
‘Shaping Executive Education in the 4th Industrial Revolution’, is the given challenge of the conference—one that is taken up and viewed through the lenses of four ‘I’s: Inclusion, Intelligence, Innovation, and Impact—with each day of conference focusing on a new ‘I’. Day One is Inclusion, as covered in this article. We cover Intelligence, Innovation, and Impact in separate articles elsewhere.
Sanjeev Khagram, Dean and Director General of Thunderbird Global School of Management, kicks off the conference with a tone-setting talk on the higher purpose of executive education. “Globalization has had many benefits but not for all,” he warns. “Globalization has lifted 1.2 billion people out of extreme poverty since 1981, but in many parts of the world income inequality has risen dramatically. For us at Thunderbird—which since its founding has been committed to borders frequented by trade seldom needing soldiers—we are very much committed to a ‘Globalism 4.0’. We see our hosting of this UNICON team development conference in that light.”
He continues, “By nearly every measure we’ve impacted our natural environment more in the last century than in our entire existence before that. CO2 concentration, loss of tropical rainforest and woodland, species extinction… And yet, we also have a deep optimism that we can move to a global, circular economy—where we transform our various production, consumption, and distribution models. Humans are ingenious. There’s nothing we can’t do. Particularly if we focus on the four ‘I’s’ of this global conference; Inclusion, Innovation, Intelligence, and Impact.”
Zooming in more specifically on the idea of inclusion Khagram adds, “We have had a remarkable time here in the US—but also all over the world—in terms of Black Lives Matter, and persistent and horrible institutionalized ‘isms’ of various kinds. We are committed at Thunderbird, and as a global community of executive education providers, for inclusions, transformation, equity and diversity.”
On an industry level, it is a new development for UNICON to involve the ‘buyer’ side of executive education to the extent that they are included in this conference. It marks a willingness for executive education to evolve from a ‘push’ market, to one that ‘pulls’—and includes, learns and listens carefully to the experiences, perspectives, needs and concerns of its corporate clients. Speaking at an ‘Industry Voices’ plenary session, Michelle Senecal De Fonseca, Area Vice President of Citrix in London, highlighted the value of this new openness right off the bat; “The number one thing [that executive education can help with] is global mindset. You don’t need a passport to have global mindset. You need the ability to work and think in uncomfortable environments, to thrive in it, to be curious, and to apply your learning. This is where I think executive education needs to incorporate tools of design thinking, agile management, swarm management—techniques that may come from the tech world but can be applied to management practices and problem-solving in new ways. We have to spend a lot of time within our companies teaching that, and that is where we would like more help from executive education.”
Speaking on the same panel, Maria Anguiano, Senior VP of Strategy at Arizona State University, spoke of the wider social purpose of inclusion efforts, “How can we, as a research university, at the forefront of creating new knowledge, new ideas, new discovery, include everyone in that process?” she asked. “We are guided by the belief that education opportunity should be available to everyone, regardless of where they are, and what stage of life they are at. Instead of solely focusing on our current students, how do we reach every portion of society, whether that’s pre-kindergartners, K-12 learners, folks who are out in the workforce? How can we create a seamless lifelong learning infrastructure for them—for people to use throughout their whole lives, where they can plug-in as needed?”
Anguiano spoke from personal experience to further elucidate an important point; “My biggest worry is how to make education accessible and inclusive, both in the design and structure. The person I am always thinking of is my mother. She has a sixth-grade formal education, and she moved to the US aged 23 and started her own business. This is a CEO with a sixth-grade education! She’s had her own business for 30 years. I think, how could we get education to her—to help her negotiate contracts, help her manage her employees? We haven’t figured this out yet—we’re working on it! It’s critical to get right, and make sure executive education is available to everyone, whether you are a sole proprietor or a manager in a large company.”
Sanjyot Dunung, Founder of Atma Global, and Professor of Practice at Thunderbird agreed, adding, “How do you grow the pie? How do more people in ten years participate in these lifelong learning communities, with blended learning solutions and access to world-tier knowledge? I think it’s a challenge, but I definitely think we can do it.”
Closing her remarks, Anguiano gives an example of an inclusion effort already making a difference out in the world—a partnership between ASU and Uber, where premium level Uber drivers have access to taking an online degree, free-of-charge. The initiative extends to include the spouses and children of the drivers, with upskilling programs on offer at ASU too. “The idea is to enable folks who may be taking a break from school and from their education, for financial reasons,” explains Anguiano, “and make entering or re-entering education accessible for them.”
Another voice from industry was Kumi Naidoo, former International Executive Director of Greenpeace International, and former Secretary General of Amnesty International, who had a challenge of his own for executive education around the issue of inclusion, “Universities are public places. I believe a place like Arizona State University and Thunderbird has both the vision and the tremendous capacity to look at reaching non-conventional students. Using one of the most sophisticated mass online learning platforms that exists in the world, we can be educating thousands and thousands of parents and grandparents, for example, who are desperate about what they can do for their kids and want to learn the right things to do on climate change.”
Naidoo takes a broader view of the role of inclusion in learning, “We have seen an emerging of different civil society agendas; we have seen racial justice, following the murder of George Floyd, and environmental and climate justice intersecting. Covid has shown us that inequality is even more extreme than we knew. We have to get comfortable—as leaders and educators—with the notion of inconvenience. We have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable—about the moment we find ourselves in, and to talk about it in courageous, bold ways, that allow people to make meaning of it, and help them find solutions.”
Naidoo follows up with the type of reflective question that typifies the UNICON conference, and allows participants to open up their thinking about their work and their roles in executive education—he asks, “Is the role of executive education to help us cope better with a broken system? Or is the role of education to help us see the pathways out, and see the dysfunctionalities in the way we have set-up society?”
“Right now, I am very optimistic about the moment we find ourselves in. I have been an activist for more than 40 years. I don’t believe there has been a moment with as much openness to asking big questions around structural, systemic issues, as there is now.” And, in response to his own ‘broken system’ question, Naidoo says, “We have to deal with the intractable, operational problems in the present. I don’t think it’s a crime for us to learn the skills to cope, to make sense of, and name the deficiencies of a broken system. We need to continue to work and ensure the system we have can deliver the best social outcomes possible.”
Wrapping up, Naidoo cites perhaps history’s most important thinker in the realm of inclusion, for perspective, “I would urge people to think what Martin Luther King said in the mid-60s when he said ‘All of us want to be well-adjusted and not suffer from schizophrenia or other mental illnesses, but my friends I say to you there are certain things in our world that are so unjust and immoral that good, decent people should refuse to be well-adjusted to them.’ He goes on to talk about creative maladjustment—people who are not willing to accept a broken status quo, whether it’s a broken energy system, economic system, food system, and so on.”
“I think executive education for civil society must create the possibility for some big, deep, macro questions to be answered. Questions such as how can we continue to have a measurement of wealth that is so broken? We slavishly use GDP—yet when you chop down a forest, there is a positive tick on GDP. So how we measure wealth is completely flawed. For executive education to have meaning for civil society it needs to be able to create the content and learning possibilities around big, intractable societal issues like these.”
In a final summing up, Maria Anguiano concludes neatly, “The thinking that got us here isn’t going to get us out of here. When we think about lifelong learning it’s about, how do we infuse different ideas, from every aspect and piece of society, to try to transform our systems, and make society a more equitable place?”
This is the ‘inclusion challenge’ for executive education, as set to attendees at UNICON 2020, and one that was explored in the design of the conference itself. A session on ‘Brainstorming and Crowdsourcing the Current State of Executive Education’ addressed one persistent criticism of online executive education, which is a lack of co-learning and collaboration. Facilitated by Dr. Tom Hunsaker, Associate Dean of Innovation, and Carleen Bobrowski, Senior Director of Executive Education, both of Thunderbird, the session utilized Miro’s virtual white-boarding software in a seamless way, to give a ‘quasi-design thinking experience’. Participants were prompted to, as Hunsaker said, “get into the collective horsepower we have here as a community, and ask, what can we get out of this individually, and collectively, that we wouldn’t have been able to had we not come together?” It is a deceptively powerful question, encapsulating as it does the business case for inclusion, that is so vital in a progressive discourse for the future of executive education, and for thriving in the 4th Industrial Revolution. “Put everything on the table, and we will pool our collective intelligence.”