Will Design Schools Educate the Managers of Tomorrow?

Design schools can become incubators for a new type of entrepreneur, one who can balance both financial and human resources.

Courtesy Christian Guellerin © Jean-Charles Queffelec

School for the Managers of Tomorrow was published in 1994 by professors from HEC Paris. Their inquiry focused on the changes in teaching, methods and frameworks of learning, and how environmental responsibility would propel students in management and business schools to the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. While schools were looking for the right balance between career paths and further academic research, the authors identified the “soft skills” future managers would need, among them flexibility, imagination, creativity, mobility, and global tolerance.

In 1994 few French design schools thought to connect with businesses. In fact, they sought to avoid them. Combining design with the corporate world was seen as a disaster waiting to happen. It meant jeopardizing the very principles on which they were built, as well as compromising creativity whenever the notion of the economy or money generation came into the picture. Design school grads would discover, soon enough, what the real world was about. Management and marketing courses? They were thought to be for those who only cared about making money and willing to sell their souls to the devil. Designers made beautiful things; others needed to sell them.

The reality of a mature industrial system and shifting markets brought a rude awakening to design students. “The most beautiful curve is a rising sales graph,” as Raymond Loewy once said; this practical viewpoint was largely ignored by academia. In the workplace, few French companies made room for design; when they did, it was in trace amounts.

What’s happened in the intervening 20 years to bring design into corporate speak, both as strategy and management? Globalization has turned old models upside-down. Western economies continue to suffer. More than 95% of all transactions are virtual. Limitless consumption is overshadowed by a growing environmental consciousness.

Industrial paradigms, founded on a scientific approach of financial organization, task management and human resources, have done their time. The arrival of new producers who work for ridiculously low sums in emerging countries, have changed the game. What good is it for a Western company to keep cranking out process models for the purposes of infinitesimal profitability if, ultimately, it has no chance of competing with companies whose labor costs are two to three times less then theirs?

Being ready and able to do something else with what we already possess is the new industrial paradigm. It is no longer about getting individuals trained to become managers, but entrepreneurs instead. In fact manager training is but one link in the chain of something more pivotal and ambitious: entrepreneur training.

A member of the Fondation HEC in 1994, Henri Proglio, found it pathetic that too few student-managers were entrepreneurs. Today, science-driven management is taught at top management schools and online MOOCs. But a completely new approach to teaching and learning needs to assert itself it starts with the “soft skills” that HEC professors brought to our attention: flexibility, imagination, creativity, mobility and global tolerance.

The changing economic climate, the emergence of new economies from other cultures, policies and opportunities, plus the growing eco-powered consciousness force us to rethink our production and consumption models. Innovation has become indispensable for organizations looking to secure a sustainable future. Design galvanizes industrial, technical, scientific and human landscapes with an insatiable thirst to rescind old and obsolete models, and rouse new meaning and ambition. The designer alone has the gift of representing, making tangible, showing. While marketers continue to target markets, designers imagine the uses of tomorrow that, at present, are market-less.

Strategic in nature, design is also about management. Changes in models, or lack thereof, raise questions or cause reasons for concern. This is where objective demos of future user scenarios help grapple with unknowns and enable a more progressive vision. From the moment speculation about the future comes into contact with a concrete and tangible realm, it becomes an extraordinary catalyst for teambuilding. In this new world, design drives management and leadership.

Having grasped the power they possess to impact the world, design students are now acquiring skills in management, marketing, economics—they‘re, ready to undertake the issues facing humanity. It's no longer enough to create, have ideas, and be innovative. We need to step things up a notch by walking the talk and becoming project entrepreneurs. It is on the economic and social ground that a project takes form. Managing isn’t enough. It is time for designers to take matters into their own hands and go head-to-head with the problems of entrepreneurship.

“Too many managers, too few entrepreneurs,” remarked Henri Proglio. Yet we need entrepreneurs capable of taking an objective look at tomorrow and informing it with meaning; entrepreneurs who are capable of fusing the various disciplines in order to address the increasingly complex issues that mystify companies today.

Entrepreneurs are the managers of tomorrow. The stakes are high and opportunities abound for design schools to become “schools for the managers of tomorrow,” incubating those individuals who can balance both financial and human resources. In the twenty-first century, people, not the purse string, drive societies. And designers are the best advocates for people and their wellbeing.

Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries in 2008; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the École de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequently on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

Read more posts from Christian Guellerin here.

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