Online MBAs Prepare Students for Digital Leadership

Business schools are using online learning environments to equip students for the new world of virtual work

How to lead in a digital world? The question has taken on new significance since coronavirus struck and changed working practices, perhaps forever. Many employers are aiming for a hybrid model, a mix of office and home-based working, to reap the benefits of both worlds.

Business schools are using online learning environments to equip students for the new world of hybrid work. Many senior executives lead globally dispersed teams remotely, so teaching leadership in an online format makes sense to Nora Grasselli, program director at ESMT Berlin, the German business school.

“Leadership effectiveness depends to a large extent on the alignment between the leadership practice and the context of the leader,” she says. “If the context is virtual collaboration and remote work, this is what needs to be replicated in the leadership classroom.”

The pandemic breathed new life into MBA programs that are delivered digitally, boosting applications, which were already growing strongly, both because of the flexibility they afford students, but also because of the growing belief that online education better reflects hybrid working.

“The pandemic accelerated a trend for more flexible working and studying that started before it,” says Markus Perkmann, the academic director of the Global Online MBA at Imperial College Business School in London. “As a result, business schools have become a serious option for busy professionals who would like to combine their careers with studying for a degree.”

He points out that if leadership can be learned in a classroom then it can also be learned online, just like with any other subject. “An Online MBA brings together independent learning, co-learning with peers and interaction with faculty, providing students with a rich context for developing multifaceted skills including leadership,” says Perkmann.

“An Online MBA acts like a mirror for how many companies operate, particularly as we enter the post-pandemic period.”

Online programs also encourage students to collaborate on a variety of assignments and tasks in which they work in online teams, adds Perkmann.

“They organize themselves virtually, using a variety of channels, and produce outputs in a collaborative manner,” he says. “This requires virtual leadership on behalf of each of the team members. In this way, they form lasting connections and relationships.”

How are Online MBAs preparing students to lead in today’s workplace?

ESMT announced its first fully Online MBA program in the spring, with the first classes taking place from September. The school is equipping students for the new world of work in a variety of ways. Gianluca Carnabuci, professor of organizational behavior at ESMT, launched a new course called “leading global virtual teams” for MBA students.

Another example is the “Virus Game” – an online escape game which ESMT uses as an experiential learning program to put academic theory into action and provide a “virtual playground” for learners.

In addition, ESMT launched the “Unmute!” project – a series of online learning courses on online communication, collaboration, virtual leadership, and virtual teams. One part of the project includes a collaboration with a group of theater professionals, with students examining how their industry transitioned “from stage to screen” more than a century ago.

How does one become an effective virtual leader?

So what makes for effective virtual leadership? Grasselli says it comes down to managing the dynamics of virtual teams and employees working both asynchronously (largely independently) while simultaneously fostering “synchronization” — bringing teams together for collaboration, innovation, networking, coaching, and socializing.

This requires two different leadership approaches: one favoring autonomy and the other alignment. “The leader needs to develop a good sense of rhythm and ‘feel’ when synchronization or asynchronous work is required,” says Grasselli.

She adds that leaders must address several major challenges when managing teams remotely, including frequent miscommunication and lower levels of engagement relative to the office. It’s also harder to connect with others online. “We still need to work on our virtual emotional intelligence (VEQ).”

And, while we have become more comfortable with our virtual collaboration tools, there are still tech disasters, such as connection problems. “We feel that these accidents reflect negatively on our professional persona,” Grasselli says.

Addressing these problems and strengthening virtual team leadership is a focus for MIP Politecnico di Milano in Italy, which leverages innovative technologies including big data and artificial intelligence. In a partnership with Microsoft and its AI platform Cortana Intelligence, the school has created a “recommendation engine” that shows students what skills gaps they need to fill to achieve their career aims.

Online MBA students upload their qualifications and take skills tests. Then, the search engine offers personalized recommendations on which courses they should take. Tommaso Agasisti, associate dean for internationalization, quality and services, says that employers have increasingly warmed to Online MBA candidates, who can work virtually with people from a variety of nationalities and cultures.  

“The digital transformation imperative, which is characterizing most businesses currently, requires bringing together technology and management skills,” he says. “An online MBA encompasses all of these skills. Employers perceive the programs as having a great value.”

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