Jean-Philippe Bonardi, Dean at HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne, will step down after six years in the role at the end of July 2021. Here he reveals what makes HEC Lausanne unique and one of the world’s top management and economics schools in Europe.
What makes HEC Lausanne such a unique school?
Our history is a very important aspect of our uniqueness. We are both a department of economics and a business school, operating both faculties hand in hand. HEC Lausanne was established by the University of Lausanne in 1911, but the genesis of what we do now started in around 1870 when the university created the first Chair in Economics and hired Léon Walras. He was a vital person in the development of economics because he was one of the inventors of the concept of marginal utility, which revolutionised microeconomics and led to the birth of the mathematical school in economics. Léon Walras’ successor was Vilfredo Pareto, who also came up with several important innovations in economics but with significant implications for social sciences and later, management. Many other researchers and innovations would follow, recently, for example, in the development of new business models. My emphasis on our history is because for me, it is a decisive factor in HEC Lausanne’s DNA, which has three key components: (1) rigour in the use of quantitative methods, (2) interdisciplinarity and (3) innovation in terms of ideas and analytical tools.
But one of the most interesting aspects of all this is that it is not only about our historical legacy, but also the assets and skills we need in a changing world. Among other things, I am thinking about the role of data and how we analyse it, which are becoming increasingly important in a digitalised economy. We have lots of evolving courses to teach students about how to analyse big data but above all, how to draw conclusions. Rather than simply looking for correlation, the real issue is causality. What phenomenon has a causal effect on another? How can we use the data we have available today to answer that question? Those are the types of issue that are central to the economy of the future and on which our researchers and students are working. It was with this in mind that we embarked on reforming our Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes – and there are lots of other examples. That’s what lies at the heart of HEC Lausanne and makes it a unique school of economics and management both in Europe and worldwide.
How is the school spearheading a transition to a new economy?
That’s a very interesting and important question, which touches on another aspect of what HEC Lausanne does today, as a central player in a diverse ecosystem. Last year, for example, we launched an important initiative called Enterprise for Society (E4S), with the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). E4S’s main purpose is to think together about the future of the economy. We all feel that we are at a tipping point, moving toward a different kind of economy driven by technological changes in terms of production and communications methods, energy, transportation and logistics. These are the elements that have driven industrial revolutions in the past and are now revolutionising the economy and world of today. The period we are now living through is different, however, because of the climate emergency. It is critical that we create a fairer and more sustainable economy. That’s the challenge, and it’s essential that we tackle it. One of E4S’s goals is to put professors and researchers from different disciplines – such as economics, management, technology and so-called “hard” sciences – together in an interdisciplinary way to respond to it. And of course, the University of Lausanne as a whole is part of the initiative. Finally, our aim is to create a coalition of key players from the private sector and local authorities, to support the centre and contribute to its success.
How is HEC Lausanne addressing the growing importance of sustainability and changing models of education?
We have, of course, introduced courses in topics such as business ethics, sustainability and environmental issues into all our programmes and we have hired teaching staff with skills in these areas. But we need to go further and imagine what the economy might become, and how it could be more sustainable. This is what E4S is all about. New technologies offer the possibility of creating a new economic model and the challenge is to make sure this new model keeps its promises and delivers on its full potential in terms of social and environmental issues. What we are trying to do is train future leaders who will be able to think in this way.
I think that the business schools of tomorrow will be about creating an ecosystem in which this new economy is developed. Business schools have a fantastic role to play, insofar as they can become the centres of ecosystems in which researchers in various areas of specialisation can interact with each other, but also with companies, students, policymakers, young businesses and startups to create this new economic paradigm.
For the last 30 years, most schools have done similar things and a model has emerged for what a business school should be. But this model is going to change and there will be a lot more uncertainty about what we have to teach and effective solutions will have to be discovered. These solutions can’t, however, be discovered globally: they will have to be found locally and in specific ecosystems. So, heterogeneity among schools and about management and economics as disciplines will be much higher than now. I think the most successful schools will be those that play a central role in their ecosystem, and whose research, teaching and corporate relations take a totally different stance. That’s how they will contribute most effectively to the competitive advantage of the regions to which they belong, in a fast-changing world.