Challenges of a digital tour de force
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” This phrase – often repeated during the ongoing coronavirus crisis – aptly describes the goings-on at the WU Executive Academy in the past weeks. In a swift response to the pandemic, WU Vienna’s business school has successfully turned into a digital graduate school almost overnight. “Things always seem impossible until they are done,” says Dean Barbara Stöttinger. Read on to find out about the challenges the staff members at the WU Executive Academy have tackled in the past weeks and why this digital tour de force has only been possible as a team effort.
For some time now, we have been seeing the huge impact of the coronavirus crisis on further education institutions: practically overnight, courses could no longer be held in classrooms. For the WU Executive Academy’s team, this entailed a comprehensive digital transformation in such a short amount of time that even Managing Director Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé was amazed. “If somebody had asked me in early March whether I thought it would be possible to transform all of our further education programs into distance learning courses within a span of a few weeks, I would probably have answered it was very unlikely,” she says. This could only be accomplished because everybody – “our team, our faculty, our partners” – pulled together.
So how exactly was it done? It all started, for lack of other options, with the decision to accept the challenges ahead.
On Wednesday four days before the Austrian government imposed the lockdown, a decision was made to work from home and offer all courses in a distance-learning mode, starting Friday. “We knew we had to act fast,” Dean Barbara Stöttinger remembers, adding: “If I had known that all this would have to be done in just a matter of days and for the entire staff of 60+ people, you could have knocked me down with a feather.” Quickly, a crisis response team formed under the lead of Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé and Dean Barbara Stöttinger, convening on a daily basis. These meetings, hour-long at first, now have come to take a mere 30 minutes. Decisions made here are communicated to the teams they concern, which frequently report back to the crisis team about their progress implementing the decisions.
In the early stage of the lockdown, the meetings were very intense. At first, we passed on a lot of information and discussed everything in detail to make sure everybody could see the big picture. After two weeks, a kind of routine, the “new normal” everybody is talking about, replaced the emergency work mode.
The Herculean task of enabling remote work for the entire staff of the WU Executive Academy had to be completed in just two days. Luckily, the IT team rose to the challenge. At first, they had to quickly distribute technical equipment such as rental laptops to all staff members. The IT department of the Vienna University of Economics and Business then set up remote desktop access for the employees; the team of the WU Executive Academy has been providing IT support. “We often answered questions such as ‘How does a video conference work?’ and ‘Where do I find my folders?’,” Head of IT Monika Kammerer recounts. As for communication tools, Skype for Business and MS Teams have been used and “well received by all teams.” At first, the situation was characterized by “a combination of curiosity, enthusiasm, eagerness to try out new things, and feeling stressed out,” Kammerer says. For this reason, sticking to clear communication rules and taking regular breaks have been very important: “We introduced a break in which no calls and meetings can be scheduled for everybody around lunch time. Web calls cannot be compared to real-life meetings; they require much more attention.”
Monika Kammerer and her team actively communicated with all staff members and closely listened to their feedback to find out what kind of know-how and support they needed. “We are very happy about this push towards digitization –we couldn’t have done this in other circumstances, not even in five years.” The entire staff caught on to the newly required skills really quickly. “In the past, we handled the entire IT support during an online event. Now that people are working from home, they are managing these things by themselves and I only stand ready to virtually support them if necessary,” Kammerer says proudly. Also information events for students are now exclusively offered online using Adobe Connect and MS Teams. Online teaching is realized via the Moodle platform. Some lecturers offer videos in their courses while others have opted for webinars including audio files or provide virtual office hours for their students. The Finance modules are rather hard to implement in a virtual environment: “They include a lot of math assignments for which we still lack an adequate digital flipchart,” Kammerer says. Some lecturers say that their courses depend on their presentation “being delivered in the lecture hall,” but most are motivated and open to try new modes of teaching.
By week three, all programs had been switched to online education. “Since mid-March, we have been offering the modules of our certificate programs online; in May and June, various modules of our MBA programs will follow,” Stöttinger says. She emphasizes that this has only been possible because of the “incredible support” by the faculty. “They wholeheartedly embraced the challenge, tried out digital tools, and transformed their modules to make them fit for the virtual classroom. There was an incredible amount of positive energy. I could never have imagined anything like it.” She adds: “Things always seem impossible until they are done.”
Then again, online education is not entirely new to the WU Executive Academy: “In many fields, we have been using blended learning and e-learning for many years,” Barbara Stöttinger says. One example is the “Pioneers of the 21st Century” short program: in addition to seminars held at the academy, participants engage in online learning modules and receive feedback via interactive forums. The “Agile Leadership” program for companies is even a full-fledged online program. Nevertheless, many lecturers had not gone digital before, and Barbara Stöttinger was among them. She has now digitalized the courses of the MBA modules and other programs she teaches in as well as lectures she offers as part of the bachelor’s program at WU.
Of course, this entails a lot of work: I had to come up with an entirely new didactic concept suitable for digital teaching. Only some of the slides, videos, and tools I have been using can also be used in online teaching.
For some lecturers, the transformation has been rather difficult: “They do an excellent job in the lecture hall and interacting with students. But successful online teaching requires different qualities,” Stöttinger explains. Everybody had to leave their comfort zone. “I was amazed by how many people took on the challenge of digitalizing their teaching so quickly,” she comments. Of course, they have received support with regard to technical questions and digital platforms. The biggest change, however, is the transformation of mindsets: “These are strange times we’re living in, and they are leaving a mark on us,” Barbara Stöttinger says. “I can see it in myself: things I have been putting off – I simply give them a try now.”
The crucial task of providing comprehensive and transparent information to all students fell to the program managers. They had to inform students that, “Starting immediately, all courses will be held online.” In a way, this was an acid test, considering that many international executives enroll at the WU Executive Academy because of the personal exchange with its international student body and the prospect of studying at the WU Campus. “We were prepared to receive cancellations, but for the moment, our students have remained loyal to us,” Stöttinger reports. The numerous community events organized by WU Executive Academy team also came to a screeching halt. Aleksandar Nedeljkovic, who graduated from the Professional MBA Finance in 2018, has regularly organized MBA Alumni meet-ups in the Adriatic region. “We have been offering various events to alumni of the MBA programs in several countries, among them Serbia, North Macedonia, and Croatia, but all of them were on-site events,” he says. As the pandemic loomed closer, he contacted the WU Executive Academy and proposed to organize a cross-country online event covering the impact of the coronavirus crisis on companies. This event took place virtually in mid-March and was attended by many MBA graduates from Austria, Serbia, and Croatia.
The participants, who hailed from a wide variety of industries including real estate, marketing, consumer goods, and arms manufacturing as well as government institutions, shared their personal experiences and accounts of their business activities as well as measures taken by their respective governments. “It was extremely insightful to learn how companies from various industries are dealing with this situation,” Aleksandar Nedeljkovic says. He also highlights the in-depth personal exchange that was made possible by the very fact that it was a virtual meeting.
The exchange that usually takes place between two or three people in the networking part following the official program of an event happened in a larger group during the virtual meeting.
From week one, Barbara Stöttinger has been writing a weekly mail to the whole team of 60+ staff members to share her experiences, “including an update on which IT tools I have finally mastered and which are still beyond me.” Also in the past, the organizational culture was built on collaboration: “Our staff support each other, especially within their individual teams.” The new situation, which was a challenge particularly in the early days, has also produced positive effects: “People started to help each other also across departments, for instance offering support with new tools,” Head of IT Monika Kammerer reports. As a result, the work of the IT department has changed: “We are no longer just troubleshooters others call to fix problems with their microphone. We have become a kind of interface, supporting employees with manuals and coaching them as they implement new measures. Now, faculty come to us for advice, and that is a role we relish.” She also sees a sustainable change in the role of the IT department: “Staff members will not be as dependent on the IT department as before; they will be more self-sufficient when it comes to digital tasks.” One thing that is clearly missing when working from home is the social component. “That’s why we regularly organize virtual IT cafés for the whole IT team,” Kammerer reports. These meetings have no agenda, they are just an opportunity to have a conversation on topics other than work over a coffee.
One thing is for sure: there is no stopping the rapid transformation of the WU Executive Academy. “What we have managed so far is not only the necessary foundation that allows us to go on in these demanding times, but it has also catapulted us into a whole new dimension of digitization at the speed of light– we will benefit from all of this for a long time to come,” Managing Director Astrid Kleinhanns-Rollé sums up.