Since its foundation, Bocconi's School of Management has set itself the goal of standing alongside individuals and organizations, public and private, to accompany them in their process of growth and development of skills throughout their adult lives. 50 years after its foundation, in the most crucial period for the restart of Italy and Europe in the post-pandemic, the mission of the school has never been so important. As its director, Giuseppe Soda, an expert in network dynamics, tells us. And the network of people remains the great strength of the school
by Emanuele Elli
Giuseppe Soda, who everyone in the university knows as Beppe, was a student, doctoral student, researcher, lecturer, department head at Bocconi. Today he is professor of Organization Theory & Social Network Analysis and since 2016 he leads, as Dean, SDA Bocconi, the business and management school, which this year celebrates its first 50 years. With him at the helm, SDA has logged its best results ever in the international rankings.
With all these rankings don't you always feel like you’re under scrutiny?
Fortunately not, because I can’t attribute all our merits to myself. I inherited a machine that worked, with a group of extraordinary people, faculty and staff. With this team we have only pressed a little more on the innovation pedal to accelerate the transformation and meet the great global challenges that lifelong learning is facing. And not all rankings are the same.
What do you consider your to be your “championship ring”?
The third place in Europe obtained in 2019 in the Financial Times' ranking of rankings. I consider it the pinnacle of the long march that began in 1989, when SDA decided (we were the first in Italy) to teach the Master in Business Administration in English so as to be able to compete on international markets and embrace the globalization that at that time was also beginning to interest the higher education sector. To re-read that decision today, it was truly a turning point that led us to a cultural transformation, to a discipline and a constancy that perhaps otherwise we would not have had. Measuring yourself against the best is a difficult game, sometimes frustrating, but it leads you to have a long-term vision and to understand that great results come with perseverance and determination. Today, also thanks to the new campus, we are committed to further enhancing the school's international reputation, aware that the stronger the SDA is, the stronger Bocconi is as a whole.
How can a management school respond today to the upskilling or reskilling needs emerging in all sectors?
SDA was conceived and founded by a group of very young professors with the aim of giving Italy, the productive world, companies and institutions a place in which to train a class capable of leading development and facing the great challenges of society and the economy. It was born as a School of Management and not a Business School. It is a precise direction, it means that our mission is to train good management also for the public sector and for all areas in which an open and competent ruling class is needed. Today, faced with the challenges of restarting, this responsibility is felt even more strongly and spurs us to make the SDA a truly transformative experience, for people as well as for the organizations that come to us.
Beyond the rankings, what are the signs, in your opinion, of the good functioning of a management school?
A management school competes on many markets, there are custom courses (those created ad hoc for companies and institutions), open courses, Master programs, applied research. It is therefore difficult for there to be only one significant data point; it's like being in command of a plane, you have to keep an eye on many parameters, altitude, speed, course, inclination, and all of them must be corrected promptly because our markets are constantly changing. Beyond the indicators, however, there are moments that, on a symbolic level, have great value. To give an example, the other day at the end of the 2017 Executive MBA Graduation ceremony, one of our alums told me: "I thank SDA for helping me make the professional and personal transformation I felt I needed." Here, this sentence gives meaning to our work much more than all the rankings and indicators with which we are measured every day because it contains the sense of the school's mission: to guide professional and personal transformation to affect the future.
How is it possible to make the educational offer of a business school personal and unique?
Within each major management school there are specific research and teaching traditions that can represent points of differentiation. We at SDA remain generalists and this is a strong point. From the point of view of disciplines, we can leverage the Bocconi system and human capital and its recent developments, for example in the field of data science. We also have points of excellence and pride, for example the managerial development programs aimed at strengthening SMEs, but also those for public government and health. Then there are vocations more closely related to Italy, such as fashion, design and luxury, but also all of our culture and skills in the manufacturing sector.
You define yourself first of all as a researcher. What role does research play within a management school?
I always say that our distinctive competence is not to spread knowledge but to produce it. It is an almost ontological fact: a teacher must first devote himself to the discovery and then to the transfer of knowledge through teaching. The creation of new knowledge, the result of research activity, is in itself a deviant act: the exercise of an alternative thought to the dominant one, supported by the rigor of the method. Thus, the innovative effort in managerial knowledge is always to go further, to seek answers to complexity and not necessarily reduce it to a recipe based on common feelings or on past experience. At the same time, the research carried out in SDA and transmitted in its classrooms has always been conceived as "influential”. It is focused on relevant topics, developed with the precision and quality typical of scientific disciplines, but at the same time it is able to produce knowledge with a high impact on the communities of reference.
Among the bonuses launched by governments to relaunch consumption, there is nothing concerning training. How do you judge this lack?
The word training in the PNRR is repeated 206 times. In the plan, training represents the main lever of many policies that will be central to the restart, such as the National New Skills Plan. However, there is no specific incentive to push companies and institutions to use training as an accelerator for competitiveness. It seems to me that the strategic importance of human capital is well understood and, beyond the fiscal lever, in the implementation of the PNRR we will need a concrete plan for the reskilling, upskilling and digital transformation of our production system and of the Public Administration.
You are considered one of the leading experts in Network Dynamics, how would you define the experience in a school like SDA in this sense?
University institutions, schools, are loosely connected systems, in the sense that their essence is precisely that of a network of connections and interactions, rather than that of vertical and hierarchical organizations. The production of knowledge is largely based on the network of relationships of exchange and sharing of knowledge and ideas in which we are all immersed. Although founded by very charismatic leaders, such as Claudio Dematté, SDA has always been a large network of very different people, some of academic derivation, others more linked to managerial practice. But this "connected diversity" has been and is a great strength. My responsibility as Dean is precisely to make this network more and more dynamic, multiplying the opportunities for exchange and interaction in order to be faster and more innovative in responding to a context, that of higher education, in profound transformation.
SDA Bocconi School of Management