50,000 and counting: AMBA’s landmark member in profile

Growth and Innovation Lead, Pablo Espinosa Almenara, is AMBA’s 50,000th student and graduate member. David Woods-Hale talks to the Alliance Manchester Business School candidate about his programme’s format, workload and content, and gets his views on the benefits of open innovation

AMBA reached a milestone in its history this summer by recruiting its 50,000th member – Pablo Espinosa Almenara. The organisation’s global membership network is made up of MBA, MBM and DBA students and graduates from AMBA-accredited Business Schools across the world.

Pablo is an MBA candidate at Alliance Manchester Business School as well as Growth and Innovation Lead at Arcadis, which is a built asset design and consultancy firm, responsible for projects including the creation of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the refurbishment of London Bridge railway station, and the design of the Australian Grand Prix course.

AMBITION caught up with Pablo to welcome him to AMBA and find out a bit more about his thoughts on innovation, sustainability, ethics, and the future of business.

Can you share a little bit about your background?

I come from Granada in the south of Spain, where I studied a master’s in civil engineering and subsequently worked in my family business, taking many different roles but mainly as a business development manager.

I wanted to have experience outside my home country and moved to the UK looking for other opportunities – with very basic English in my backpack, but a lot of enthusiasm for exploring and learning. I studied a master’s in construction project management at Herriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and after this I moved to London to work as a project manager in a consultancy. I’ve been living in London for seven years now.

You are an MBA candidate at Alliance Manchester Business School (AMBS) with plans to graduate in 2021. What prompted you to complete the MBA?

My family owned a small business in Spain, which I have been involved in since I was a child. I grew up learning many different skills – from operations management, to customer experience – so, I’ve always been passionate about businesses. That was the main driver for me to get prepared for managing businesses, and the best way to learn about this is through an MBA.

You mentioned you live in London and you’re studying at Manchester. What’s the format of your study and how are you balancing your time?

I’m in the second year of a part-time Global MBA at AMBS. This is a blended MBA, that mixes face-to-face with virtual learning environments. Prior to starting the MBA, I thought that a part-time arrangement was going to balance quite nicely with my job and my lifestyle. Now, I think that the MBA requires more work than I was anticipating and a lot of commitment to complete it.

As a piece of advice for those who are thinking of studying an MBA, I would say that it requires high commitment, not only from themselves, but also from the partners and families, as the MBA takes a lot of time and dedication. In my case, I try to do some MBA work and reading before work every day, so I can leave part of the weekend to do other activities and to rest.

What courses and modules are you particularly enjoying and finding the most useful?

The courses that I’m enjoying the most are about strategy and competition. This subject is quite extensive in the global MBA at AMBS.

As a consultant, I think it is important to know more about how businesses create their strategies and how these strategies adapt, based on market-changing conditions or movement from competitors. These courses are practical, and I’ve been able to apply what I learn in my day-to-day job, almost from day one.

As we’re speaking, Covid-19 continues to impact the way we work and study. How have your studies been affected and how have you been able to adapt to this ‘new normal’?

One of the main reasons for me to choose AMBS was the opportunity to travel abroad. Here, there are electives that allow students to study in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and many other places. However, due to the lockdown [caused by Covid-19], I haven’t been able to do this.

AMBS is very supportive in this complicated situation and students have been able to defer electives or do them virtually. AMBS has acted rapidly and adapted the teaching style to overcome the Covid-19 challenges and I’m really happy with its response. Also, the fact that the Global MBA is a blended course has mitigated some of the issues around the pandemic.

You have spent your career in strategic project management, transformation and delivery and operational environments. Would you share some examples of initiatives and projects with which you’ve been especially proud to be involved?

I have worked in project management most of my career, predominantly in aviation and education. I was involved in the pre-delivery stages of a major capital programme of more than £400m GBP called City Airport Development Programme (CADP), the aim of which was to transform London City Airport for the future.

One of the projects I worked in was a survey to ascertain whether there were any unexploded bombs from the Second World War next to the existing runway and where we were planning to build the deck for the airport’s new terminal infrastructure and taxiway. We engaged with several parties including airport operations, the Royal Navy, Metropolitan Police, and the London Borough of Newham to plan and prepare the protocols just in case an unexploded ordnance was found.

A year after these plans were drawn up, we had to make use of these protocols when a 500kg device was discovered at King George V dock. The airport had to close temporarily, so the protocols we had defined could be followed. The bomb was extracted safely and detonated in the sea. We mitigated the risks attached to this and minimised the time that the airport was closed and the impact that the bomb’s discovery could have triggered. This was a good example of successful strategic project management.

You’re Growth and Innovation Lead at built asset design and consultancy, Arcadis. Your organisation must have some great insight into sustainability and infrastructure. How has this knowledge and experience helped with your MBA?

One of the main benefits of working in Arcadis is the magnitude of the clients and the projects with which we work. The projects are sometimes so unique in the world that they are considered a symbol for the organisation. Arcadis has given me the opportunity to work with a wide range of clients, involving many different sectors and industries.

This has led me to develop valuable, transferable skills, as well as big-picture thinking. My job has given me the chance to work with board members and client organisations from the very early stages of my career. I learned different skills such as communication, problem solving, creative thinking and decision-making. I’m really proud to be an Arcadian.

Innovation is more important than ever in the current climate. Do you think businesses are encouraging their people to be innovative and creative? How can they go about this best?

Absolutely, innovation is one of the key areas of any business. We live in a world that is changing constantly; the markets are changing, and people are changing behaviours and tastes. Therefore, organisations need to be innovative if they want to maintain competitive advantage.

In times of crises, businesses should liberate innovation to navigate through complexity and uncertainty. Businesses should look at reconfiguring their products and solutions to overcome the failure of the established firms; and this includes moving from incremental innovation to more radical innovations.

The problem is that some companies encourage their employees to be innovative, but do not provide the platform, resources, or time to complete this innovation. Arguably, these companies fail to innovate. This needs to change. Companies must provide resources to give their employees what they need if they want to achieve successful and innovative results.

How can businesses become more innovative in order to address mounting challenges and disruption?

Not every business realises the true potential of being innovative. Companies are focusing on survival and return after Covid-19. This is going to put businesses – whose size and operations are not appropriate for the market demand – on the spot.

Winston Churchill once said: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’. The reorganisation of business post-Covid-19 necessitates looking to the future. Leaders must use the lessons learned from the past to try to understand how the new normal is going to be.

Organisations could set up processes to capture new ideas, encourage experimentation, or increase the network outside their markets. This could help them find new partners and solutions. Leaders need to look into their businesses from the outside-in perspective as well as the inside out, and reimagine not only the services that are not performing well today, but every arm of the business that needs to change in the future.

Which organisational innovations do you think will have the most positive impact on those affected by Covid-19?

Covid-19 had a direct impact on the mobility of people due to the lockdown imposed by governments around the world. Therefore, the aim for most of the business community was to have continuity [in their operations] and that included enabling employees to work remotely, facilitating new virtual environments in which to work, and reviewing traditional governance and processes to meet the new requirements.  

All this has contributed directly to accelerate digital transformation. Digital transformation has always made sense but adoption has been slow. Now the need is compelling and those who fail to transform their businesses are likely to be left behind, with a high risk of becoming irrelevant and non-competitive.

The most important point to remember is that digital transformation is not about technology; it’s about people and talent.

What type of innovation works best in emerging markets and for emerging markets?

One of the best ways to innovate in emerging markets is through more distributed, decentralised and participatory ways. This means making use of open innovation.

Open innovation is about using many sources of knowledge and new ideas. This includes ideas from customers, rivals, academics, and firms from unrelated industries. Open innovation has the potential to enlarge the space for value creation. It allows for many more ways to create value through new partnerships and complementary skills, or by unlocking hidden potential in long-lasting relationships.

In a crisis, open innovation can help organisations find new ways to solve pressing problems and, at the same time, build a positive reputation. Collaboration is the key to bringing the world closer together.

Today, there are growing numbers of collaborations between big and small companies around the globe. These companies are sharing their technologies and ideas openly and this is fostering innovation and wider adoption. The beauty of open source innovation is that there is a huge ecosystem of innovators who are no longer competing for scarce resources, but rather sharing knowledge with others to create new resources and opportunities.

What disruptions in business are you most interested in?

I’m interested in the application of new technologies in my industry. The first is automation of knowledge work (for example, intelligent software systems, AI, machine learning, and big data technologies). The second is cloud computing, and the third is the Internet of Things.

I’m researching disruptive technology trends constantly, to see the big picture and gain insights into how technology could impact my objectives and bring operational efficiencies. I try to avoid a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to where technology and the market is heading, as this could be risky.

Instead, I would recommend taking a robust scenario planning approach to innovation where you can understand how emerging technologies might affect your stakeholders, your suppliers and your customers. I plan for different type of scenarios and ask myself: ‘What is the role that my business is going to play in a changing ecosystem or what is the likelihood of disruption in the market industry in which I’m operating?’ I try to put this in context with the disruptive technologies that I identify, and this helps me make better decisions.

How would you like to see Business Schools do more to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship?

Business Schools play a key role in connecting theory and practice. However, they need to go beyond that and be the vehicle for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Schools should position themselves as platforms that integrate all the pieces in this innovation puzzle. That means integrating all the elements that are necessary to achieve successful innovative ecosystems and connecting companies that are leveraging new partnerships, investments, collaborations, and alliances.  

What do you think Business Schools should be teaching their students so they can be responsible and ethical leaders?

That’s a very controversial topic because, in the real world, business leaders find themselves in very complex situations.

Leaders often have to make decisions between what is the best for their business, or what is the most ethical decision. There are cases in which these answers are aligned but sometimes they are not.

Business Schools can contribute through instilling certain values into future leaders. For example, one of the values of AMBS is social responsibility and my course has a specific section to discuss ethical issues in business. We run through practical examples of what has been done in the past. In this approach you can ask yourself: ‘What would you do in this type of situation?’

This process has triggered questions in my mind, such as: ‘What are the things I want to be recognised for?’ and ‘What is the legacy that I want to leave behind?’ These are important questions and any leader should be clear on their answers to these questions.

What are you most looking forward to about being a member of AMBA?

AMBA is at the centre of three main parties: MBA students and graduates; Business Schools; and corporate organisations. As such, there are opportunities that can be developed within these three groups separately and together.

The ultimate goal of AMBA should be for it to be the go-to platform for these three groups of people to go to create value together by generating and taking advantage of co-operative opportunities and synergies in different areas.

Something that AMBA does well is to share insight and keep members informed across many different channels, such as its magazine or podcast, for example. These insights into business trends are very helpful for me in terms of being better prepared and informed for today and tomorrow.

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