Professor John Board: 'Economics has a lot to say about the world'

The new dean of Henley Business School talks to Michael Prest about the future of business education

Professor John Board can be a bit irreverent. When asked whether he has any hobbies, the new dean of Henley Business School, three months into the job, feigns anguish. "I wish I could give a really interesting answer to that question," he says after a moment. "I suppose it would be avoiding any undue physical activity."

Professor Board may not run marathons, but he clearly does not lack energy. Alert, quick and ready to see the funny side, he is also fluent and serious – "deeply" serious, to use one of his favourite words – when it comes to the business of business education.

"Business is a social science, not a physical science," explains Professor Board. "That means economics has a lot to say about the world. Economics famously has many equations, but no one would suggest the power of those equations is equivalent to the power of engineering equations. We are dealing with people, not things that move around."

It's a good starting point. He has taken over Henley at an important stage in the life of the institution and of business education generally. Henley is the product of a 2008 merger between parts of the University of Reading and the Henley Management College, founded in 1946. The merger illustrates the changing landscape of top-flight business education.

The college long enjoyed a high reputation at home and abroad. It was distinguished by a pioneering spirit, intellectual independence, a liberal outlook and its beautiful house, Greenlands, on the banks of the Thames. Today, however, business education is more ambitious, more formalised intellectually, much more influential and, in the shadow of the financial crisis, more questioned and less assured. The story can be read in the change of names. Founded as "Administrative Staff College", Henley changed its name to include "management" in 1991, then "business" following the merger.

The school's most recent incarnation includes the University of Reading's well-known School of Real Estate and Planning and the ICMA Centre, which is a finance school founded with support from the International Capital Market Association, a self-regulatory organisation and trade association that represents a large part of the finance industry, including top global investment banks.

Finance is Professor Board's background. He took his undergraduate degree in economics and accounting followed by a PhD at Newcastle University. Finance appealed to him. "It struck me as a properly applied but rigorous part of the economics-accounting spectrum. It was the part of my BSc which just fitted the way I think," he says.

His first academic appointment was at Reading before he went to the London School of Economics. After 15 years there, he moved back to Reading in 2004 to run the ICMA Centre. All this has been useful training, but the elevation to dean is more than another promotion. Henley has 250 staff, armies of students and offers a full range of degrees from the bachelor to the doctorate level, including a highly rated international MBA.

He appears unfazed and, at 53, ready for the next step. "I can run things and I've taken the view that that's the next step in my career. Does that make me a bureaucrat? I hope not. I understand the business, having done it for a long time. So one moves on and says: 'Having done it and having observed it, I can and therefore will run it'," he says.

The analysis is logical, confident and concise, but without conceit. Similarly he claims he was not brainy during his schooldays in London. He is also direct about the future of business education. Professor Board believes, what employers want is changing significantly. "The current take on the financial crisis is that the world will expect graduates to be more generally aware than perhaps they have been – that is to be more generally aware of the higher space an enterprise occupies," he says.

The practical implications are that business education should be broader, avoid over-quantifying and understand the social context for business. But technical expertise remains essential. "One of the lessons the crisis taught us is that there were plenty of people who didn't recognise the warning signals. No MBA should go out and not be able to read a risk report," says Professor Board.

Now, it is his responsibility to put these ideas into practice. The strategic tasks facing Henley are to consolidate and expand. According to Professor Board, consolidation means there will be "a single entity that can present different faces to different parts of the market," while growth is essential but "in any business, one is unwise to predict over a five-year or a 10-year cycle which of my various lines is going to grow fastest".

Nevertheless, he admits that some assumptions are unavoidable. "I would expect more people to come along and say, 'I want to be trained in management with real estate', or whatever it might be. My belief is that there will be growing demand for high-grade management education at the Masters level internationally. But the demand will reduce for delivery in the UK," he says.

How to meet that demand is one of the keys to successful expansion. If students want the education but do not want to come to the UK, the education will have to go to them. For Professor Board, however, it is not clear that the answers are more campuses abroad, which is expensive and risky, or more online study. Devising the right strategy will be important for Henley and its new dean, but Professor Board does not seem the type to let the challenge overwhelm him.