Business Schools Prepare MBAs For The Machine Age

How are business schools preparing students to work alongside AI?

The robots are coming. More than one-third of jobs in the US are at risk of being displaced by automation, according to a recent study by the consultancy firm PwC. While economists’ have mostly perturbed low-skilled occupations like manual labor, a growing body of evidence suggests that it is not just brawn, but brain, that machines will replace. 

For example, according to a report from Deloitte, more than 100,000 jobs in the legal sector are likely to be automated over the next 20 years. There is no section of business, society or life that is not being disrupted, for better or for worse, by technology.

Change is both a threat and an opportunity. Artificial intelligence (AI) will improve the work of many professions by creating efficiencies and improving productivity, freeing up time for people to focus on areas where human judgment is required. Accountants, for instance, are using technology to automate mundane work like data entry — reducing the chance of often costly mistakes. 

That means the next generation of business leaders will need a new set of digital skills to be able to work alongside AI. Experts say these include the ability to take data analyzed by machines, and use it to make better strategic decisions. “There’s a natural limit to the amount of information that humans can make sense of at high speeds. Machine learning can explode that human limit by detecting patterns in real time that were invisible before,” says Nuno Sebastiao, chief executive of FeedZai, which uses AI to help companies manage risk. Sebastiao studied an MBA at London Business School.

But, in general, universities are not currently adapting fast enough to provide such skills. Just 20% of senior executives believe there are enough graduates entering the labor market with the appropriate digital skills and experience, according to a second survey by Deloitte. Of all of the digital technologies surveyed — including robotics, cyber, analytics and blockchain — executives believe AI will have the biggest impact on their organizations. 

Paul Thompson, UK digital transformation leader at Deloitte, says: “The UK has the opportunity to be a market-leader in harnessing and exploiting the opportunities digital brings, including increased productivity and driving growth.

“But it’s clear that digital skills, at all levels, are in short supply and high demand. Digital represents both a business and public policy issue which needs educators, policymakers and business to work more closely together, in order to meet current and future demand.”

Business schools are responding by adding MBA courses on AI. ESCP Europe was an early adopter, offering an elective course on AI which also explores coding and data analysis.  

Amaury de Buchet, affiliate professor, says there has long been a shortage of software engineers and data scientists, but less well known is the growing need for managers who can apply human and machine teams to grow businesses. Companies increasingly are deploying AI, with global investment reaching between US$26 billion and US$39 billion last year, according to a paper by consultants McKinsey & Company.

“MBAs won’t need to be trained to be experts in AI and technology, but they will need to understand how AI can be applied in practice in business,” de Buchet says. 

At INSEAD, students on the school’s 12-month MBA program in France and Singapore can also take a course on AI. One focus of the course is “soft skills”. INSEAD professor Urs Peyer agrees that, while AI has been billed as a death knell for many jobs, some of the essential traits of an effective management executive — such as emotional intelligence, creativity, negotiation — will become increasingly important in the machine age. 

“I don’t know the extent to which we as humans can keep pace with the speed of innovation,” Peyer says. “But the human dimension of any strategy is still crucial. As an MBA, you need to be able to employ the right technologists and lead the humans in such a way that they buy into your mission, and they buy into the products that you’re selling. The soft skills are really important to get right.”

With the future of AI in business and society uncertain, it seems likely that more business schools will prepare their future leaders to work in a human-robot world. “There is a big hype around it and it will take some time,” says Peyer. “The MBA will still be a good investment,” he adds, “because we will need people confident enough to help make the hard decisions that the human race will face as AI becomes more invasive in our lives.” 

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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