MBA students at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, get a glimpse into the future of recruitment this year. As a part of a course on artificial intelligence (AI), students write a job ad and upload it on a platform that generates similar job ads in the same geographical area. The platform’s algorithms then evaluate bias in the students’ writing, assessing whether their ad would appeal to minority candidates.
“There is a lot of unconscious biases in the way we write. So you can find if your job posting is unintentionally ‘gendered’ or unappealing to minorities. That is something that is really difficult for us to see in our own writing,” says Dr Adam Pah, instructor of the Human and Machine Intelligence course at Kellogg.
The class aims to familiarise students with the wonders of AI in crucial parts of modern business, using real examples from the intersection of tech and business. “We are confronting this new reality where the most important co-worker for business people might not be a human but an intelligent machine, so we focus on how you evaluate and interact with them productively,” says Pah.
Most students have a basic understanding of AI, courtesy of Amazon Echo and other similar applications. But operating robots in a business context can be trickier and demands training, says Pah: “We don’t dive into the maths, but we build an understanding of how these machines work because if you take a step back they all work in the exact same way. They are perfect and what they do is completely valuable, but without human oversight they fail.”
A clash of cultures
Kellogg is just one of the business schools around the world that are incorporating AI into their curricula in an attempt to meet increasing demand for tech-oriented programmes. S P Jain School of Global Management, an Australian business school, has launched a 9-month professional programme on machine learning. Some institutions have even embraced AI as a learning and teaching method. IE Business School, a prestigious Spanish institution, has launched the WOW Room, an AI-driven learning platform that utilises data analysis, emotion recognition systems and even holograms of the school’s academics to teach its students virtually.
Merging two different subject areas such as business and technology can be challenging for academics and students used to an old-fashioned type of MBA, heavy on case studies and financial analysis. Many business schools also struggle to lure from the tech sector AI whizzes who can teach the subject in a business context.
However, the future of the MBA is interdisciplinary, says Graham Kendall, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Nottingham and leading expert on AI: “There are ways to do an MBA without getting into coding or being very technology based, but the successful MBAs will include these elements.”
Some schools have built a flexible curriculum so that students can tailor their MBA to their preferences. At Missouri University of Science and Technology, which launched last year an MBA course on machine learning, students have to take core classes from both subject areas and then pick optional ones in niche areas such as fintech or cyber security. “We have merged management with IT under the same roof, so we use expertise from both faculties to make our students employable,” says Professor Keng Siau, Chair of the Department of Business & Information Technology at the institution.
The challenge is more acute in EMBA programmes that target senior executives with little tech experience. One way around this problem is to focus on the fundamentals. A case in point is the EMBA at Nanyang Business School, NTU Singapore, which includes a course with a machine-learning component. “Managerial audiences can be put off by over-technical and jargon-laden materials, and this course focuses on explaining the logic behind the technique,” says Professor Goh Kim Huat, Associate Professor of Information Technology & Operations Management at Nanyang Business School and instructor of the course.
Executives can bring to the table a much-needed understanding of business uses of technology, says Goh Kim Huat: “Contrary to popular belief, folks with management and business background add a lot of value to the discussion on AI, machine learning and data science. Within the industry, we can find individuals who are very strong in various technical areas, but one major barrier in making data science work for organisations is to be able to see the business opportunities that lie within.”
A new skill set
If automation wiped out low-skill jobs such as cashiers and clerks, the AI revolution has the potential to upend white-collar positions, including managerial ones. One out of three MBA and Master’s in Management graduates believe that AI may steal their jobs in the future, according to a recent survey by Emolument, a pay benchmarking website.
For Kellogg’s Pah, these fears are premature: “In the next twenty years, we will not feel comfortable about getting rid of the human element. It’s more likely that we will shift to augmented human performance where a human will continue to perform their function aided by an intelligent algorithm. So their performance will not be judged based on their skills, but also on how they will manage that relationship.”
The most important skill thinks Pah, is understanding what robots can and can’t do: “You need to know how the algorithm works to use it and evaluate how it delivers results, so you can understand what data it has access to and whether there are holes in the logic. That’s what will differentiate you from someone else.”
Some programmes focus on data as a tool to use AI and machine learning effectively. ESSEC Business School has launched a Master’s programme on data science & business analytics that covers machine learning. The key skill for business leaders in the future will be the ability to tap into data to ask the right questions, says Professor Guillaume Chevillon, academic co-director of the programme: “AI is a way of understanding from data the best way to find a solution to a problem. It can provide a way to find answers, but you have to set the right criteria to evaluate the options. Otherwise, you get questions that you never ask and do not need to be answered. So you have to know where you want to go.”
Time to change
The increasing importance of technology in business and finance has sparked a new round of soul-searching across the business school community. Many struggle to develop MBA programmes that are different from what IT departments offer, as a growing number of students traditionally targeted by business schools shun MBAs for tech-oriented programmes. If business schools want to up their game, embracing AI is a no-brainer, says Professor Kendall: “MBA students, as well as future leaders, need to be able to understand and have a position which they can defend with regard to AI. This requires AI courses being part of the MBA curriculum.”