The MBA Of The Future Needs A Different Toolbox

By Edward D. Hess

Dean Richard Lyons of the Haas School of Business, University of California – Berkeley recently opined that in the next 5-10 years, 50% of business schools could be put out of business by the online delivery of business programs. This article explores another impact that technology could have on traditional MBA graduate programs, which could require substantial change to the traditional MBA curriculum.

The predicted upcoming accelerated rate of technological advancements will transform the composition of most businesses’ workforces. Most workplaces of the future will be staffed by some combination of smart robots, Artificial Intelligence smart machines and humans. In many cases, the number of human workers will be reduced, and, in many industries, that reduction will be significant. Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford published a compelling study about the future workforce in September of 2013. They looked at 702 types of jobs in the United States and made judgments, on the basis of required skills and expected technological advances, about whether there was a low, medium or high risk that technology would displace workers in those jobs over the next 10 to 20 years.

Their conclusion: 47% of total U.S. employees have a high risk of being displaced by technology, and 19% have a medium risk. That means that 66% of the U.S. workforce has a medium to high risk of job destruction. That raises an important question for every person: What will we be able to do better than the smart machines? Frey and Osborne, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age and John Kelly and Steve Hamm, authors of Smart Machines, believe that the activities humans will be still better at doing will require either creativity, innovative thinking, complex critical thinking, moral judgments or high emotional and social intelligence.

If one assumes that eventually all business tasks will be consumed by technology that do not involve creativity, innovative thinking, high-level critical thinking, moral judgments and high social/emotional engagement, then one has to ask: Are MBA programs focused enough on teaching and developing those skills and capabilities?

Learning cognitive and emotional skills is difficult in any context.  Decades of research in neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics and education have demonstrated that we are not naturally critical or innovative thinkers. Rather, we are naturally highly efficient, fast, reflexive thinkers who basically seek to confirm what we already know. We are not critical or innovative thinkers — we are confirmation machines. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman stated, “Laziness is built deep into our nature. That is part of our “humanness.”

Thinking critically and innovatively is also hard emotionally.  Many neuroscientists, including Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, believe that our emotions influence and are integrally intertwined in most of our cognitive processing. In other words, rationality is a myth. Emotionally, we seek to affirm and defend our self-image.  Additionally, fear comes all too naturally to most of us — and makes it hard for us to engage in the messy work of critical thinking and innovation. Fear of failure and fear of looking foolish can lead to what Chris Argyris called “defensive reasoning”: the tendency to defend what we believe. That, too, is part of our human nature.

To really think critically and innovatively and to have high emotional and social intelligence, one has to learn how to overcome those natural cognitive and emotional proclivities. That is what is missing from many MBA programs. Developing one’s ability to think critically and innovatively and one’s emotional intelligence will require MBA students to learn critical and innovative thinking processes and to develop the ability to manage their thinking and emotions, as well as humility, empathy and mindfulness.  Almost all of those skills and capabilities need to be learned by doing — doing them enough to engrain new habitual ways of behaving and thinking. This requires individualized developmental attention, mentoring and real-time feedback, and a lot of hard work. It also requires a different teacher-student ratio and professorial competencies than found in many MBA programs. I believe that the degree of intensity and daily individualized practice necessary to develop these needed capabilities will require major innovation in most MBA programs.

If that is true, the MBA program of the future will look a lot different than most existing MBA programs. That challenge is even bigger for many MBA programs than the challenge presented by the online delivery of MBA content.

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and author of the new book Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization.

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