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.

Originally Posted:

Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Address

Listen to this commencement address that Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford University

Drawing from some of the most pivotal points in his life, Steve Jobs, chief executive officer and co-founder of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, urged graduates to pursue their dreams and see the opportunities in life’s setbacks — including death itself — at the university’s 114th Commencement on June 12, 2005.


The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight. But they, while their companions slept were toiling upwards in the night

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable

— Coach John Wooden

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloth, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half light, I would spread the cloths under your feet; But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

— W.B. Yeats

As Sir Ken Robinson said in his TED talk – Bring on the Learning Revolution, “every day, our children spread their dreams under our feet. We must tread softly, for we tread on their dreams.”

Just A Minute

There was a wonderful game that I played growing up while in school and college called Just A Minute. In fact, it was so popular in that part of the world that we had inter-school and inter-college competitions. The rules of the game are very simple – you have to speak on an impromptu topic for one minute without hesitation, repetition, or deviation while maintaining grammatically correct English. One of the other competitors can challenge you and take the podium from you if you trip up. Besides the obvious entertainment that the game provides, it is an excellent way for kids to develop the skills of public speaking, story telling, collecting and sequencing ideas, and expanding their knowledge and vocabulary.

The game has been a very popular BBC Radio show for decades.

Can’t You Sit Still?

Many years ago, in my first year as team manager of a team of young elementary kids for Destination Imagination, I had a third grade girl on my team. This girl could never sit still. She was always on her feet moving around. Not knowing better then, I would try to get her to sit still during the discussions so that she would not distract the other kids. How many of you have been in a similar situation yourself? Or have had your child’s teacher or someone tell you, “I think your child has a hard time focussing”. My contention is that in most cases, they and us fail to realize that there are a vast majority of children who need to move to think! It just seems so counter-intuitive that most adults just dismiss it as a wayward child who will never accomplish anything much.

Ken Robinson has a wonderful story about this in his TED Talk – School kills creativity – about a little girl who got into trouble at school because she could not sit still. My story about the third grade girl on my team does not have as impactful an ending as his, for I lost touch with her family . Suffice it is to say that in the team, she was the most creative and brilliant performer and on stage during the competition, she opened my eyes. The team was to perform the chicken dance as the final piece. They had rehearsed it to music that was to be played through a boom box that they inadvertently forgot to plug into the power cord. The rules of this competition state no adult assistance is permitted, which meant that the kids had to set the stage themselves. This is a timed performance, and when the music did not play as planned, the kids froze. As the agonizing seconds went by, and the adults in the audience wringed their hands, this girl snapped the team out of their helpless stupor, began moving her hands and feet while humming the tune, and led the team in the most creative rendition of the chicken dance you will be privileged to see.

Many years later, I had an almost similar experience with my younger son, who just cannot sit still. He is playing music, tapping his feet, and staring into space while I try to explain to him a lengthy homework concept. It is then that I started to formally research different learning styles, and what I read reinforced what I had experienced over the years. I am glad I did, because the harm that we can cause to our children by trying to pigeon hole them into one learning style bucket is far more than any of us take the time to realize.

There are many articles on different learning styles. Here is one I found recently. I would urge you to spend the time to read it and apply it, not for your sake, but for the sake of our children. The next time someone tells you that your child cannot sit still and has a “learning” problem, ask them, “Have you considered that maybe his learning style is different than yours”?