Soapbox

June 18, 2014 10:55 am

Lessons needed to beat the computer

Business schools need to refocus their curricula to provide students with the right skills

Over the last few decades, Moore’s Law (the theory of Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits will double every two years) is enabling tremendous “creative destruction” of many industries.

A recent study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford university estimates that half of 702 occupations could be computerised within the next two decades. The study predicts that even cognitive tasks are susceptible to being computerised, such as some within the healthcare, legal and financial services SECTORS. These increasingly benefit from software that analyses and recognises patterns in big data, replacing the need for human intelligence to do this work.

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Economist John Maynard Keynes said technology always outruns the pace of finding new uses for labour. Today even people in middle-income manufacturing jobs susceptible to computerisation are being pushed into low-income service jobs – or, increasingly, into unemployment. The assembly line factory satirised by Charlie Chaplin in his 1936 comedy Modern Times is very different from today’s manufacturing floor lined with silent industrial robots with one human supervisor.

How do we cope with this evolution? Standard thinking is for more and higher education for everyone, but over the last decades, the supply of highly educated people has grown faster than the demand. The result today is that even the educated are gradually moving down the occupational ladder. In many countries, PhDs and masters graduates are competing with bachelors for entry-level jobs.

Fortunately, the Oxford study concludes that about half of the jobs in the category “management, business and financial” involve complex perception and manipulation tasks, as well as creative and social intelligence, and will not be automated for a decade or two. This is a call to action. It suggests that business schools must refocus their curricula to provide students with the right skills so that they avoid being computerised out of the future.

What are these skills? Clearly, the first are perceptual and insight capabilities. Business schools and programmes need to focus on developing students who can look at the familiar with new eyes, recombine existing building blocks in novel ways and come up with innovative ideas. Graduates must be able to engage in complex project work, solving real and fuzzy problems that involve perception and manipulation tasks, such as developing new schemas for modelling sustainable growth, global economic development and managing people over vast distances.

Schools must also take another look at their curricula to understand how to help their students develop existing traits such as creativity, improvisation and design thinking. Natural language computing is still in its infancy and computers still lack that quintessential human skill – imagination.

Finally, we need to preserve the best elements of the classical liberal education ideal from the past in our modern business educational systems. The early Humboldt University, established in Berlin 1810, promoted allgemeinbildung – a liberal education across many disciplines. This diversity of learning would help develop what Aristotle termed “practical wisdom” – the habit of making decisions and taking actions that serve the common good, even in the face of complex, ambiguous or uncertain circumstances.

While universities should research and teach specialised business courses, a layer of general humanities and knowledge across disciplines helps to create competent and wise human beings. This broader view of education encourages personal growth within the larger society, including ethical and moral development.

If business schools hope to produce the next generation of business leaders, this kind of self-cultivation is perhaps the most important ideal and what will always separate us humans from I robot.

The author is dean, managing director and professor Jönköping International Business School, Sweden.

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