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February 13, 2012 12:06 am

A new digital reality enters the MBA classroom

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On a chilly, sun-splotched Monday morning earlier this month, 16 MBA students at Boston University School of Management ambled into Room 326, known internally as “the studio”, to discuss the topic of the day: cars and cloud computing.

As the class began, the students, already divided into two teams – one portraying Google, the other Microsoft – bent over laptops and iPads to prepare their PowerPoint slides. Then two executives, one an expert in cloud computing located in a suburb of Boston, the other a former head of digital innovation at Volkswagen based in Detroit, were beamed in via TelePresence to the giant LCD screen at the head of the room.

As the students’ slides appeared on the six smaller LCD screens around the room, the teams took turns to present their ideas. Their professors, Venkat Venkatraman and Richard Swanborg, hardly spoke at all. Periodically, they would solicit a reaction from the experts or write a key phrase from the class discussion on the interactive Mondopad, an oversize tablet with a digital whiteboard.

Welcome to the future of management education. As business schools try to infuse more reality into their classrooms, the old “sage on the stage” model, where a professor lectures a class and interaction is limited to case debate, is going the way of text books.

Career opportunities

As business schools wake up to job opportunities for MBAs in the growing field of “big data” – shorthand for the massive amount of digital information we generate, maintain and manipulate – many are introducing courses in analytics.

Companies have long used analytics – the study of business data – to discover trends, reduce fraud, mitigate risk and run a more efficient supply chain.

Increasingly, businesses are applying analytics to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as to product review websites, to try to “understand where customers are, what makes them tick and what they want”, says Deepak Advani, who heads IBM’s predictive analytics group.

“It gives companies a sense of what’s trending in the social world so they can make adjustments to their products and programming on the spot.”

IBM has partnered more than 200 universities and business schools, including Yale School of Management, to create analytics curriculum and training. The field now has its own profession says Mr Advani: data scientists who must secure, model and analyse an organisation’s big data.

Jobs may be plentiful in the realm of big data, but candidates to fill them are scarce. By 2018, there will be a shortfall of between 140,000 and 190,000 graduates with “deep analytical talent” in the US alone, says a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the management consultancy’s research arm.

Ravi Dhar, director of the Center for Customer Insights at Yale SOM, offers students the chance to work on analytics projects for companies. “There’s a lot of data out there,” he says. “The challenge is: how do we make sense of it?”

Jonathan Taplin is the director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, an interdisciplinary research institute sponsored by corporations including Warner Bros, IBM and Intel.

The Lab does a real-time “sentiment analysis” of Twitter to predict movie box office openings, television ratings and even voter preferences. Prof Taplin’s team uses existing software, but is also writing its own to help its computers get “smarter”.

“We are helping the computer to learn. We’re teaching it about emotions, and what users mean when they put quotes around a word. It’s a huge and constant learning process, and for students is exciting.”

Many faculty members are embracing digital technologies that enable them to include industry professionals as guest lecturers in the classroom, real-time case study discussions, as clients in immersive consulting projects, or as virtual tour-guides at labs and factories. Rather than lecture, professors guide students and guest speakers through a debate.

“Every class discussion is much richer and more engaging,” says Prof Venkatraman, who specialises in information systems. “The payback is deeper learning.”

The studio at Boston University, which was recently refitted with new software and circuitry to the tune of $1m, is typically booked from morning until night, six days a week. The room’s technology is used mainly in full-time MBA courses, though it is also being rolled out in undergraduate courses and executive education.

The technology has not impressed all teaching staff, however. “It’s difficult to get all of our faculty members to rethink how they want to teach. They have to develop an entirely new method and it requires a lot of effort,” says Prof Venkatraman.

But many do believe that the increased emphasis on technology has important benefits, such as a better use of precious classroom time.

Prof Swanborg, an executive-in-residence at the school who teaches IT strategy, says he now spends very little time lecturing. Instead he records presentations for students to watch on their phones or computers whenever they choose; classroom time is devoted to interactive simulations or guest speakers enabled by technology.

“It’s pushing academics to become expert facilitators,” he says.

The technology is not perfect, and hiccups and glitches are a common occurrence, but officials say the greater use of video conferencing appeals to a generation weaned on Facebook and digital gadgetry.

“It’s changing the experience of what business school is,” says Abram Guerra, a student enrolled in Boston University’s joint MBA/Masters, of the Information Systems programme.

“It’s a whole new level of engagement and participation, and [the inclusion of executives] makes it current.”

Of course, busy executives often make guest appearances on campuses, but those visits often require considerable planning and logistics. With TelePresence, the high-end conference system, as well as other more mainstream technologies such as Apple’s FaceTime, YouTube and Skype video call, these kinds of speaking engagements are much easier to co-ordinate, according to Tony O’Driscoll, a professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina, which has one of the largest TelePresence systems in the world.

“To get a Silicon Valley executive to come to Durham for a one-hour keynote address and discussion is a two-day opportunity cost [for that executive],” says Prof O’Driscoll, executive director at Fuqua’s Center for Technology, Media and Entertainment.

“I hear all the time from people: ‘I’d love to do it, but ...’ This technology allows us to get higher profile business people to participate more often. To them, it’s just another slot in the calendar.”

. . .

Not all courses are cut out for hi-tech updates or outside speakers enabled by technology, of course. In quantitative areas, such as accounting, there is content that is perhaps better suited to memory and drill. In courses in strategy, competitive analysis, innovation and pricing, however, the live inclusion of industry input is sup-erior to the traditional case method.

“No matter how well the case is written, to hear from someone who was in the trenches and had to make a decision – there’s no comparison,” says Ellen Rubin, vice-president at Terremark, a Verizon company, who recently spoke to students at BU.

“It’s unbelievably powerful and it sticks with you the rest of your career.”

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