Rise of the robots: How is the MBA responding?

Tom Welsh
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From low-skilled jobs to the professions, automation and AI are expected to disrupt white collar jobs (Source: Getty)

Do robots need MBAs? Since the application of robotics is largely confined to manufacturing and AI is still in its infancy, the answer now is obviously no. But in 30 years’ time? One LinkedIn author recently argued that business schools should be proactive and develop a “Robot MBA” for a future of intelligent non-human workers.

Silliness aside, having transformed unskilled jobs, automation is set to disrupt professional life, where MBAs can be a point of differentiation for humans. “The automation we’ve seen in the last 100 years mostly replaced muscle,” says Urs Peyer of Insead. “In the future, it’s the possibility of replacing the brain”. A study by Deloitte and Oxford University found that 35 per cent of current jobs are at high risk of computerisation, with white collar professions among those most under threat.

On the evidence of history, humans will no doubt move into different, more highly-skilled positions. But how are business schools reacting?

Exit plan

Many use the MBA as a way to transition into a new job or even industry – so the degree could be a potential exit plan if your position looks to be under threat.

And business schools are already teaching students to support companies in substituting human labour. NYU Stern, for example, has courses in emerging technology, business innovation, and understanding “collective intelligence”. Judge Business School, meanwhile, has a Managing Big Data Analysis course. “Over time, technology will help a lot in getting facts and information, but interpretation will take teams of humans,” says Peyer.

Soft skills

For the ability to think creatively and make unlikely connections is one of the qualities thought unlikely to be threatened by intelligent algorithms, alongside emotional intelligence and negotiating skills. So beefing up on such soft skills could be even more crucial.

While an MBA might teach you to master the theory of negotiation, perhaps more significant is the people surrounding you – culturally diverse, from a large number of countries and a range of backgrounds. Previous class profiles are available on business school websites but, to give one example, London Business School’s class of 2017 features 417 students of 68 nationalities, with backgrounds in business, accounting, economics, engineering, law, marketing and IT.

One of the strengths of an MBA, says Peyer, is that we “deliberately put people with others from around the world who’ll have a different worldview, to try and make them aware of their own biases... Knowing yourself and what it is that drives you will help you in a world where soft skills are prized”.

Uncertain future

For all that a laser-like focus on soft skills might help, the future is inevitably uncertain. So those with a grasp of how to handle uncertainty will have an advantage in a world where change happens ever faster, and technology reshapes old certainties.

For this reason, says Jonathan Trevor of Said Business School (part of the University of Oxford), attending a business school which can draw on expertise from across disciplines could be extremely useful. He highlights Said’s GOTO programme, which encourages MBA and Executive MBA students to examine current global issues like resource scarcity and demographic change alongside experts in the field.

For the coming academic year, the topic is the Future of Work. It’s not an easy subject to deal with, says Trevor. “Where do you draw the limit on what you could be addressing?”

So helping students understand the nuance of the impact of megatrends like automation, robotics and AI in a multidisciplinary and multinational way is the important thing. “The temptation when delivering a course is to make it as simple as possible, to give people a degree of certainty, to tell students what they need to know so they can do well. That isn’t how it works.”

There are no silver bullet solutions to the implications of AI and robots, but business schools are hoping they can help future leaders to be at least comfortable with that fact.

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