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Business Schools Reboot With Silicon Valley Careers And Courses

The disruptive influence of technology is altering the education world just as it is changing the business landscape. MBA programs are learning from Silicon Valley.

Wed Feb 11 2015

Silicon Valley’s mixture of daring discovery and corporate technology titans is creating a new breed of business schools.

The decades-old practice of traditional academics imparting knowledge on middle managers is ripe for innovation with the disruptive capabilities of technology.

This tech is fast evolving business models everywhere. Newer enterprises like Uber, Airbnb and Amazon are forcing more established companies across industries to innovate in order to compete and continue to exist.

These are the companies that business graduates now want to work for. “Technology is invading and disrupting how business is done,” says Eric Young, assistant dean of Georgetown University’s MBA Career Center.

The same disruption is forcing business education to alter the very content that has formed its once stable curricula. The austere management themes of corporate finance and strategy are now competing with data analytics and entrepreneurship.

Data are viewed as holding the greatest potential. “Most executives are aware of this, but are also conscious that they and their organizations are on a steep learning curve,” says Jennifer George, program director of the Master of Business Analytics at Melbourne Business School.

Companies are pushing business schools to broaden their content. DeGroote School of Business in Canada became the latest to innovate its roster of masters programs, with the launch of a new executive MBA focused on big data and strategy last month.

Len Waverman, dean of the business school, says it signals a commitment to ensuring graduates have the skills and abilities needed to manage in the 21st century. It will be taught in Canada and in the epicentre of this shift – Silicon Valley.

Data degrees and executive education programs are prized by businesses that are trying to stay relevant. IBM, for instance, has technology that is found in 90% of the world’s banks and 70% of all corporate enterprises, but the century-old tech group is trying to reboot itself in the fast-moving world of cloud computing.

“Enterprises across all industries are under increased pressure to extract new insights from the explosion of available data,” says Sal Vella, vice president of cloud foundational services at IBM. “Critical to that effort is the development of business leaders who are skilled in analytics.”

Students who had professional experience in computer programing and other technology were once rare at business schools. But today there is a rising stock of MBA student from the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math.

Abhinandan De is a manager at IIAS Group, a company with interests in the education, hospitality, tourism and manufacturing industries, but a few years ago he worked as an industrial engineer, including at a steel plant in west Bengal, India.

“I [have] always wanted to be an entrepreneur and to build a business,” says Abhinandan. “Engineering is hard work; it prepares one to not only be analytical, but to go through the grind of college.”

He graduated from an entrepreneurial masters program at a triumvirate of leading universities including EMLYON Business School which is based in France.

“I can feel the difference that the program has made,” he says. “Not only has it made me more aware about how the start-up world works, but it has also provided me with the key skills [and] insights to think like an investor.”

According to a survey of 5,604 business school applicants by education and research group QS, 5% more tech employees and 0.3% more engineers were opting for business education in 2014 than the previous year.

South Carolina’s Aiken’s School of Business Administration is developing a part-time MBA aimed at students with undergraduate degrees in one of the STEM subjects, to launch in 2015. Students who hold an undergraduate business degree will not be admitted.

Aiken joins a growing number of business schools, particularly in the US, which are trying to attract the engineers and technology whizzes usually found in start-ups or disruptive corporations like Google, Facebook and Apple.

Cornell Tech, a high-tech university that is constructing a $2 billion campus on Roosevelt Island in New York, is fusing traditional business education with Silicon Valley themes. Its goal is to develop entrepreneurial, technology product managers and Cornell hopes to enrol 2,000 postgraduate students by 2043.

Its first MBA cohort, 75% of whom come from STEM backgrounds, began studies at a temporary campus in one of Google’s buildings in downtown Manhattan last year.

The business students will share a third of their curriculum with students studying Cornell Tech’s computer science course. Such cross-subject curricula are not uncommon.

“We’re carrying forward innovation in required courses to elective offerings… Exposing students to fresh ideas,” says Vishal Gaur, associate dean for MBA programs at Johnson Graduate School of Management.

The business school has revamped its curriculum to include themes such as data modelling, and a raft of new electives including “FinTech Trek and Hackathon”, where students work with Cornell Tech to develop new financial products and services.

The MSc in Technology Commercialization is a one-year masters program focused on technology, business and innovation. Offered by the McCombs School of Business in Texas, students study on alternating weekends, live or online.

McCombs is capitalizing on the surge in interest in entrepreneurship among business students, which has been gaining a new focus at academic institutions.

“Entrepreneurship is not just accounting or finance; it is about being outrageously creative, in any field,” says Bella Handojo, a future founder who graduated from an MS in Entrepreneurship at the Krannert School of Management in 2014.

She majored in food sciences at undergraduate level, but does not think technical backgrounds should silo STEM graduates into science-related careers. “Being an entrepreneur is all about catching opportunities and taking risks,” says Bella.

She is developing a start-up business plan for a food and drinks venture, to be launched in Indonesia. “Throughout the program we were continually exposed to the know-how of funding options and venture creation,” Bella says.

It is such positive feedback that is pushing more entrepreneurs into business schools.

At MIT’s Sloan School of Management, 36% of 2011 MBA graduates started a business, with 86% still operating three years later. At Babson College, which specialises in teaching entrepreneurial skills, 39% started a business, with 93% still operational after the three year mark.

It is a similar story in the UK, where high-ranking MBA programs such as those at London Business School enjoy impressive start-up survival rates. At Cranfield School of Management, not far from London, 17% of the MBA class launched businesses within three months of graduating.

“There is a profound cultural shift taking place in terms of people’s understanding and attitudes towards entrepreneurship,” says James Hickie, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the UK’s Manchester Business School.

But the shifting of business education towards Silicon Valley teaching modules is as much about changing corporate careers as it is about the rise of the MBA entrepreneur.

“Over the past couple of years, we have seen tech rival traditionally popular areas such as FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods],” says Paula Quinton-jones, director of career services at Hult International Business School.

“Technology companies are the ones delivering and supporting massive changes, innovating new products and not just keeping up with the pace of change, but driving it,” she says. “There is a dynamism that is not necessarily seen in other sectors.”

At Henley Business School, more MBA students are knocking on the door of career services to ask about business analytics opportunities, according to Naeema Pasha, head of careers. “Big data career options are increasing,” she says.

These more experienced business managers won’t be writing code or big data algorithms, but will use such innovations to make decisions, according to Eric at Georgetown.

“I see increased MBA student interest in tech brands and companies driven by technology [and] innovation more than, say, hundred-year-old companies where the perception might be that the culture is stuffy, slow [and] old-fashioned,” he says.