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Big Data, Cloud Computing Are Revamping MBA Programs — And Salesforce, Amazon Are Behind It

From Python, Hadoop and Spark to analytics, schools are harnessing digital tech

On the menu at ESADE Business School is a tech feast. Machine learning, cloud platforms, the Hadoop software framework, Spark data processing and Python are all served up to MBAs, with extras.

A pivot in the curriculum is not unusual for MBA programs, known to react to the latest hype. But the scale of change afoot inside elite institutions is marked.

“Sectors are getting transformed by digital technology. What we’re able to do is address some of the bigger challenges society faces,” says Soumitra Dutta, dean of Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management, whose focus lately has been on bringing big data into the MBA, in a deal with LinkedIn’s analytics chief.

Business schools are examining the many potential uses of big data and cloud computing and some are drawing on the expertise of Salesforce and Amazon, the cloud pioneers, to shake-up their MBA programs. IBM has been one of the most aggressive. In the past few years the US tech corporation has pumped cloud and data expertise into dozens of schools, Yale and Babson College among them, and invested in artificial intelligence programs at HEC Paris and NUS in Singapore.

“The time is right, given the growth in big data,” says Jake Cohen, senior associate dean at MIT Sloan.

Sloan is pioneering cutting edge data analytics tools in a Master of Business Analytics degree, slated to launch in 2016, and is in talks with Facebook and Amazon over their potential infusion of Silicon Valley data science into the program.

Even Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, known more for its financial expertise, is buying in. “My job is basically to raise the quantitative literacy of senior managers,” says Peter Fader, professor of marketing and co-director of Wharton’s analytics initiative.

Harnessing cloud and other digital technologies can be a challenge for business executives. But they recognize the need.

Jaideep Prabhu, professor of enterprise at Cambridge Judge Business School, says companies are being threatened by the so-called GAFAs — Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple — which are utilizing data for customer insight and leverage.

“Competition is a key driver of this push to pay more attention to digital tech,” he says.

Big data has been the nosiest challenger. “There is nothing in business you can do that would not be improved with a better understanding of data science,” says Gregory LaBlanc, faculty director at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which developed a data course with Accenture, a business whose CTO says will become the “largest enterprise cloud company” in the world.

Not many firms are not looking at how they can harness data and the cloud, which represents $106 billion in revenues, Forrester estimates.

Roy Lee, assistant dean of NYU Stern’s MS in Business Analytics, says students see the curriculum as an opportunity. “They looked within their own organizations and saw companies that claimed to be analytical but that weren’t taking full advantage of business analytics to fuel future growth,” he says.

The need for all business students to hone their data science skills is spurring schools to follow the likes of Salesforce into the data and cloud computing age.

Juergen Branke, professor of operational research and systems at Warwick Business School, does not think today’s mangers need to become data analysts.

However, he is not complacent about their need to evolve: “They need to be aware of the opportunities and, perhaps even more importantly, the pitfalls of quantitative analysis techniques.”

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