When Sheryl Sandberg isn’t leaning-in, the COO of Facebook likes to bash business school. MBAs, she quipped recently, are “not necessary at Facebook” nor important to the tech sector.
The degree she earned at Harvard Business School has been steeped in topics such as advanced accounting. But today’s digital economy demands a new set of silky skills more often found in Silicon Valley than classes on corporate strategy.
Top of the list of desired attributes of firms like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft is data analytics, according to research by consultancy McKinsey & Company. Big data has redefined management by altering the way business makes decisions and develops strategy. The topic has edged its way into even the oldest MBA programs, such is the growing demand from both students and businesses for data science expertise.
“In an ever-connected society, expectations towards brands are changing rapidly….Companies need professionals with high-level digital skills,” says Fabio Vaccarono, one of Google’s managing directors.
The search giant has just partnered Bologna Business School to launch a center of managerial education for digital business in Italy. The tie-up is one of a growing number among business schools and tech pioneers, as they look to bring big data into their prestigious programs.
“Clearly, the whole space of digital technologies is entering into the business school world,” says Soumitra Dutta, dean of Cornell’s Johnson School of Management, which has developed a data science course for MBAs with Salesforce, Twitter, Amazon, and one with LinkedIn’s analytics chief.
“It’s very, very popular. The students themselves are eager to learn more about digital technology because they see the impact it’s having on business,” Soumitra says.
At London’s Imperial College Business School, KPMG has promised £20 million to boost its analytics effort; Imperial runs a master’s in business analytics and a Data Observatory.
“Businesses are tackling the enormity and complexity of big data and many are struggling to uncover the insights they need,” says Alwin Magimay, KPMG’s head of digital and analytics.
The tie-up will create new capability, he says. “We are still very much in the silent movie-era of big data, with colour and sound yet to materialize.”
The allure of using analytical tools is one reason for the growth in such deals. MBAs increasingly want to pursue careers combining tech and corporate skills. Data science has become the sexiest job there is, according to academics with the Harvard Business Review.
“Digital is the biggest enabler but there is little capacity,” says Radhika Chadwick, a London Business School MBA who leads digital consulting for Ernst & Young. “The market will gobble up anyone with a combination of digital delivery experience [and management skills].”
Indeed, demand for analytical minds has exploded. Gartner, the technology advisory group, forecasts big data had created 4.4 million jobs by the end of last year. And the trend shows no sign of abating. IDC, a research firm, foresees the big data market to grow 23% year-over-year, to $46.3 billion by 2018.
“If you’re an MBA and you have good decision making skills and understand data, you can go to any industry in the world and dominate,” says Gregory LaBlanc, faculty director at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which launched a big data course developed with Accenture, the consultancy. “There’s huge demand,” he says.
Even at the executive level, analytics is in short supply, according to a survey by PwC. The C-suite needs managers who can lead multidisciplinary teams to harness the power of companies’ data. “That’s the bet we’re making,” says Peter Fader, who leads the Customer Analytics Initiative at Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Yet the pace of change in business education has been questioned. One of the big barriers to greater digital adoption is a lack of faculty with relevant expertise, argues Jim Hamill, who heads digital leadership at University of Edinburgh Business School.
“Business is being transformed so by nature management education must transform as well,” he says.
Partnerships with companies can fill a gap in expertise. “It surely brings a lot of practical knowledge and case studies to the classroom,” says Benoit Banchereau, director of development at HEC Paris, which revamped its MBA with IBM to include a focus on big data.
The aim of the course is to create managers who can identify new opportunities through data — and take advantage of emerging jobs.
“Analytical skills are more and more valued because businesses constantly come across volumes of exponentially increasing and complex data,” Benoit says.
For firms, the relatively inexpensive advantage is access to talent who are developing digital insights that they can use. Companies are struggling to keep pace with tech-savvy competitors like Salesforce, whose use of data is disrupting traditional business models everywhere.
“Start-ups are nimbler, more innovative, more experimental,” says Mike Wade, director of the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation at IMD, which was funded in a $10 million deal with Cisco Systems.
“Uber, WhatsApp, and Snapchat had no problems accessing capital, building brands, and attracting customers,” he says.
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