Move over corporate finance, data analytics and decision-making: artificial intelligence (AI) is now the most in-demand topic from prospective MBA students, according to the latest Tomorrow’s MBA study from CarringtonCrisp, in association with EFMD, the business school accreditation body.
The change in study preference comes as a new wave of generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, captured the imaginations of millions of people late last year who experimented with the question-and-answer chatbot.
“The rise of AI content is a direct reaction to the rapid impact of this technology in recent months. It has to be a fundamental part of any business school's curriculum,” stresses Andrew Crisp, author of the study.
Chris Tucci, professor of digital strategy and innovation at Imperial College Business School in London, agrees that prospective MBA candidates are responding to the rise in business interest in generative AI. Microsoft, Google and others are investing heavily in software that can respond to complex human queries in natural-sounding language.
“Generative AI is calling attention to some of the possibilities of AI because it puts the outputs into something that everyone can grasp. If a smart-home AI predicted when to turn your thermostat on, you wouldn’t really pay much attention, but if you asked ChatGPT to write how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR, it would capture the public’s imagination,” he says.
Some exposure to AI should be important to the MBA curriculum, normally as part of a digital transformation or digital business module, Tucci adds. “It is important to know something about the topic, so the students know what the limits are and how to separate opportunity from hype,” Tucci says.
“Certainly, AI can help some organizations become more efficient and improve their processes; it can help other organizations develop new products, services, and business models,” he continues.
“But there are important limits to what AI can do for business. ChatGPT and related tools are not magical robots with self-awareness and feelings that can solve every organization’s problems instantly. They are closer to good autocomplete prompts that people have on their smartphone’s messaging apps.”
AI becomes a fundamental part of the MBA syllabus
So how should business schools teach MBA students how to use AI? At Imperial, there are a variety of ways that students are exposed to these tools. “We offer digital transformation and digital business modules for the MBA students explicitly, where they learn about digital strategy, digital technologies, and organizational processes for exploiting these technologies,” explains Tucci.
“We also offer a joint module for MBA and computing students called AI Ventures, in which students propose new AI business ideas and develop an opportunity-assessment along with a demonstration,” he adds.
Working together with students from different departments also helps the MBA students learn about how to use such AI tools, in addition to helping the engineering students assess business ideas.
AI prepares MBA students for their future careers
What is more, this content prepares MBA students for careers in which technology will play ever larger roles. “Learning this content is going to help MBA students as they start companies or take on more senior leadership positions,” says Tucci.
“Organizations that are unaware of these technologies or unprepared to address technological issues are likely to fall behind in just a few short years, as the pandemic demonstrated. I’m confident that incorporating some of this content into the MBA curriculum and raising awareness of the technology, can greatly benefit MBA students.”
Some business school professors caution that it’s important not to get carried away by all the hype, while they also recognize that MBA students need to be able to imagine and assess new opportunities as they arise.
“Technology can always be used in good and in poor ways, and education is no exception. Generative AI, particularly ChatGPT, needs to be used to complement, not replace, what humans do -- and thereby expand our capacity and capability,” warns David Suarez, vice dean IE Business School in Spain.
Yet most schools are looking at how to integrate AI into the MBA syllabus. “AI is the general-purpose technology of our time, and it is being built into so many systems, so I can only see a few programs that will not be forced to engage with it,” says Matthias Holweg, professor of operations management at Said Business School, University of Oxford, in the UK.
He does not think that MBA students need to learn how to code or understand machine learning algorithms. But he adds that they do need to become “competent customers” – like buying a new car, you may not know how the injection pump works, but you do know whether a hybrid or electric car is right, and how many seats you need.
“In essence, managers must be able to judge good from bad, and be able to assess the opportunities and risks that AI poses,” Holweg concludes.