It’s long been true that business students need to become excellent communicators, but in today’s big data world, they also must know how to communicate through and about technology. They can’t simply acquire quantitative skills and knowledge; they must be able to explain the ramifications technology will have for day-to-day business.
I learned this firsthand when I was working for a company that used an offline Excel workbook to allocate the time and materials costs for a group of internal employees. When I proposed automating the system, both the engineering and operations departments resisted because they weren’t certain that the resulting benefits would justify the effort required upfront to automate the process. Fortunately, I could draw on two distinct skill sets: a thorough understanding of the technology involved and the ability to communicate about it clearly. When the new allocation system was implemented, the company not only saved time but was better able to trace costs. These benefits would not have been realized if I had not had a strong understanding of IT and accounting—and the ability to communicate effectively about both.
I see three main reasons it’s essential for today’s business students to develop intertwined skills in the fields of communications and technology:
1. Business professionals must be able to advocate. Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk all share the ability to tell their stories. Whether our graduates work within a firm, operate as consultants, or launch their own businesses, they must be able to crystallize their positions and advocate for their ideas.
2. Data is the future of business. If Twitter, Uber, and Amazon have taught us anything, it’s that future jobs in business will be linked to analytics. Other areas that need technical skills are application development, financial analysis, and data mining.
But it’s not enough for business professionals to obtain information through data analytics. They also must be able to explain to CEOs and corporate boards exactly how that information will be used within the company. This means that, at a minimum, students should be required to take one class in coding or computer science so they have at least a passing familiarity with technology.
3. The regulatory environment is complex. Particularly since the financial crisis, organizations have been required to report results to a broad base of end users, including financial investors, creditors, environmental groups, and regulators. Business students must understand how to report successfully in such a multifaceted environment, and they must understand the implications of having to report a wide spectrum of information. Not only will they need to present correct information, but they’ll also need to explain why it’s important and what it means for the company going forward.
It’s clear that, in fields such as accounting and finance, the market already is expecting professionals to possess broader and more comprehensive skills. They aren’t simply writing financial reports and statement analyses; they’re communicating their findings to the C-suite as company leaders decide how to steer the company in the future. Their expanded roles are reflected in the tests for the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designations.
AN EXPANDED CURRICULUM
For all these reasons, I believe it’s critical for business schools to create communications classes related to financial technology—classes such as business writing, coding, and software-driven analytics. While it’s never quick or easy to amend the curriculum, it has become increasingly necessary.
I suggest that schools include two mandatory courses in the business curriculum. The first one, “Clear Business Writing,” would teach students to communicate quantitative information that’s free of jargon and technical terminology. The second one, “Effective Business Presentations,” would require students to hone their presentation skills through practice sessions and peer critiques.
Another way professors could add a “technology communications” component to the classroom would be to add an analytics assignment to an existing project. Students would be required to perform analytics on the project, create graphics to illustrate the data, include the graphics in a class presentation, and explain what the data means to the rest of the classroom.
With assignments such as these, business schools won’t just help students master communications skills; they’ll link those communications skills with a basic understanding of technology. That’s the only way business schools can maintain relevance, deliver value to students, and make certain their graduates have all the skills they need for a future in business.
Sean Stein Smith is a Financial Analyst - Joint Ventures at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey and a member of the editorial advisory board of
NJCPA Magazine. In addition, he is an adjunct professor at two other New Jersey locations: Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck and Montclair State University.