B-Schools: Stop Teaching Ethics?

MIT's Andrew McAfee gives Deans Conference attendees much to think about regarding how they should prepare students for the future.

The future of work is bright. The future of work is bleak. Business school deans left this morning's plenary session considering both potential outcomes of the rapidly advancing capabilities of technology, having just heard a provocative presentation by Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

McAfee noted that as scientists continue to improve artificial intelligence, computers are becoming better at pattern recognition—once the sole purview of humans. In fact, he said that we should be less concerned that supercomputers like IBM's Watson can now win at the popular game show Jeopardy!, which is based on trivia and factual knowledge, and more concerned that computers are actually learning to learn. McAfee pointed out that, by studying the patterns they see in how humans do everything from playing a video game to driving cars to diagnosing breast cancer, computers soon will be able to take the place of humans in many contexts.

Before his presentation, McAfee did a "thought experiment," in which he imagined what he would do if he were a business school dean who was "unconstrained by history or current conditions." How would he design the business curriculum? First, he would make sure to educate students in ways that made them excel in areas where the technology still is weak. That includes cultivating their interpersonal skills, their understanding of economics, and their ability to ideate solutions.

McAfee surprised attendees with his next statement: He believes business schools spend too much time in their programs teaching topics such as leadership, ethics, and corporate strategy, and in "patting students on the back, telling them to trust their instincts." It was an assertion that drew many questions from the crowd.

In answer to many questions, McAfee clarified that it wasn't that he didn't think leadership and ethics were important, but that there was only so much business schools could achieve in these areas. "The thought that we can instill a strong ethical sense, that cannot be easily overwhelmed, in students who are already in their mid-20s is naive," he said. "The number of hours we spend on leadership and ethics with students seems disproportionate to the impact we can have on students." Instead, McAfee said that students need more experience managing diverse teams and thinking clearly to evaluate hypotheses.

McAfee emphasized that business schools could have much greater impact on their students, and ultimately on the future of work, by doing more to explore the question, "What is the role of business?" Whether the future of work will be bright or bleak heavily depends on how skilled future generations become at working in teams and thinking analytically to solve complex, interconnected problems; how well they learn to work harmoniously with computers; and how much advantage they take of what technology has to offer.