Putting Tech in Perspective

Why educators must keep technology’s dehumanizing force in check.

Two Takes on Tech

The benefits of technology, both inside and outside the classroom, are great. But is educational technology crowding out learning? More specifically, is it crowding out the right type of learning—the type of learning that we need in our business schools more than ever?

There is no debating that technology has changed the business school experience in the last 20 years. As a former director of corporate training for two large multinationals in the 1990s, I had a front row seat for some of the most novel edtech innovations. Since then, internet tools have advanced the feasibility of MOOCs, and online training sites are leading some potential students to question the necessity of the university experience. At the same time, technology-based corporate training has become a growing industry that directly threatens and challenges business schools; just-in-time, on-demand training seems both convenient and effective—at least in the short term. Adding fuel to the fire, technology is changing the business of business schools, as well as the role of business professors, as more courses go online or are technically outsourced in the clamor for cost efficiencies.

In this pressure to compete, many professors believe that they, too, must adopt the latest in technology not only to teach more efficiently, but also to be current with the latest edtech advances. In this age of the digital student—and the digital campus—no professor wants to be seen as the analog Luddite.

But while technology makes lectures and whole courses appear more relevant, more exciting, and more energetic, we must be wary of the extensive use of technology for business education. In particular, we should be concerned about two fundamental and interrelated issues:

Technology’s focus on fact over substance. The use of technology brings with it a bias toward emphasizing knowledge of facts rather than the intuition, nuances, and complexities of application and implementation. But we know that successful businesses are not run based on a set of discrete and immutable “facts.” Technology’s dehumanization of the subjects we teach. Technology, by definition, dehumanizes subject matter, often subtracting the human element from business altogether. But business is all about human relations and interactions. For example, while many business leaders today have educational backgrounds in STEM disciplines, what sets the most successful among them apart is less about their knowledge of science or engineering, and more about their ability to implement their ideas through people.

The irony is that, if business schools are to produce managers for technology-driven, knowledge-based businesses, they need to dial back on technology in their classrooms. Only then will they be able to focus on human-to-human learning.

THE REALITY OF ‘MAYBE’

As teachers, we might ask our students to take low-tech machine-graded tests or participate in enhanced, computer-based simulations. But for many such technologies, students proceed on the premise that they must provide a right answer or follow the right algorithm. The reality is that few real-world business problems have concrete and definitive answers. Business is a complex adaptive system, which produces patterns that are fundamentally unpredictable and stochastic.

In fact, the answer to business problems is almost always “maybe”—“maybe this solution will work” or “maybe that one will work.” Most business problems have multiple solutions; the success of any one of them relies on the flexibility and management of its implementation.

Technology and digitization are best suited for fact-based scenarios, with elements that can be codified. This makes the knowledge of immutable facts a very low-value commodity. Therefore, if companies valued our business school graduates only for their knowledge of facts, it’s highly likely that those graduates would soon be replaced by more efficient managers of those facts—namely, robots or artificial intelligence. That would make the business school enterprise obsolete.

Luckily, we know that companies value our graduates for their ability to think, to learn, to question, to create, to take risks, and to deal with business environments governed by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, or VUCA. To manage in VUCA environments, technology is vastly inferior. If business schools place too much of an emphasis on technology in their curricula, either implicitly or explicitly, they don’t just devalue their own product. They also perpetuate in their students a bias toward factual knowledge rather than the ability to think.

UNSTRUCTURED, LOW-TECH LEARNING

It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the most successful teaching methods at my business school is decidedly low-tech. It’s what we call an “unstructured simulation,” in which student teams are asked to play a given role—for instance, a manager of a company, a member of the company’s board, an executive from a potential acquiring company, a consultant, or an investment banker—and interact with one another in those roles over the course of two days.

For example, two years ago, we started one such simulation two days after Yahoo reported disappointing earnings results. For the simulation, we assigned each team a role and provided it with a break-out room to act as its headquarters. With that, we allowed the situation to play out over two days with little or no direction from faculty. The only direction we provided them? To play the roles they were given as realistically as possible over the two days of the exercise. The students weren’t even aware of the roles of other teams—they had to uncover this information as they networked as part of the simulation.

Initially, this kind of unstructured experience proves difficult for many students. They feel as if our instructions for these simulations are ambiguous, because they have no direction or rubrics for what they are to do. The simulation is not even associated with a specific class such as marketing or finance. But our student teams quickly come to embrace the challenge, creating a complex dynamic of competition and cooperation that closely resembles real-world scenarios. In essence, the student teams learn to make things happen—just as they will need to do once they graduate. Furthermore, they are assessed by a ranking from their peers—again, just as they will be after they graduate.

This approach is so simple and no-tech that outsiders almost always express skepticism that it could produce useful learning outcomes. However, both students and alumni tell us that this simulation is the most useful learning experience that they had during their MBA programs. One student noted that the simulation proved to be “much more intense, realistic, and complex than the classroom.”

By comparison, we also take students through one or more of the popular computer business simulations. But when we do, we find that the students often spend more of their energies trying to reverse engineer the algorithm underlying the computer simulation, using practice rounds to estimate the equations and assumptions behind the models generating the simulation results.

It thus becomes more of a modeling exercise than an attempt to practice and apply business principles.

Unstructured simulations inspire creativity, risk-taking, questioning, critical thinking, and competitiveness. They require students to deal with ambiguity and develop an understanding and appreciation of complexity—skills that businesses say they want business school graduates to possess. Eventually, students acquire a wonderful and complex appreciation of what success as a business school graduate might entail. Moreover, unstructured simulations never inspire our students to ask the groan-inducing question that all good professors dread—namely, “Is this going to be on the test?”

EMBRACING THE HUMAN ELEMENT

At business schools, technology is an efficient tool for the conveyance of low-value, fact-based knowledge, which can help professors free up more of their valuable time and energy for teaching students about the human idiosyncrasies that make business so interesting. It also can be used to inspire students to think and create.

But no matter how advanced technology for education becomes, we should always view it as a tool to assist learning, not as a tool for learning. After all, if we as business school professors do not embrace the human elements of business, we will quickly be replaced by bots ourselves.

For another perspective on technology in the business curriculum, read “Managing in the Fourth Industrial Age” by Nigel Melville.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2018 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

Rick Nason

Rick Nason is an associate professor of finance at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He explores the role of technology in business in his book It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business.