Digital Transformation: Mind the Gap

How can business schools prepare future leaders for digital transformation? By teaching them to develop a mindset that encourages critical thinking about change and technology.
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PwC’s 2019 SURVEY of U.S. CEOs paints a picture of uncertainty about the future—and the heart of that uncertainty comes from digital transformation.

Consider some of these snapshots from the survey:

  • Fifteen percent of CEOs strongly agree that their companies can withstand cyberattacks, and quickly recover from them.
  • Eighty percent say artificial intelligence will significantly change the way they do business within five years.
  • Fifty-five percent say a lack of digital skills among employees means their businesses cannot innovate effectively.

That last figure is particularly disturbing and speaks to a larger problem touching not only business, but business education—college graduates are not equipped to meet the demands of a modern workplace where the pace of change is so rapid that calling it “constant” no longer suffices.

This is a pivotal moment for business schools. For generations, earning an MBA was a sign that a professional had a broad command of the business landscape, as well as an understanding of how elements such as finance, marketing, and strategy drive the growth of the enterprise. Today, that credential will become an artifact if it fails to evolve with the tech-driven business world.

Cultivating Curiosity

Clearly, there are significant knowledge and skills gaps—but the answer can’t just be more technical skills baked into the curriculum; otherwise, leaders will be more comfortable confronting isolated problems in the programming code than they are tackling the overarching challenges technology presents to the business. And they will quickly find themselves unable to add value as intelligent machines take on greater responsibilities. On top of that, the speed with which technology is evolving means today’s cutting-edge tool is tomorrow’s VisiCalc, a spreadsheet program released to great fanfare in 1979, only to be replaced in the market by Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983.

Programming, analytics, and technology must continue to be important components of a business education. But what’s more important is teaching students to develop a mindset that encourages critical thinking about change generally, and about technology specifically. The digital natives populating many of today’s classrooms already possess a better understanding of, and curiosity about, technology than any previous generation. It’s imperative that the management curricula of the future continue to cultivate that curiosity in a way that teaches students to challenge assumptions about technology’s value to the business.

AACSB International is helping to meet these challenges through the MaCuDE initiative. Short for Management Curriculum for the Digital Era, this effort, led by Stevens Institute of Technology and supported by generous support from PwC, is bringing together the brightest minds in academia and industry to determine what skills and knowledge need to be at the core of a modern business degree steeped in an age of digital transformation.

“Digital transformation” is one of those catch-all terms that resists a standard definition. But broadly speaking, digital transformation is the use of technology by a company to change its core business processes in search of competitive advantage. That may include emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, robotics, 5G wireless technology, blockchain, and augmented reality.

MaCuDE is made up of deans and faculty from about 100 business schools who will examine disciplines like marketing, entrepreneurship, strategy, and finance with an eye to what curricular changes are needed to keep pace with digital transformation. To do so, they will work with industry leaders, who will share their challenges of doing business in a world defined by tech-driven disruption.

Continuous Learning

The PwC survey showcases some of what deans are likely to hear from real-world professionals. Three of the top business threats cited in the survey are directly tied to digital transformation: the availability of key skills, cyber vulnerabilities to their enterprises, and the speed of technology-driven change. All are at the heart of what MaCuDE aims to address.

Ultimately, we are moving toward a world where education cannot stop after a four-year bachelor’s degree, or even a master’s program. These important credentials instead will be foundational pillars that will establish the mindset professionals need to better understand where the business is going. The future belongs not to the know-it-alls, but to the learn-it-alls—lifelong learners who continually upskill on new technologies in order to build on that foundation and grow into leadership roles.

That foundation is important to PwC partner A. Michael Smith. As part of the MaCuDE team, he says he sees firsthand the challenges his own company faces in an increasingly digital future. He hopes MaCuDE helps create college graduates who are digital natives in a changing business world, and who graduate eager to keep learning.

“There’s a real sense of urgency around the problem of how the industry can prepare itself for digital transformation,” Smith says, adding that PwC recently required each professional in the firm to take an “IT IQ” assessment. Today, such an assessment might primarily measure a person’s general awareness of data’s role as a driver for decision-makers, he notes, but “I expect that soon, we’ll expect basic knowledge of public key infrastructure and cryptography as well.”

Elements of a Digital Mindset

What are some features of a business education for the digital age? It’s all about cultivating that right mindset. To cultivate that mindset, business schools must train students to do the following:

1. Recognize the downsides of technology. In learning to think critically about technology, students must discard their automatic trust in technology and understand the risks it creates—both direct and indirect. An ability to see the downsides, as well as the upsides, of new technologies is hugely important in the kind of critical, strategic thinking tomorrow’s executive will need.

2. Know what they don’t know. Both technical depth and a broad breadth of industry and technology knowledge will help successful companies stay ahead of competitors in a fast-moving marketplace. In building consensus, leaders must know the right questions, seek answers from the right people, and assemble the right team to ensure that everyone involved makes the best decisions.

3. Pursue constant upskilling—long after graduation. Universities must think more broadly about how they deliver education, especially to graduate audiences. Modular master’s programs, deeply technical boot camps, and short certificate programs will both accommodate busy work schedules and ensure regular immersion in new and emerging technologies.

There is much work to do—in industry as well as academia—to better prepare professionals for the challenges of leading a digital enterprise. Whether individuals are at the entry or executive level, one of the most tangible skills they can possess going forward will be tech fluency, so that they understand changing market dynamics and can apply the right tools in solving new kinds of problems. For businesses and business schools alike, it’s an exciting time to examine these kinds of questions and determine how to best move forward in an age of unprecedented disruption.

G PrastacosDr. Gregory Prastacos is dean of the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and is principal investigator on the MaCuDE initiative. He has led the transformation and growth of the school from a narrowly focused School of Technology Management to an accredited School of Business. He draws upon extensive consulting experience in forming relationships with industry that ensure the school, its academic programs, and research are all focused on the needs of the workplace.