Operating in the Gap

Business schools must bridge the distance between technical workers and business leaders.
Operating in the Gap

THE MEDIA LIKES to talk about how quickly technologies are moving into business, but in reality the adoption rate is very slow. Take artificial intelligence. In China, AI is used primarily by big, government-supported companies. In the U.S., it’s used mostly by the tech giants, not by regular businesses. Why would that be?

The best reason I can see is that there is a gap between the people who are handling the technology and the people who are running the businesses. That needs to change. Business leaders don’t have to understand how the technology actually works in great detail, but they do have to understand how to use it to improve their organizations.

While digital transformation has the potential to dramatically change a company’s workflow, processes, and organizational structure, it often can be much quieter. Digital transformation is about implementing the right technology to achieve a specific purpose. For example, at one company the goal might be as mundane as getting employees to start using shared drives. If the company can do that, it’s already had a very successful digital transformation.

Business schools are starting to see how important it is that they operate in the gap that exists between technical workers and business leaders. In the fall of 2019, my school, ESCP Europe Business School, launched an MSc in digital transformation management and leadership. When we began analyzing the market for our new program, we found that only a handful of business schools in Europe offered tech-related master’s degrees. Six months later, that number had doubled—and it will only grow as demand increases.

We learned a great deal through the process of recruiting students to the program. We found that the study of digital transformation appeals to both engineering students who want to engage in digital transformation at their companies and business students who realize that technology is the future of organizations. We also found that many students are looking for practical degrees that will give them the skills they need to roll up their sleeves and get right to work. Many want to start their own businesses, rather than go to work for big companies, and that’s another reason they’re seeking practical skills.

Finally, we found that the students who are interested in tech-related business programs know that technology is important, but they don’t know how to capitalize on the available opportunities. They come to business schools to learn how to use technology to create a competitive advantage.

To meet our goal of training people to become proficient in the business side of new technologies, we built our program around three pillars:

Cognitive skills. Going forward, there will be many things technology can do, but there will be many things technology cannot do. Technology can’t conduct face-to-face meetings or connect the dots about developing trends. Students will need to master cognitive skills if they are to lead digital transformation.

Technological understanding. Business leaders need to understand the capabilities, the deployment, and the ethics of technology. Knowing technology’s cultural impact on society is just as important as knowing its economic impact on the business. Students can’t just learn technology for technology’s sake—they have to think about everything that surrounds it.

Transformation management. Technologies are only useful to an organization if people actually use them. Managers need to consider what social and operational constraints they will have to overcome to convince people to adopt new digital tools.

As more business schools begin offering tech-related programs, one of their biggest challenges will be finding the right people to teach the courses. One solution will be to bring in practitioners who are already working with the technology day in and day out. Another approach is to bring in faculty like me, who have one foot in academia and one in the business world. I am not only a professor conducting research in the business of technologies, but I also co-founded Nexus FrontierTech, which customizes artificial intelligence products for clients. Because of my dual role, I can observe how industry is adopting technology, and I can share my experience with my students.

Students need cognitive skills to lead digital transformation.

I also expect business schools to begin collaborating more with technical schools—and technical schools to start offering business programs. In either case, schools will need to figure out how to deliver programs that actually integrate the tech and business elements instead of simply offering them in parallel. That is perhaps an even bigger challenge than finding the right staff to teach the courses.

To help executives through the process of digital transformation, business schools will need to provide continuous learning opportunities. These days, employees derive only half of their value from their work experience; the other half comes from their ability to update themselves. Learning is no longer a knowledge expansion, it is a behavior. This means individuals must develop the reflex, the self-motivation, to learn. Those of us in academia have a role to play in broadening the mindsets of our students. We can’t just say, “We have taught you what we believe is the right body of knowledge.” We have to say, “We are here to inspire you to do your best to absorb and explore new ideas.”

Few schools have come up with the perfect formula for staffing tech-related programs, collaborating with outside partners, offering the right mix of business and technology courses, and providing lifelong learning opportunities—but many schools are working on it. They’re creating “minimum viable products”—designing programs, testing them, and revising them based on feedback.

The future of work will be a very different place. So will the future of business schools.

Tse Terence - Operating in the GapTerence Tse is a professor at the London campus of ESCP Europe Business School. He also is an executive director and co-founder of Nexus FrontierTech, a company specializing in the development and integration of artificial intelligence solutions.

This article originally appeared in
BizEd's January/February 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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