The Business Case for Business Schools in the Year 2039

The Business Case for Business Schools in the Year 2039

Here's how business schools can survive and thrive in an age of artificial intelligence and automation.

What business schools teach, how they teach it and who they teach it to will shift dramatically in the next two to three decades. Advances in artificial intelligence and automation will drastically alter both the business and educational landscapes. We can’t predict exactly how business education will evolve, but we can say that the current methods of doing, and teaching, business will be changed forever.

To thrive in this shifting landscape, business schools will need to adapt their practices in three key areas:

  1. Business schools will have to expand their learner base to include employees who want to remain hirable, corporations that want to provide education for their employees, and learners globally who want to remain competitive in their own job markets.
  2. Schools will have to work on developing content in areas that are slower to be disrupted by AI: leadership, ethics, communication, human resources, and social impact, among others.
  3. Business schools must develop proficiency in working with multiple technologies to deliver effective and engaging learning experiences, whether they are delivered using AI-enhanced platforms or via mobile.

Today, business schools produce two societal goods: knowledge and educated students. Knowledge production, in the form of faculty research, traditionally takes a long time to develop, reaches only a few, and is rarely profitable. The majority of revenue comes from tuition and alumni gifts. In the future, knowledge production will happen quicker, will be distributed widely, and will be a profit center equal to or greater than tuition. New business scholarship will be distributed globally and at scale to new audiences who will never set foot on campus.

These ideas are relatively new, but not terrifically novel. Many business schools have developed robust distribution capabilities to attract new audiences. My own school, Wharton, has a radio station, a digital press, a daily business journal, a thriving online initiative with over 225,000 paid or financial aid enrollments, a significant executive education business, and three degree programs: undergraduate, MBA, and executive MBA. Many of our peers offer similar programs to both greater or lesser extents. As a group, we continue to respond to the advent of new technologies and the growing need for business education beyond the degree. The next challenge will be how we address the drastic shift in what knowledge learners will need and how they expect to receive it. To do so, we have to become even more learner-centric, and also we must ask an imperative question: what will business itself look like in 2039?

We can’t foretell the future of business with real certainty, but we do know some of the drivers of real change. The growth in the capabilities of artificial intelligence and automation will transform some industries, create new ones, and eliminate others. Almost certainly, there will be fewer knowledge workers, more low-paying service jobs, and more monopolies. Most kinds of business analysis, from financial to marketing to behavior, will be done more accurately and for less money, by an algorithm. The majority of business decisions will be simulated and optimized by machines. Successful companies will not be evaluated on the size of their workforces, but on the size of their data sets and the accuracy of their algorithms. A significant percentage of jobs that today’s students go to business school to learn will no longer exist.

In fact, most experts predict the rise of automation will mean fewer jobs overall, with the main result that wealth will be concentrated in the hands of a few. Business schools will certainly play a role in preparing students for those jobs, assuming they can devise relevant curriculum and hire experts to teach it. But for business schools to have value in the future, they will have to change what they teach as well as how they deliver it.

The current tradition of studying management practices from the industrial and internet era will provide important historical context, but will not offer a roadmap for success in the future. Faculty expertise in fields where machines outperform humans will become less valuable. New topics and problems critical for business success may arise faster than the current cycle for faculty knowledge creation and dissemination, and so professors in these topics might not be traditional academics. The role of a tenured faculty member as content expert will diminish, while the role of faculty members as mentors, guides, and teachers will expand.

Critically, business schools will have to create learning experiences that can be differentiated from the personalized, adaptive learning of content that AI can provide. Over the past decade, we have seen the power of technology to democratize the delivery of business education. AI will not only improve the delivery of this content but may also create learning experiences that business schools can’t compete with. For schools to remain competitive, they will have to invest heavily in the ability to create high-quality online education that can be combined with AI-informed delivery methods, as well as high-touch, experiential learning that is relevant to tomorrow’s economy.

During their studies, future MBAs should be working to solve social problems, not just corporate ones. Today’s current income inequality will only worsen, soon becoming a business problem as well as a social problem. Business schools must begin to ask themselves what content they will deliver to prepare students to deal with the costs of doing business against a backdrop of extreme income equality and social unrest. Courses in impact investing, social entrepreneurship, legal and business ethics, and the soft skills of communication, negotiation and influence will become more valuable.

Finally, business schools will have to stop thinking about learners as students and then alumni; they will have to think of them as learners for life. To remain competitive, they should offer career counseling from commencement to retirement, and opportunities for lifelong learning pre- and post-degree. Because knowledge production will be faster, and distributed further, than ever before, students will expect their school to provide them with relevant knowledge they need throughout their working lives.

Business schools can play a critical role in an AI-powered, heavily automated world. But they must become even more adaptable and responsive to new ways of doing business; particularly, they must address the societal fallout from those new approaches. They can begin by expanding their course offerings, career services, and student base, and become proficient in new technological delivery methods. A business case exists for business schools to be relevant in the future. But it hasn’t been written, and once it has been, it will have to be taught in ways that value humanity.


Anne Trumbore, senior director at Wharton Online, a digital learning initiative at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Anne Trumbore is senior director at Wharton Online, a digital learning initiative at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.