Curriculum Revision for the 4th Industrial Revolution

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Monday, November 19, 2018
By Caryn Beck-Dudley
Photo by iStock
Leaders who can thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution need to be fluent in agility, risk-taking, self-motivation, and communication.

One of the questions that continually haunts me is whether we as business educators are teaching students to reinvent themselves every three to five years. A couple of years ago, a parent of one of my entrepreneurial students asked me this question; it took me aback, and I now think about it on a daily basis as we look at curriculum development and revisions in the business school.

As dean at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, I am lucky to be located in the heart of Silicon Valley, a very vibrant business community where many technological and digital revolutions are occurring. Because of our school’s unique location, business curriculum needs to be cutting-edge and must anticipate what our students will need to secure and thrive in the jobs of the future, which may arrive in just one to two years. Parents of Leavey School students, in addition to alumni, constantly tell me that we cannot afford to prepare students for jobs that might soon be in the rearview mirror. This setting creates challenges for our school as well as opportunities.

To understand what our curriculum must comprise, I often converse with chief people officers and business leaders. I use these conversations to better understand the current challenges and thinking occurring in real business situations and to learn about the types of employees these leaders seek to hire. In one such recent discussion, I was asked whether I had read The 4th Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab, and what the premise meant for our business school curriculum. I had not read the book but immediately downloaded it on my Kindle and read it during a recent flight. When I finished, to say that I was intrigued and a little afraid would be an understatement.

The premise of the book is that the current and ongoing digital revolution is going to be far more disruptive than previous economic revolutions. As the author indicates, “artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing” are creating business and cultural environments that are changing at warp speed and are changing much more dramatically than at any time in the past.

Looking at future jobs through this lens, it is pretty easy to see that many professionals will benefit from this disruption. According to Schwab, these are the people who are the “providers of intellectual or physical capital—the innovators, the investors, and the shareholders.” There will, however, be workers who will lose out, like those who perform repetitive tasks and engage in precise manual labor. While many people think this list includes drivers, factory workers, and similar jobs, Schwab includes among those occupations content experts such as “lawyers, financial analysts, doctors, journalists, accountants, insurance underwriters, and librarians.”

This thought is staggering, as many of us have spent our formative professional years in academic circles with the understanding that we are content experts. Indeed, much academic research and doctoral education is still aimed at promoting and protecting content experts. For those of us currently working at research universities, we are not only content experts; hopefully we are creating the next generation of content for others. The reality is, however, that both old and new content is now distributed very quickly and widely. This development is actually positive, but it means that students no longer need us to provide them with content.

As a result, we face serious questions as to what skills, content, and attributes should be the focus of any curriculum revision. For example, it is clear that we do not need to teach anything that is “Googleable.” Students can easily obtain basic content from their phones. While I understand that some of us want to continue delivering to students content they can find on their own, it does not serve their long-term interest—or ours. The fact that students are reticent to find basic content on their own does not mean they cannot or should not be required to do so.

What, then, will replace factual content? Schwab and others imply that there will only be two types of jobs: one requires high cognitive skills, and the other requires manual skills. The cognitive skills jobs will clearly be the higher-paying jobs and the ones we should focus on filling. Further, current employees are already working with and alongside intelligent machines. Jobs that combine both knowledge work and regular technological interaction will only escalate, so students need to know how to work in these environments, as well.

In today’s world, human talent is the most important driver of competitiveness for business. To produce the type of leaders who can thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will need to encourage students to practice agility, risk-taking, self-motivation, and communication. We will need to redesign curriculum and individual courses (if individual courses are even around in the future) to ensure students are actively doing, and not just learning. In the past it has been important to teach students how to manage business assets and set business priorities. Schwab argues that “complex problem solving, social and systems skills will be in far more demand in 2020 when compared to physical activities or content skills.” Accordingly, all of us will need a razor-sharp focus on enhancing social and creative skills, to help students practice decision-making when information is unknown and to help them learn how to develop new ideas.

I envision a time when all students are working on real-life projects that involve interdisciplinary teams and the projects span a year or two. I also envision using design-thinking exercises in all we do and teaching students those tools and techniques at the undergraduate level. Further, I envision classes, like in my own discipline of business law, where students not only learn the law but are tasked with reflecting and discussing, in interdisciplinary teams, the major policy questions as to what the law should be or whether regulation should exist in this area or not. Proposed regulation of social media outlets is a perfect example, and there do not appear to be right answers but rather a series of tradeoffs.

Let’s engage in a serious conversation about what other changes need to occur in our curriculum so we ensure our students can reinvent themselves every three to five years.

Beck-Dudley is the former dean of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University in California.

Caryn Beck-Dudley
President and CEO, AACSB International
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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