Business Schools Are the Key to the Intelligent Future

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Wednesday, January 5, 2022
By Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou
Photo by iStock/sdecoret
How well we fare in the years ahead will depend largely on how well we use our data, collaborate with our partners, and reinvent our programs.

Much like listening to a podcast at 1.5x speed, staying in sync with the rapid changes now occurring in business requires intense focus. While the COVID-19 pandemic hit industries such as retail and hospitality with hurricanelike force, the disruptive winds of technology were already reshaping the business landscape at tremendous speed.

In an environment that is increasingly defined by vast quantities of data, the responsibility of shaping future business leaders falls to institutions like my own, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh. We must ensure these leaders possess the right blend of skills to translate data into knowledge and knowledge into solutions.

But as critical bridges between academia and business, business schools also are uniquely poised to reimagine a better future for businesses—one that is more diverse and inclusive, and one that is not only fueled by massive amounts of data and technology, but also guided by human beings.

In other words, we can help businesses move toward an intelligent future.

Our schools bring diverse strengths to this objective. But we also must coalesce our efforts around a common vision for an intelligent future. It’s a vision I believe will be based on three key understandings.

1. The Intelligent Future Is Data-Informed

In the world of business education, we have used the terms data-informed and data-driven interchangeably for far too long. We need to start distinguishing between these concepts in more nuanced ways.

When organizations are data-driven, their leaders place data in the driver’s seat. The problem with this approach is that data can’t always drive. It can’t create opportunities; it can only point to opportunities. In contrast, when organizations adopt a data-informed approach, their leaders assume that data are only as useful as the creativity, emotional intelligence, and empathy that human beings bring to the table.

Take, for example, the machine learning algorithms that companies rely on to do everything from screening job applicants to approving loans to predicting recidivism rates. A mounting body of evidence has shone a spotlight on the implicit bias that can be embedded in these algorithms. When we allow data to drive our decisions, we risk falling prey to these biases and perpetuating longstanding inequities in our society. But when we let data inform our decisions, we can counteract bias and design better solutions for all.   

When organizations are data-driven, their leaders place data in the driver’s seat. The problem with this approach is that data can’t always drive. It can’t create opportunities; it can only point to opportunities.

I can provide another example that hits closer to home. When admissions teams at universities use highly data-driven approaches, they prioritize grades and test scores; as a result, the diversity of their student cohorts is likely to suffer. But when admissions teams take a more data-informed approach, they instead evaluate each candidate as a whole person, not just the sum of a set of numbers. At institutions like my own, a data-informed approach to decision making is key to admitting successful student cohorts that are diverse, balanced, and complementary.

A data-informed approach also takes into account the predictive limitation of data. We have seen firsthand what happens when leaders rely too heavily on data to forecast sales or manage supply chains during unpredictable events. At the onset of the pandemic, for example, most Western governments opted against requiring citizens to wear masks because, at the time, little data existed to support the efficacy of the practice. Similarly, the scarcity of historical data related to climate change patterns has made the need for human discernment even more acute as we attempt to determine what has caused these patterns and how we can reverse them.

Through every data analytics course, internship, and experiential learning project that we offer, we must impart an essential truth to our students: It takes a more diverse set of skills than coding and running machine learning applications to interpret and unlock the power of data. Data can inform but not decide. Data cannot be a substitute for human intelligence.

2. The Intelligent Future Is Collaborative

Not one of society’s most pressing problems fits neatly into a single academic discipline. By definition, complex issues such as climate change, food security, wealth inequality, and public health crises lack clear borders and straight edges. Business schools can discover workable solutions only in tandem with other academic disciplines, each viewing such problems through different lenses.

In our effort to tear down silos and build agile cross-functional teams at the Tepper School of Business, we have no departments. Instead, a significant number of our faculty members are cross-appointed to other colleges, such as engineering, computer science, and public policy. These cross-appointments afford our students access to a broad array of expertise. In addition, programs like the Master of Computational Finance and the Master of Science in Product Management fall under the umbrella of multiple colleges at Carnegie Mellon.

Like many universities, Carnegie Mellon is also home to a leadership center that brings together experts across disciplines to help students become more creative, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent leaders. Thanks to the efforts of the Accelerate Leadership Center, all MBA students start their journeys by completing an emotional intelligence evaluation, which reinforces the importance of developing the soft skills that every leader needs to thrive in today’s marketplace.

Many business schools, at least many in the U.S., operate within the context of larger university ecosystems, creating countless opportunities for collaboration. Moreover, as we collectively promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within our institutions, we expand our access to multiple viewpoints on any given issue. In light of the increasingly well-documented correlation between diversity of thought and better business outcomes, our willingness to step outside our walls—and encourage students to do the same—plays an indispensable role in creating the intelligent future.

3. The Intelligent Future Is Innovative

Business schools are deeply intertwined with university incubators, accelerators, and centers of entrepreneurship. While business schools worldwide will continue to offer hands-on experience and entrepreneurship programs, as academic leaders we must recognize that innovation doesn’t start or end with a single program.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to adapt to a new virtual landscape, it presented a perfect opportunity for us to practice what we preach. As we headed into lockdown overnight, we had no choice but to convert our teaching and administrative activities to online delivery formats.

We must cultivate in our students and faculty members a willingness to embrace disruption and risk failure. Only then will we build communities that are equipped to design bold, creative solutions for a better future.

While some universities accomplished this feat more successfully than others, higher education institutions demonstrated great agility—and they are not always known for being agile. When we look back on the pandemic era, I hope we will view this time as a much-needed wake-up call. It was a first step toward not only building educational cultures that are more resilient, but also becoming more entrepreneurial within our own ranks.

Ultimately, innovation is a mindset that we must embed into every educational option we deliver—every course, every project, and every presentation. Whether we call it intrapreneurship in the context of a larger company or entrepreneurship in the context of a startup, we must cultivate in our students and faculty members a willingness to embrace disruption and risk failure. Only then will we build communities that are equipped to design bold, creative solutions for a better future.

The biggest risk in business—or in higher education—is to take no risk at all.

We Must Create Value for the Future

In our quickly changing world, business as usual no longer exists. Formulaic solutions no longer suffice. If business schools hope to create value for the business community and for society as a whole, we must embrace more data-informed, collaborative, and innovative approaches to educating business leaders.

The future of business is heading toward us at warp speed, whether we like it or not. With the right mindset, we will make it an intelligent future.

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou
Dean, Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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