Lifelong Learning in the Age of Automation

Sunday, April 15, 2018 at 1am

A decade or so ago, one degree may have set you up for life. The core skills acquired on an MBA program for example, such as corporate strategy and financial accounting, would have been relevant for a lifetime. But in the age of automation, in which technology from data analytics to artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly reshaping business functions, continuous learning is now required. Few leaders understand intelligent automation, let alone what its implications will be for society in 10 years’ time.

“Communication, critical thinking — these are things that can stand the test of time,” says Anant Agarwal, CEO of online learning platform edX. “But the whole technology industry keeps changing and advances very rapidly. A lot of the high-demand jobs today were not even established a decade ago. People will need to continue to learn to stay relevant in this new digital age.”

Fuelling the trend is the fact that people are switching jobs far more often than in the past. In the US, workers stay with their employer for just four years on average, official data shows, with other data suggesting millennials move around even more often than that. One hot trend in the MBA word is the triple jump — using the degree to switch function, industry and geography. But many graduates feel the need to re-skill to ensure peak performance, says Tony Sheehan, associate dean for digital learning at London Business School.

“It’s critical that we absorb knowledge as never before. Corporations want skillsets to be refreshed on a regular basis. A degree in your early twenties is no longer likely to be something that can carry you through your life,” Sheehan says.

Business schools have recognized these trends, and are striving to adapt their teaching models. The traditional MBA, in which students spend a year or two out of the workforce learning on campus, is unlikely to change. But, increasingly, schools are rolling out online options for graduates to update their knowledge and learn new skills throughout their working life.

One good example is the “Alumni Advantage” program at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The school’s 45,000 alumni have lifetime, tuition-free access to leadership development and executive education courses online and in-classroom, in the US, Hong Kong, Malaysia and India. “Learning is a lifelong pursuit,” says Scott DeRue, dean of the business school.

Other schools are turning to moocs — or massive, open online courses — to provide a lifelong education to their students. Online courses that offer certificates, that can be shown to employers, are increasingly being taken by MBAs on sites such as Coursera, Udacity or FutureLearn. “I do see that as a trend. The underlying importance of online learning will definitely continue to grow,” says Michael Koenig, senior assistant dean at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

For instance, one mooc developed by Darden and offered on the Coursera platform shows participants how marketing analytics can inform important decisions, using real-life examples from companies such as IBM and Netflix. “Data is everywhere. We know more about consumer action than ever before, but trying to figure out what to do with all this data can be a challenge for people in marketing,” says Darden professor Raj Venkatesan.

Given the pace of technological disruption across all functions, with AI poised to steal some white-collar jobs, or at least change how managers will work, more business schools may look at providing lifelong learning opportunities for their students. “Students will need, more than ever, to be versatile and switch between a variety of roles, as required by the environment. Knowing a little about a lot — polymathism — has been out of fashion for the majority of our industrial age, but it is set for a major comeback,” says Jonathan Trevor, associate professor at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.


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