How important is AI for MBA students?

by Nick Harland
As more and more business schools incorporate AI into their programmes, to what extent will students have to master the technology?

Nobody likes getting left behind.

So when ChatGPT first exploded onto the scene in November 2022, there was a global scramble to process, understand, and utilise this thrilling new technology. Nowhere more so than in the world of business education.

In the subsequent frenzied 15 months or so, business schools have rapidly integrated AI into their offerings. Schools want to teach it, students want to use it, and employers want their workers to master it.

As a result, AI has become the latest in a long line of must-have skills for MBA students. But how much proficiency are they expected to achieve?

Let’s take a look.

What’s driving the growth of AI?

Within management education, more factors are driving the growth of AI than just the fear of getting left behind.

Business schools have always adapted and evolved their offerings based on what the market demands from them. In 2024, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the market demands AI skills.

According to the 2023 GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey, 74 percent of employers believe that AI and machine learning are important skills for business school graduates to have. Around the same percentage believe these skills will only grow in importance over the next five years. Business schools are simply responding to that demand.

Yet, if the reasons behind management education’s growing interest in AI are fairly clear, the motivations for major companies are a little more complicated. They also don’t want to get left behind, of course, but another factor was driving so-called AI mania in 2023: shareholder value.

In the U.S. last year, the Nasdaq 100 grew by a staggering 50 percent - its best year since 1999. Michael Landsberg of Landsberg Bennett Private Wealth Management commented that, in 2023, “most large tech was buoyed by the excitement and not necessarily the details of AI.” Last year, simply showing an interest in AI was enough to drive up the share price of companies.

But in 2024, that won’t be enough to satisfy shareholders. Organisations will have to start demonstrating a clear AI strategy to investors - one that will propel company growth and not just inflate share prices. They will therefore need to find leaders who are capable of powering growth through AI.

Enter MBA graduates.

How business schools are incorporating AI into their programmes

Within graduate management education, the shift to AI has been astonishingly quick.

In a little over a year, business schools have (in some cases) totally revamped their curricula to include AI. According to research from the Graduate Business Curriculum Roundtable, 74 percent of schools now teach generative AI as part of existing courses.

In Italy, the Politecnico di Milano School of Management has gone even further than that. “From this year, all of our MBA candidates will have to use generative AI software to conduct the admission test,” says Professor Antonella Moretto, who is the associate dean for Open programmes at POLIMI.

“The reason we do this is to test their critical thinking. For this, we provide them with a prompt and ask them to report the solution that emerges from the generative AI software to then comment, discuss, and argue. This is done because, as a school dedicated to innovation, we do not want to demonise the tool but to teach students how to use it critically.”

Other business schools are not only incorporating AI within their programmes - they’re working it into their wider approach to education. IESE Business School’s Artificial Intelligence Initiative is a multidisciplinary project that oversees the school’s relationship with AI. It manages the integration of AI within programmes and electives but also encompasses faculty research and engagement with policymakers.

It’s an example of how schools are also starting to move past the initial AI boom and instead develop a streamlined approach to teaching it. Now, their expectations of what MBA graduates should know about AI are becoming much clearer.

What does an AI-ready MBA graduate look like?

A lot of MBA students might look at AI as the latest in a long line of skills they’re expected to master. In recent years that list has grown at an even quicker rate than normal, given the integration of skills such as big data, machine learning, and blockchain into business school curricula.

Although AI is a key part of business education in 2024, it’s not necessarily a skill that MBA students must master. Like other parts of the programme, it’s about management rather than mastery.

“I believe that managers and future managers - the typical target of an MBA programme - do not need to necessarily know the technical aspects of AI, both because that is not their role and due to strong technological evolution,” says Moretto.

“On the other hand, however, it becomes fundamental to understand how it could be used, how it can become a tool for increasing human potential, like a real co-pilot, which no longer serves only as an enabler but as a true amplifier.”

Professor Sampsa Samila, who is the academic director of the Artificial Intelligence Initiative at IESE Business School, believes students must firstly develop a “clear, conceptual understanding” of how AI technologies work.

“This needs to then be complemented with a conceptual understanding of how the business works across the different functions,” he says. “We do cover concrete, practical applications as well, but those applications from a couple of years ago are now getting old - while the conceptual understanding is still entirely valid.”

In short, MBA graduates must have a working knowledge of AI - one that allows them to understand its key concepts and how to incorporate them within an overarching business strategy. Crucially, they must also demonstrate how AI can go from interesting new technology to key driver of company growth. If they can manage that transition, they’re likely to be in high demand for the next stage of AI mania.

Useful resources:
AACSB Insights
AACSB Insights publishes perspectives from leading voices in global business education, the latest business school data and insights, and views on the current and future state of business.
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