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Wharton: The Real Threat to Business Schools from Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) will change the way we learn and work in the near future.  However, a recent study shows that business schools remain cautious in adapting management education to address the changing needs of students, workers and organizations, writes Anne Trumbore in this opinion piece. Trumbore, one of the study’s coauthors, was the former senior director of Wharton Online, a strategic digital learning initiative at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Nearly 400 million workers globally will change their occupations within the next 10 years. Because business schools not only prepare students for the workforce but also create scholarship about business practices, they are uniquely situated to respond to the shifts coming to the future of work. But our recent study, “Implications of Artificial Intelligence on Business Schools and Lifelong Learning,” shows that business schools are mostly cautious in adapting management education to satisfy the coming needs of students, workers and organizations. This circumspect approach begs the question: Will MBAs educated today using methods from the past be employable for the jobs of the future?

Global Study

To gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities AI presents for business schools, and to clarify the current state of AI adoption in global business education, we conducted 43 interviews with academic, corporate, and technological leaders around the world. We spoke with 29 deans and other senior academic leaders from business schools in Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Europe, North America, Asia, Australia and Latin America to get a comprehensive picture of AI adoption today. We also spoke with six global companies deploying AI as part of their talent development and management efforts as well as eight platform providers of AI-facilitated (primarily through curation or “intelligent recommendation”) business education.

We found that a handful of schools are building AI-enabled platforms to provide personalized educational pathways for lifelong learning, to encourage course success for on-campus students and to increase peer-to-peer interaction, but most schools are experimenting on a lesser scale. Politecnico Milan, for instance, has launched Flexa, an AI-powered, business education recommendation engine to provide continuous, personalized learning to students, alumni and companies.

Schools across the globe are running multiple pilots with different technologies, such as RPA (Robotic Process Automation), chatbots, IBM Watson, and others. A number of schools have created robust cross-collaborations with both corporations — such as Microsoft and IBM — as well as with other schools on campus, particularly engineering and computer science. Yet, U.S. universities face multiple barriers in creating truly personalized learning pathways, including data privacy issues, lack of staff talent, faculty resistance and lack of institutional funding and/or commitment.

Meanwhile, corporations and platform providers are working much faster to invent and adopt new AI technologies to improve and validate skills acquisition and learning. Degreed, Skillsoft, Coursera and others are using data science and machine learning to help customize education, while some corporations are partnering with Microsoft and Google, as well as smaller companies like Filtered to create AI-powered customized learning.

Updating Traditional Curricula

As AI and related technologies displace jobs and workers, traditional business-school curricula will need to be updated to provide students with the skills they need to manage and lead in a rapidly changing world. AI-augmented roles will require workers with stronger skills in areas like ethics, leadership, emotional intelligence, and change management. Our research showed a clear opportunity for business schools to teach these human skills that in-person MBA and executive education programs excel at providing.

While corporations and platform providers work quickly to develop courses in new technologies and business practices, business schools can capitalize on the more sustained attention of their students and their decades of experience in creating programs that offer students the opportunity to thoughtfully consider the ethical, moral and environmental consequences of AI-augmented business practices. Business schools have the privileged position of being able to double down on collaborative, hands-on learning experiences that tackle complex, real world challenges, where the best solution is not necessarily the most profitable one. Courses in ethics, data protection and security, distributed leadership, managing innovation and AI governance will be highly desirable to MBA candidates and executive education clients.

Ultimately, the greatest threat to business schools from AI is to the relevance of the MBA. The traditional pace of knowledge creation cannot keep up with rate of change AI is bringing to business. As corporations improve at providing their employees targeted, relevant business topics at scale, the value proposition of the MBA comes into question. To maintain the value of the MBA, business schools should focus on the topics and skills that corporations either can’t teach or teach well. In addition, business schools should develop new ways of teaching that incorporate AI to give students more immersive learning experiences with immediate, personalized feedback. Business schools should not lose sight of the opportunities afforded by these disruptive technological advances.


AI provides the ability to improve the student experience, streamline operations and develop efficiencies of scale. AI technologies can make administration more efficient and improve student experience. Beginning with better identification of potential students, to the ability to create diverse and well-rounded classes, to better academic and career advising, AI has the potential to improve the student experience while cutting operational costs.

Personalizing Learning

To survive and thrive in an AI-enabled world, business schools must be open to the following:

  • New methods of knowledge creation that speed up the research cycle. Working with industry data and collaborating with industry experts for teaching and research, collaborating with other schools such as engineering, computer science, education or medical schools, and finding alternative, reputable outlets for publication beyond peer reviewed academic journals all promise to make relevant content more quickly.
  • More data-driven, personalized and effective learning experiences for students. Future MBA candidates will be exposed to AI-enabled education K-12, at university or in the workplace. It is reasonable to assume that they will have similar expectations of business education — and that it will be customizable, adaptive and immersive — and delivered both inside and outside the classroom.
  • Taking AI technologies seriously and making related investments. Since most business schools will be unable to devote the necessary resources to develop their own AI capabilities, it will be critical to partner with technology vendors to provide personalized learning experiences that support existing students and offer alumni and others relevant lifelong learning.
  • Immediately addressing AI’s challenges: ethics, privacy, quality of training data, transparency of algorithms and data security. Rather than letting AI’s risks become a barrier to adoption, business schools can take the lead on developing a coalition for shared governance, empowering faculty, talented staff, students, and experts to work together to develop school and university policies and solutions to address these concerns. Creating a coalition of business schools is another option to explore, as is working with government policymakers to develop sustainable and thoughtful solutions.

Taking the steps outlined above can help move business schools into the future and ensure their survival. Avoiding these challenges could very well result in students avoiding their MBA programs. For schools like Politecnico Milan, disruptions allow them to improve their recommendation algorithms and reach new populations of distance learners. Schools without these capabilities, however, will have to provide value to future MBA students in a world where AI-enabled education is more widely used by students than by business schools.

Source: Knowledge@Wharton. (Mar 12, 2020). The original article can be found at