EMBA: Teaching and Learning about Technology

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Digital transformation for top-level executives

 Digital transformation has become a key strategic issue for companies as it disrupts competitive environments, value chains, business models and professions within organisations. The impact of big data on decision-making processes means that managers must rapidly acquire new skills and expertise.

Leading digital change requires managers to have a vision of how to transform their company for the digital world. Digital transformation is not about the way businesses use technology, but about changing the way business gets done.

Upskilling for the digital economy

As every industry is affected by the digital revolution, the role of schools is to develop leaders who not only master digital tools and are digitally savvy, but who will make the digital economy grow. Teaching digital knowledge is already an integral part of executive-level MBA programmes. Approaches vary, from core courses on digital transformation for C-level managers, through electives or specialisations, to comprehensive block courses on digital transformation.

“Embracing innovation and mastering new digital technologies is no longer seen as a competitive advantage for businesses, but a vital component for sustainability and existence,” Prof. Julian Birkinshaw, professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and deputy dean of Executive Education at the London Business School, highlights in an LBS publication.

How business schools inspire tech-ready leaders

Let’s take an in-depth look into several programmes and how they teach digital technologies to current or aspiring C-level executives.

Digital transformation from A to Zurich

While some executive programmes focus entirely on a single domain such as Business Analytics or Entrepreneurship, others offer specialisations so that class participants can choose what they want to learn more about. The University of Zurich (Switzerland) has an Executive MBA in General Management with two focus areas: International Management and Digital Transformation.

One of the key selling points of such programmes is that they still offer the full package of general management skills and competencies. Just because your focus will be on digital does not mean you will skip courses such as Strategic Management, Marketing of Innovative Products or Finance. Rather, after getting top-level training in all aspects of leadership, you will be introduced to courses such as “Collecting, Analysing and Interpreting Data”, “Digital Value Creation” and even “Ethical & Legal Aspects in the Digital Society”.

Even the global study trips aimed at immersing executives in practical learning are organised with the theme of digital transformation in mind. The University of Zurich EMBA offers four learning expeditions in the US, Israel, China and Switzerland. “Get on-the-ground insights on the dynamic Chinese economy, markets and culture. You’ll learn from executives who demonstrate the grit and innovative spirit needed to thrive in this budding international centre for innovation,” says the University of Zurich about the study trip in China.

“After completing this course and the programme, our pioneers will have developed key skills to thrive in the digital age,” says Michael Hilb, entrepreneur, board member and professor who designed the ‘Realising Digital Value Creation’ course at the Executive MBA. “They will be able to spot opportunities, become very clear about articulating the opportunities in change, develop ideas of how to shape these opportunities into real outcomes and, importantly, transform ideas into impact.”

The digital boom of 2020 and beyond

Tech and digital have been developing rapidly for a while now. But when the global pandemic struck and everyone had to stay at home, digital services suddenly became paramount. From collaborative workplace software through e-commerce and deliveries to remote health care adoption, we relied on the virtual world to help us retain some kind of normality. A 2022 report by IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that 60% of organisations accelerated their investments in digital technologies due to Covid-19 and more than half (55%) permanently corrected the course of their organisational strategies.

Business education was no different. Soon after the pandemic hit the world, the Executive MBA programme at Maastricht School of Management (MSM) in the Netherlands introduced online classes in Entrepreneurship and Digital Transformation. Using case studies, group discussions and presentations, MSM faculty were able to offer students an interactive four-day Digital Transformation course. “Starting from strategic roadmap formulation and development up to the barriers and the challenges of deploying the relevant digital technologies,” this EMBA class covered the full spectrum of well-known case studies.

In an entirely online environment, students were able to discuss disruptive technologies, innovations and business models, including social media, analytics, apps and blockchain.

“This is the era of Artificial Intelligence, self-driving cars, so [there was] a lot of focus on data analytics and concerns over cyber security. In the short span of time of the course I learned how digital transformation can be implemented in any organisation,” Executive MBA student Rajinder Kumar says.

Immersion in the tech world

There is more than one way to tap into the potential of the digital realm. EMBA students learn through courses, study trips and company projects, but they also benefit from the networking aspect essential to any Executive MBA programme.

At Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley (US), some participants already have impressive backgrounds in tech. SpaceX, Google and Facebook feature in their CVs even before entering the programme. This type of experience makes them important additions to the class, since the learning, inspiration, and partnerships formed among executives are often even more valuable than what they get in lectures.

“Roughly 15% to 18% of the school’s EMBA students come from the tech field; after graduating, about 25% end up working in tech, often going to companies that include Facebook, Apple, and Google,” Hoyt Ng, Berkeley’s senior director of MBA programmes, highlights for Fortune Magazine. “Not only are you learning the skills to manage and lead in the tech world, but you’re also building these great relationships,” he adds.

Digital transformation is also integrated in the curriculum. Through several field immersions or study trips, EMBA participants at Berkeley get to experience entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley, along with applied innovation in San Francisco.

In Silicon Valley, together with founders and C-suite executives, students focus on the demands, benefits and risks of working for and launching a startup. During their stay in San Francisco, they solve “complex business problems with design firms and leaders from corporate innovation labs”.

Organisations reinventing themselves

Digital transformation is not a one-time act and it doesn’t have an end date. The most successful organisations are those that keep innovating and reinventing themselves to keep up with and get ahead of changing consumer preferences.

The global pandemic has created a pressing urgency for business leaders to transform business models, relations with customers and their organisational culture. The demand for leaders who can redesign business in the digital era will skyrocket.

“Most digital technologies provide possibilities for efficiency gains and customer intimacy. But if people lack the right mindset to change and the current organisational practices are flawed, DT (digital transformation) will simply magnify those flaws,” say the authors of the article titled “Digital Transformation Is Not About Technology” released in the Harvard Business Review.

EMBA programmes provide the strategic C-level grasp on technology while keeping executives focused on the big organisational picture and all the aspects of managing and transforming business for growth.

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