By Arjay L. Balinbin, Reporter

BUSINESS SCHOOLS strive to keep a finger on the pulse of technological innovation because such changes in technology could herald how business might be done in the future, and their students must be prepared to adapt and thrive in rapidly-changing environments.

This means that schools, more than honing students in the areas of macro and microeconomics, statistics, accounting, finance, operations, marketing, organizational behavior and human resources, should also focus on the development of future-ready skills that will enable them to deal with a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.

As such, BusinessWorld sat down with two officials from the Aboitiz School of Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (ASITE) of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM).

ASITE head Christopher P. Monterola, who also serves as the executive managing director of AIM’s Analytics, Computing, and Complex Systems (ACCeSs) Laboratory, said that one obvious need that business schools should address is technology.

“Technology is not just changing, it is accelerating. If you try to look at the idea of innovation, majority of it is driven by technology. Specifically now in the context of Industry 4.0, this technology refers to about 80% AI (artificial intelligence) and the other 20% on blockchain and cloud computing. So if you would like to have a meaningful business curriculum, the students should be weaponized to understand the trends of technology,” he said.

Academic Program Director Erika Fille T. Legara of the Institute’s Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS) program said that a high-level familiarity with AI and data science is now a necessity as most companies are technologically-driven.

“We have actually seen this in some executives. If you talk to them, they are now very familiar with data engineering, data science, and AI. I think that when you are at the forefront, it is much more difficult for those who lag behind to catch up, so we always encourage them to be quick,” she said.

According to a survey by the MIT Sloan Management Review and the IBM Institute for Business Value of nearly 3,000 executives, managers and analysts across more than 30 industries in 100 countries in 2011, “top-performing organizations use analytics five times more than lower performers.”

In the case of ASITE, Mr. Monterola said the school’s MSDS program is “three times oversubscribed.”

Most sectors, including banks, financial, manufacturing, retail, logistics and supply chain management companies, media, the academe, and start-ups, are very much involved in data science, according to Ms. Legara.

Because their needs are never constant, Mr. Monterola said, it follows that schools should collaborate with them when updating or designing their curricula.

“The center of data science in particular is domain expertise. You should be working with a domain expert, so it is a natural thing for us to be working with them if we want this to be successful,” he added.

One of the biggest problems of many companies when hiring data scientists, according to Ms. Legara, is that despite that they are technically gifted, many of them lack knowledge on business value.

“A lot of companies feel really frustrated because… most of the data scientists, when they join a company, they are clueless on how to make the data, the results, meaningful to the business, to the company, so that they can take action… We need good people who are not only brilliant in these things but also can articulate and understand business value,” she said.

Being a future-ready leader refers to one’s ability and comfort level in dealing with uncertainty, Mr. Monterola noted.

“We call this a VUCA world — volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous,” he added.

At ASITE, he said, some of the most valued skills are critical thinking and innovation. “This is the core of any academic course. All of a sudden this idea is now changing because of the technology. Say for example in AI, when you talk of critical thinking, you are no longer looking at just two to three possible scenarios. Through machine learning and through AI, you are now looking at 100 possible scenarios and the probability of these all scenarios happening.”

Ms. Legara said that to prepare students to be future-ready, the school “makes sure that in all courses, even in mathematics and data science, there is a lot of problem-solving involved.”

“I think this is based on experience that if you are always given a problem-solving task with no exact or definite answer, you are required to be more creative… If these are what you eat or solve while you are in the program, you are more or less ready for the real world and even if the technology changes and even if the rules change, you can still adapt,” she said.

On the educational philosophy that the school subscribes to, Ms. Legara said: “We are very big on practitioner-oriented teaching, particularly experiential learning.”

She said the biggest aspect of ASITE’s curriculum is what the school calls “capstone projects.”

The projects are defined by the industries that provide the school with potential research questions that students can work on.

“We got something like 25 proposals [previously]. And note that they bid, they bid to be the cast on that students will be choosing… It will not be just students who will be working; there will be mentors like our full-time data scientists here, who are mostly PhDs too,” Mr. Monterola said.

“What is beautiful here is that the value is already inherent because the company would give a problem that has a very defined value for them, so you don’t have to think much about the value but how to solve the problem,” he added.

Getting qualified full-time educators remains a challenge for the school, according to Ms. Legara.

“So definitely limited… We do have a hard time getting full-time ones. But we are very agile. We can get practitioners teaching as guest lecturers,” she said. “Full-time faculty, it’s tough, but we do have a lot of supporters. They provide real-world perspectives.”

She said other business schools that plan to innovate may face the same challenge, because it is a continuing problem “not only in the Philippines but all over the world.”

Mr. Monterola said, “One of the things that we are trying to incorporate in our curriculum here is blended learning because some of the best lectures, especially for technical subjects, are those that can be found on Youtube. So we will no longer duplicate those, but we have to augment those with real-world experience…”

Mr. Monterola said among the plans that ASITE is pursuing is to give AI skills to all students in the Philippines.

“We have discussed this with the Department of Education on how we can incorporate AI in the K-12 program. The materials that we will be using there, which I hope will be more appreciated by our students, are cases defined by our engagement with various industries in the country,” he said.

For her part, Ms. Legara said: “We are also going around the country in our own way. We have different partnerships right now. We also have our partnership with the Freedom of Information (FoI) program. We have volunteer students from the MSDS program to not just talk about data science but also about Industry 4.0 in general.”

She added that the school has started discussing with government agencies and even private companies that are willing to fund the textbooks to be deployed across the country.

“We will train teachers with real-world problems and try to make sure that the way we created these textbooks will be something that can be understood by our students. Why are we doing this? In five years time, conservative estimate, probably the BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) industry which constitutes 1.2 million of our employees… if they do not upskill, about 80% of them will lose their jobs because of AI. They are a very strong contributor to our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In fact, almost a lot of these 1.2 million are classified as above average in salary scale. You can imagine what will happen if they lose their jobs,” Mr. Monterola said.

He added that the school is also in talks with the Department of Trade and Industry on the creation of a center of excellence for data science, which will target the micro, small and medium enterprises and the agriculture sector.

“If we prioritize these sectors, we can increase significantly our GDP… These are the people who are in the laylayan ng lipunan (fringes of society)… So I hope those things will materialize,” he said.