27 May 2021 19:57 IST

'Business-savvy managers with no technical skills will soon be irrelevant'

Debashis Guha of S P Jain School of Global Management explains why an MBA in AI is future-proof

Many B-schools are revamping their curriculum and exploring AI offerings for increased relevance and long-run financial stability. Dr Debashis Guha, Director of Machine Learning at S P Jain School of Global Management, says a two-year Master of Artificial Intelligence in Business (MAIB) addresses a large gap in the marketplace for developing AI-savvy business leaders. Prof Guha has a PhD in operations research from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York, an MA in Physics from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and a BTech from IIT Kharagpur.

The full-time postgraduate programme covers the foundations, principles, and techniques of AI, as well as business subjects such as economics, accounting, finance, and marketing. This programme is offered virtually in four cities — Mumbai, Singapore, Dubai, and Sydney due to Covid-19, and scheduled to provisionally start in Sydney campus in February 2022.

S P Jain School of Global Management, Dubai

 

Conceptualised and designed in 2019, it received accreditation from Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) in February this year. It is an Australian degree offered across campuses and the B-school has applied for accreditations by global agencies such as AASCB and EQUIS as well.

 

 

 

 

Excerpts from the interview:

Many B-schools have revamped curriculum and introduced new courses in AI and ML, what do you aim to achieve with a full-fledged two-year MBA programme in AI?

The future is going to be a marriage of business and tech. All MBAs will become tech MBAs to some extent. There are a lot of techies with technical know-how about AI and ML and MBAs with business expertise, but what the industry is struggling to find is people who understand the business context of these technologies and their application in real life. We need people who know both sides of the equation.

Students who have gone through a programme like this learn the ins and outs of technology fully and business administration concepts that feature in a typical MBA. This is why it takes two years — to cover both the tech base and the business base in one programme. They proceed on parallel tracks and it comes together in the third and fourth semester where students learn about how AI can be used in specific business contexts. This is complemented by their final-year project where they take a business issue and translate it into an AI model. In the end, they wrap things up with a capstone project.

What sort of academic background do you look for in the MAIB course?

We are recruiting students with sufficient quantitative background so they can jump right into it without preparatory units. So, preferably from a science and engineering background. We are trying to take in people who are eligible and adept to handle the workload of a rigorous and fairly advanced programme. We make exceptions if a candidate shows aptitude for this kind of learning. The batch strength is 30 to 35 students.

How are the job roles that these students are getting different from other MBA programmes offered? What are the placement opportunities?

When it comes to opportunities for MAIB students, their role will be to bridge the business side and technical side of operations. This is something that we have observed is missing from the workforce — professionals who can act as a bridge and translate business issues to technological requirements.

What industries and domains are specifically interested in candidates who have a proper mix of business and AI?

Industries such as finance and banking, tech companies (Google, IBM), and Indian and global e-commerce companies are looking for MBA students with AI knowledge. Banks and finance companies are very interested as they are in the process of converting legacy data to AI and ML-based models and systems. Pharma is another industry, which is increasingly adapting to AI and ML. Wipro, for instance, is working in AI and ML applications in the pharma industry.

Do you think the nature of management skills and future jobs will change to be more oriented towards this?

Yes, this is a strategic decision. The traditional management roles that we knew of have been completely transformed by the advent of AI, ML, and data science. Many MBA programmes are starting to fall on hard times because business-savvy managers who cannot understand technology at all may not be quite suited for future workplaces.

Today, we believe that nobody can perform well without the basic knowledge of Excel and Word, whereas 20 years ago, there were a lot of managers who had somebody else do the number-crunching and word processing for them. Similarly, basic AI and ML skills will become a part of every manager’s repertoire in the near future. These applications will be integrated into all management processes such as marketing, finance, HR, strategy, and general management. The basic AI and ML skills will become a must-have in a future manager’s toolkit.

What are some subjects and skill-sets unique to this programme?

AI practitioners need to be aware of AI ethics, and we have placed emphasis on that. How AI is used in society? Should we take AI, and try to replace jobs or design it in a way that augments jobs? If AI impacts people's lives, then how can we make sure that it is free of bugs which reproduce prejudices and inequalities that exist in our society? We have placed a lot of emphasis on the philosophical, the ethical, economic and social implications of AI in our course. Every AI practitioner, especially those on the management side, needs to be aware of these implications every step of the way.

For AI practitioners, a purely technical understanding of the tools is not enough for a successful AI application. Without a proper understanding of the subject, you may design something that either doesn't work in the business workplace or creates more problems than it solves or maybe even create new problems that didn't exist previously, which leads to a failure of the product and the service.

What aspects of AI a business manager should understand well to successfully apply in their company?

The first and the most important branch of AI is Machine Learning. Anybody who wants to apply AI techniques to fix business problems needs to learn ML. Students need to be fluent in the programming language of Python as well.

Secondly, decision making in uncertain times. Managers often tend to take non-data based decisions intuitively. It is possible to make a data-driven system of decision making that outperforms experienced managers in certain tasks, if you are an AI-ready manager. The third concept which has been gaining prominence is Natural Language Procession (NLP), mainly because of its relevance in automation.

AI can be seen as a threat and an opportunity, do you think the industry is readily embracing AI?

It's a classical problem in the economics of artificial intelligence. There is an element of fear but we have learned from the past. This question has plagued the development of AI for a while — is AI going to take my job? The evidence so far suggests a clear ‘no.’ You may be working alongside an AI, or be using an AI tool to improve the quality of your work, but are unlikely to be replaced by it.

For instance, bank employees thought ATMs could cause large-scale job losses but they didn’t. AI is also accurate in reading x rays, but there are no hospitals that have shut off radiology departments and handed it over to AI machines. Instead, doctors use AI to speed up their work and improve decision making.

A lot of B-schools are struggling to find the right faculty for such advanced programmes. How did SP Jain subvert that problem?

We started this journey several years ago and have been able to recruit faculty with vast industry experience and technical knowledge. Most of them are academics with doctorates, along with a long history of consulting, which helps them understand the business aspects quite well.

We regularly invite industry practitioners as adjunct faculty to deliver lectures as a part of our programme. Additionally, we also have industry veterans and academic experts from other campuses overseas who have successfully taught our students before and now more so, through online learning methods.