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(Back to) the Future of Business Education

When Marty McFly traveled from 1985 to 2015 in the popular 1980’s Back to the Future films, he found a future that was essentially unchanged from his own time. The fictional town of Hill Valley, California, had a few technological enhancements – self-lacing shoes, holographic movies, flying cars, and kids riding hoverboards instead of skateboards – but the 1980’s teenager was relatively comfortable and familiar with the new modern conveniences and norms of 2015.

While most of these fictional inventions have not (yet) become reality in the 21st century, a multitude of other, much deeper changes have occurred, and not just between the 1980’s and now: many have happened in just the past 20 years. 

In 2000, businesses relied on faxes more than emails, phones were not “smart” and were still used for voice calls, and marketing was mostly done through tv, radio, and print ads. Market research was conducted through surveys and focus groups, and meetings were generally held in-person, in rooms with projectors, paper reports, and handouts.

Fast forward to 2021

Emails have been replaced by chat as the most efficient form of communication. Multi-functional smartphones are more powerful than many computers and the number of smartphone users has exploded from 740 million in 2000 to more than 8 billion in 2020. Marketing has finally followed its customers into digital media:  in 2004, there were fewer than a million people on MySpace (the dominant social network of the time), compared to 2.8 billion monthly users on Facebook in 2021, helping Facebook bring in US$27.2 billion in ad revenue in Q4 2020 alone!

The effect of the global pandemic means that business travel has all but disappeared and Zoom, the main online meeting platform in the world, has seen explosive growth. In Q2 2020, the company hosted 79 billion meeting minutes. By Q3 2021 (QTD), that number had grown to 3.3 trillion meeting minutes.

With the proliferation of smartphones, smart TVs and other IoT devices, and our penchant to do everything online, the amount of data generated around the world is reaching unfathomable proportions. At the beginning of 2020, the total amount of data in the world was approximately 44 zettabytes (megabyte…gigabyte…terabyte…petabyte…exabyte…zettabyte). By 2025, forecasts are that the world will be producing 443 exabytes per day!

Our real advances in technology have rivalled those imagined by Back to the Future in the ’80’s (even down to the self-lacing shoes), driving dramatic changes in business and society. These have been accompanied by less anticipated, but equally dramatic, deleterious consequences. As we belatedly recognize, technological gains are not without their cost. The piper is waiting to be paid, if not by us by our children and grandchildren. The current pandemic is but the first installment of the fee!

The Future Bites Back!

The global COVID-19 pandemic (pandemics somehow escaped mention in Back to the Future!) has created unparalleled economic, political, and social disruptions, exacerbating preexisting divisions and inequalities, and for the foreseeable future, driving new paradigms for the way we work and live. The experiences of the past 24 months continue to highlight both our interconnectedness and our almost total inability to manage those interconnections sensibly. 

We cannot delay the advance of this virus alone: not individually, not nationally, or even regionally. A global threat will always demand a global response.  

And we can’t continue our siloed approaches to science, to business, and to the environment. At the height of the pandemic, politicians, with their hands on the levers of power, were forced to rely on the research and advice of medical doctors to inform their decisions about and responses to the pandemic. 

They found themselves dealing with strangers from different realms (politics and medicine), accustomed to different audiences speaking different languages, from different perspectives. In some cases, individuals emerged who could bridge the realms, translate the noise, and at least partly lead the way across these uncharted territories. 

“Normal” is no more

The increasing complexity and competitiveness of business means leaders need skills far beyond anything demanded of previous generations. It used to be said that the purpose of an MBA was to teach young leaders and managers the language of business. Whether they become marketing executives, vice-presidents of accounting,  heads of IT, or operations managers, they would all have a shared perspective and vocabulary. The hard lesson of the present is that we need to pivot and go far, far beyond that. 

A surface knowledge of the different facets of business, “speaking the language”, is not enough in an era of perpetual disruption. Transformational leaders need to be able to analyze and dissect the meaning of what their organizations are doing and why they’re doing it. Indeed, the language of business needs to encompass languages previously more likely to be used by sociologists, by naturalists, by environmental scientists. Business goals can no longer be pursued in isolation without regard to their impacts on society and the environment.

The DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) is a natural progression from the MBA. It goes much deeper to give the modern leader a unique skillset. At Sasin, our new DBA program is helping established business leaders become real-world researchers – leaders with a rigorous, systematic, methodical approach to defining and solving problems – and reflexive practitioners who can reflect on and contemplate the important issues and challenges facing the organization and then mindfully lead others in times of uncertainty. Just as in all of our programs, we want to create leaders who have lasting impact – leaders who understand that everything they do affects their stakeholders and their communities, now and in the future.

This is what 21st century businesses and organizations need – analytical, mindful leaders with cutting edge skills who can make sense of these new complexities and successfully navigate today’s hyper-competitive business environment to create a better, smarter, sustainable world.

Looking back to the 1980’s, the popular Back to the Future films barely scratched the surface of what the future would hold. Changes and disruptions have been more complex and more profound than anyone in Hollywood at the time could have predicted. And the global pandemic that has engulfed us all over the past two years has accelerated and increased the magnitude of these changes. The 21st century is much different than even Marty McFly could have imagined. 

Sasin School of Management, in Bangkok, Thailand, launched a new DBA program in July 2021. 

Dean Outerson is Ambassador & Writer-in-Residence at Sasin School of Management.