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Degree in disruption: Executive MBAs take a tech turn

By Alec Jordan for The ACCJ Journal

If there’s any sure thing in business, it’s that change is always around the corner. And disruptive tech­nologies, such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT), are bringing about that change more quickly than we ever thought possible. Collectively, these technologies can significantly transform the way companies around the world do business. However, the upheaval they bring can also put a company out of business if it isn’t adapting and evolving with the currents of change.

For managers of companies that are candidates for disruption, it is crucial to quickly understand the lay of the land. A natural option for executives looking to get up to speed with these technologies is an executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) program. Designed to offer mid- to senior-level managers the opportunity to earn their MBA while working, such programs can usually be completed in less than two years.

Since the first EMBA program was introduced at the University of Chicago in 1943, the number has boomed and they can now be found all around the world. According to the 2015 Executive MBA Council Membership Program Survey, which compiles data from more than 300 programs held at over 200 colleges and universities in some 25 countries, the average age of an enrolled EMBA student is 37.8. The average participant has 13.9 years of professional experience, including nine years of managerial experience, and the percentage of women in EMBA programs has climbed to 27.6 percent.

In the past, EMBA programs would be paid for by partici­pants’ employers; actually, having company sponsorship used to be a requirement for admission. This is no longer the case. Now, less than one quarter of students receive full financial sponsorship, and 41 percent receive no funding support at all from their employers. Business schools have adapted to this dynamic: more than 50 percent are offering scholarships or fellowships.


Even though more EMBA students are shouldering the costs of their degrees, the value they get out of these programs is considerable. William J. Swinton, director of International Business Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus, and co-chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) Education Committee, said that one of the most valuable things a mid-level executive can get from an EMBA is perspective. “Managers tend to focus on one arena. An executive MBA helps them develop a broader cross-functional perspective.”

This is a sentiment that is also echoed by Robert Noddin, president and CEO of AIG Japan Holdings KK and co-chair of the ACCJ Education Committee. “I think the most meaningful gains come from seeing differing views, experiences, or ways in which situations are handled. We can all get set in our ways over time, and the chance to see things from differing perspectives and apply that to your own circumstances—or past firsthand experience—can be quite helpful.”

He was also bullish on the opportunities that these programs create for students, teachers, and subject matter experts (SMEs) to collaborate. “I think the blend of virtual engagement between educators, SMEs, and students is fantastic and really expands the availability of content and access to ideas and experiences.”

Of course, another way in which present-day EMBA programs are offering value is by focusing on the influence of rapidly changing technology—imparting know­ledge that is sorely needed. Noddin points out that technologies such as AI, robotics, and IoT are to be ignored only at an executive’s peril. “They are fields that are advancing and changing at such an accelerating pace,” he said. “Unless you spend a decent amount of time paying attention to them and learning about them, you can quickly become out­dated or even irrelevant.”

One of the things that he sees as crucial for the typical EMBA participant to under­stand is the pace at which digital tools allow messages to be shared. “I personally feel that the most significant points for mid-level executives to understand are the speed with which a message can spread and the segmentation capabilities it presents in tailoring an offering to individuals. The capability to evolve a dialogue with someone via the power of today’s digital tools is truly amazing.”

Mikiya Mori, director of the Fox Global Executive MBA Program at Temple University, Japan Campus, said that learning about this technology space can help executives become more capable leaders in a business climate marked by significant upheaval. “The management process will be considered within business and institutional environments increasingly characterized by global competition, economic turmoil, rapid technological change, and shifting labor market dynamics. Mid-level executives will need to learn about disruptive digital technologies to be able to run an organization better.”

While businesses may find emerging technology to be a threat, Swinton believes that properly prepared people will always have an edge. “Tech not only disrupts companies, it disrupts careers. An executive MBA helps business leaders ask better questions. Soon, AI will be able to answer most questions. However, companies will still rely on humans for context. Asking key questions about business models, new products, and services will remain the killer app that only humans have.”


Schools are addressing these topics in different ways, but one thing is shared: none are ignoring them. Temple University’s Fox Global Executive MBA Program covers dis­rup­tive digital tech­nologies in its leadership, creativity, and innova­­tion courses, and Mori said the program will add further sections dedicated to disruptive technologies if needed.

Professor Jan Ondrus, director of Research at the Center of Excellence for Digital Business at ESSEC Business School Asia–Pacific in Singapore, explained that their program offers a wide range of courses connected to emerging technology spaces. “Digital is a major pillar of the ESSEC & Mannheim EMBA Asia–Pacific program. We have several courses directly or indirectly related to the digital economy, and they all cover some aspects of disruptive technologies. For example, I teach an e-commerce course that examines current digital business models and helps participants to discover new ones. Participants are exposed to the impacts disruptive tech­nologies have on e-commerce business models. Other related courses are digital transformation and the base of the pyramid, business model innovation, brand manage­ment using digital marketing, and social media. Moreover, participants have to create an entrepreneurship project, which often embeds disruptive technologies as a core element of the business model. This year, our EMBA participants will have one of their residencies at Waseda University Business School and be exposed to robotics and other related themes during their residency.”

While ESSEC has fully embraced disruptive technologies in its program, Ondrus cautions that not all of tech’s hottest topics are necessarily applicable for EMBA classrooms. “Participants are often driven by buzzwords. At the moment, everyone wants to know about blockchain. Artificial intelligence is another buzzword, but it is not clear how this highly technical topic can be covered in a relevant manner in an EMBA program. That said, we do talk about the business implications of automation, robotics, and, more generally, about digitalization. Artificial intelligence is somehow a booster for those phenomena.”

But even if all the buzzwords are not necessarily making their way into courses, understanding them and being able to assess them from a big-picture perspective is a crucial part of the program.

“In any case, mid-level executives have to be exposed to tech­nology developments. The reason is that business models have an expiration date. Often, this date is related to the emergence of a disruptive technology or innovation,” Ondrus said. “Therefore, mid-level executives should be comfortable enough with new technology trends to assess their disruptive potential. They need to understand how those technologies can impact business models and industries. That said, I believe tech­nologies them­selves are not the most important, as they change very fast. It is the mindset and the conceptual frame­works to assess disruptive technologies that are most important.”


To accompany this focus on emerging and disruptive tech­­nology, more programs are changing how they offer their courses to make them more accessible to working managers. Noddin sees a connection between the two developments: “Frankly, the method in which the programs are morphing is a case study in and of itself regarding disruptive digital technology.”

Mori sees a global trend among EMBA programs in providing online content that allows participants to review materials outside of class, which can allow for more experiential learning opportunities in the class­room. Ondrus says that similar processes are in place at ESSEC, which allows “faculty and students to engage more during in-class sessions.” This also makes it possible for working students to achieve that highly sought work–life balance.

Swinton says Temple’s program illustrates an even more well-established trend: globalization. “Temple uses its global network to provide study opportunities across the globe. Tokyo-based executive MBA students can take classes in Beijing, China; Bogotá, Colombia; Casablanca, Morocco; Lima, Peru; or at our US campus in Philadelphia.”

Armed with their degrees and a better understanding of the trends that shape the modern business landscape, new graduates from EMBA programs should be well prepared to adapt to disruption and thrive in changing times.

Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

© The ACCJ Journal

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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