Online MBAs Refreshed for Digital Age

Online MBA programs now have a strong digital component, in response to soaring demand from participants and employers for skills that fit the digital era

As data surges through business like a tsunami, business schools are adding new modules that are perfectly in tune with the relentless digitization of work. Online MBA programs now have a strong digital component, in response to soaring demand from participants and employers for skills that fit the digital era.

“The demand for digital skills is increasing as a direct result of the massive shift to online business operations that we have seen over the past few years. There is a need for businesses to become more digitally innovative to remain employers realize this, they are searching for candidates who can really showcase their ability to use technology effectively to drive business outcomes,” says Erin Sigmund, associate director of part-time MBA programs at Tepper School of Business in the US.

Tepper is part of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, which is renowned for its STEM curriculum. Unsurprisingly, Sigmund says that in order for students to be considered as top candidates for jobs in companies, it is critical that they show how they can contribute to digital business operations. And that requires digital skills.

Online MBA programs are continually evolving to keep up with market demand, and as the demand for digital skills increases, she says program administrators are focused on finding innovative ways to include digital skills as part of the entire student experience. “Digital skill-building is offered not just in the virtual classroom, but also through leadership development training, career training, and professional development opportunities,” Sigmund says.

For example, Tepper’s Online MBA builds digital skills in a variety of ways. Those include direct coursework in subjects such as digital marketing and data visualization. “But this is not enough — digital skills are infused throughout the curriculum in areas like finance, operations, and marketing,” says Sigmund. “It’s not just about adding more tech courses, it's about adding skills in all content areas, like product standardization, network effects, and platform competition in a marketing class.”

Covid accelerates digital shift

Covid-19 accelerated what was already underway — a shift to a “digital-first” world, says Neta Moye, assistant dean and executive director of career services for the Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland, in the US. “Organizations adopt digital strategies and operations to fuel growth and profit. To get there, they need employees with digital skills. Students see that digital skills will set you apart today; and they know that soon, they will be table stakes just to get in the door,” she explains.

While it may be tempting to think this only applies to technology companies who build and sell digital solutions, Moyes says that  surveys suggest more and more organizations will see a substantial percentage of their growth coming from digital products and services or improvements in operations fueled by digital tools and technologies.

In response, the Smith Online MBA program offers a wide variety of course offerings that are foundational to building digital skills, such as social media and web analytics, and customer equity management. “MBA programs continually strive to update their course offerings to meet the skills required for success in today’s marketplace,” says the assistant dean of MBA programs, Rosellina Ferraro.

Delving into big data

Many of the new courses in Online MBA programs are focused on big data — helping participants find meaning in the increasing volumes of data that businesses are generating. “Access to ever-more data drives demand for employees to understand how to use the tools, such as Python, to maintain and analyze the available data to drive decision making. Students understand that they need these competencies to compete in the job market and on the job,” says Barbara Ostdiek, senior associate dean of degree programs, Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

The Online MBA at Rice Business prepares students to understand, solve problems and deliver results using the digital literacy learned in strategy, marketing and communication courses. The US school is also building courses to specifically tackle the demand for digital skills.

For example, a course on digital transformation dives deep into how firms are struggling to reinvent the way they interact with customers, employees, and other stakeholders in the wake of local and global challenges such as the pandemic, climate change, migration and political turbulence.

Moreover, Ostdiek is clear that Online MBA programs are a natural medium to provide students with these skills, given the use of technology to deliver the classes remotely. “Every day, in all aspects of the program, Online MBA students are enhancing the skills needed to conduct business in remote environments,” she says.

That is not to say that traditional skills in business and management are somehow less important, however. “It’s not a matter of comparing digital skills to traditional competencies anymore. Business education needs to weave digital skills throughout the curriculum, leveraging and adapting traditional skills across all business functions,” she adds.

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