MBAs need this skill set to succeed, Columbia Business School dean says

BY Sydney LakeJune 08, 2022, 8:20 PM
Students on pathway in front of Earl Hall, Columbia University, as seen in September 2020. (Photo by: Photographer name—Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

We can’t all be business analysts—but we should all know how to work with data. That’s the message that Columbia Business School tells current and prospective students—as well as alumni—about its focus on business analytics as part of its full-time MBA program, which Fortune ranks as No. 6 in the country. 

More and more MBA grads are taking on roles that require skill sets beyond the traditional business degree—jobs that Dan Wang, a Columbia Business School professor, calls “synthetic and cross-functional.” These include the increasingly popular product management, analytics marketing, and strategy roles that require MBA grads to work with business analysts and engineers. 

“Getting our students used to understanding those kind of dynamics and the kind of business models that really defy conventional MBA training—that’s deeply important,” Wang tells Fortune. And while MBA grads don’t have to become complete masters in coding and data engineering, it’s now not uncommon for students to be asked coding questions during interviews, adds Daniel Guetta, another CBS professor.

“As businesses evolve, I’ve seen MBA grads evolve, as well,” says David Nenke, president of Digital Student Solutions and former general manager of Amazon Explore. “The expectation isn’t that you can code. It’s much more around being comfortable with the data and then being able to wrap it up and communicate it more broadly across the organization.”

To get ahead of the demand curve for these new skill sets, Columbia Business School about a decade ago set out to integrate business analytics into its core curriculum. Now, CBS students have the chance to take more advanced classes in the subject area, including Analytics in Action, in which MBA students are paired up with engineering students to complete outside consulting projects for local companies. Daniel Ames, another CBS professor, also teaches Immersive Teamwork, in which students are tasked with role-playing as analysts and engineers to teach MBAs better team function.

These courses aren’t “just for students who want to go into tech,” Omar Besbes, a CBS professor, tells Fortune. “It’s for every student who’s going to have a successful business career.”

Fortune sat down with Costis Maglaras, dean of the business school, to learn more about why business analytics has become a pillar of the school’s MBA program. 

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Integrating business analytics into an MBA program

Why was it important for CBS to add business analytics to the core curriculum?

Curriculum evolves over time organically. For us, business analytics was a very deliberate change that was huge. We started introducing things about algorithmic decision making and machine learning and ideas from that essentially 10 years ago. 

About seven years ago, we became a lot more deliberate to roll out more courses in that era. That’s when we introduced these Python classes; this is when we introduced the sequel to business analytics—Analytics in Action. This is a project course where we bring in engineering students together with MBA students. It’s when we grew the tech strategy course. 

Some of these courses grew out of that period, and then they’ve been scaling up—trying to keep up with student interest. We have 500 students taking Python right now. That’s 500 out of 800—that’s a lot. Now why is that important? Well, it’s not important to become a programmer for an MBA graduate. I mean that’s not what our students are going to do. Maybe they’ll code a little bit; maybe they’ll be a little bit more savvy with data. But all of them will have to collaborate probably with people that write code. 

What do MBA students gain from business analytics courses?

They’ll collaborate with data scientists. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going to a tech firm. When you go to a consulting firm and you do a project right now in consulting—at BCG, Bain, your favorite strategy consulting firms whatever they may be—in most cases the team will have some business folks (MBA types, let’s call them); they’ll have data scientists; they’ll have designers; they’ll have user experience experts. Teams like that will be 40-50-60% of the projects that take place in these firms. 

If you go to banks, same thing. If you to tech, obviously, same thing. If you go to retailing—most retail is online right now—same thing. So overwhelmingly, our students when they graduate, they will have to be technology-literate. They will need to collaborate, co-work, manage, and lead cross-functional teams I believe pretty much irrespective of career path. Understanding a little bit about the people you’re working with and the tools and how they can be useful is crucially important. 

The other thing that you learn in this class, or in classes like that, is algorithmic thinking. At some level, we work in a software-based, data-driven, algorithmic economy today. Understanding how these components interact with each other and how sequential decision making and how it actually changes your product design, changes pricing, changes customer satisfaction, changes the way people interact with you. I think that’s just crucial. It’s a valuable skill. 

Students eventually really embrace these courses. Some are about learning the tools; some of them are about learning how the tools are transforming different functions or different areas: asset management, accounting, digital marketing, or visual product management. They’re best prepared for whatever comes next. 

How an MBA compares with a master’s degree in business analytics

Why do an MBA versus a master’s in business analytics?

You’re asking the right person because I designed the MS in business analytics that we do jointly with the School of Engineering. A little more than a half-a-dozen years ago, I was the person who designed that collaborative degree. 

I think these are different to be honest. The MSBA, or degrees of that form, I would say best prepare students to be data scientists, to be analysts. Oftentimes, these same individuals follow the career paths that are not in that space, but more in the strategy and management space. 

But the MBA degree really prepares you for incredible careers in managing and leading teams. The world of business right now and in the future is digital, so we need to prepare our students and also help our alums to thrive in that digital future of business. That involves actually learning about analytics, how analytics can be brought to bear, understanding how software becomes like an operating system for companies right now. 

There are synergies as well. There are courses that bring these two populations together. In Analytics in Action, which is a project course that my colleague Daniel Guetta co-runs, we put teams of students where there are MBA students paired up with MSBA students. These teams go and work on company projects. That I think is totally synergistic. In fact, our ability to have this smaller program on the side, which is also super successful, is interesting because we have this opportunity to bring these two populations together in a very organic way. 

Columbia’s focus on reskilling alumni

Alumni can also access these courses?

The skill set that people need to succeed in business right now in their careers is rapidly evolving because of technology. If you had come through this school in the ’90s or in the 2000s and you wanted to become a marketing professional, you’d be tooled up in a very different way than had you graduated a week from today. 

As a result, there’s an opportunity for us to provide what I would call lifelong learning to all of our alums. And we made that a strategic priority. In fact, we launched our lifelong learning platform, Alumni Edge, one week before we went on lockdown in 2020. That was one of the first things I did when I became dean. The idea there is we’re in the business of best preparing our students for incredible careers, to thrive in the business present and the business future. And therefore, we’re best positioned to take a lot of these courses and offer them also to our alumni. 

I think we can all benefit from retooling or reskilling. Why not do it, given we have the content available and the curriculum? That’s something we’ll continue. I think it’s the right thing to do. Technology over the last decade or two has really been transforming business, and that trend is going to continue for quite some time. We’re going to try to be on the forefront of that.

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in psychology programs, public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.