Nearly half of respondents to a recent survey anticipated they would need training in AI over the next five years © Getty Images

A surge of interest from executives in the commercial implications of generative artificial intelligence is pushing business schools to offer a raft of new courses teaching digital understanding and skills. 

A survey of about 10,000 learners across 40 countries, published by education consultants CarringtonCrisp this month, found nearly half of respondents anticipate learning about AI in the next five years. Other digital subjects were also in vogue: cyber security (cited by 33 per cent), digital marketing (31 per cent), ecommerce (29 per cent) and data analytics (26 per cent), alongside more traditional business skills.

The launch of tools such as Microsoft-backed OpenAI’s ChatGPT, launched in November 2022, has spurred organisations across private and public sectors to experiment with generative AI. As a result, business schools report a strong appetite for short-course executive education programmes focused on the technology, whether open-enrolment or those customised for companies. 

Annette Saller, director of programme and project management at German medical equipment maker Hartmann Group, came to recognise her need for a holistic view of generative AI — beyond the hype. 

“AI is about so much more than generating text and pictures,” says Saller, adding that her employer is deploying the technology both in product innovation and operational improvement.

Annette Saller of Hartmann Group

Enrolling on Insead’s Transforming Your Business with AI programme last year — priced at €1,850 and delivered online over five weeks — gave Saller deeper insights into how to harness AI in business, while dispelling misconceptions. “People often think AI is a magic wand,” she suggests. “Coming out of this programme, you demystify it.”

While some effects are clear — such as the potential to automate tasks, generate insights and boost efficiency — AI requires careful understanding, implementation and management to realise its full potential.

Anat Lechner, clinical professor of management and organisations at NYU Stern School of Business, thinks training in this is essential. She says: “We have to teach people how to run businesses with AI, otherwise they will not exist.” 

Prof Lechner teaches on Leading in the Age of AI, a two-day programme delivered in New York and priced at $3,344. She observes a thirst for knowledge among executives. Demand for the course, launched in April, far outstrips supply. “We just couldn’t fit enough people in the room,” she says. 

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Read the rankings of open-enrolment and custom programmes

Business schools are revamping their course portfolios to meet this clamour. They now offer knowledge and skills relating to such subjects as cyber security and digital transformation — reflecting how technology has become a C-suite concern. 

“It’s no longer true that IT is a support function; technology plays a fundamental role in defining strategy,” observes Javier Zamora, academic director of the Digital Transformation: Senior Management Programme at Spain’s Iese Business School. This €14,500 course is delivered both online and in Barcelona and Madrid.

However, Julian Birkinshaw, outgoing vice-dean at London Business School, acknowledges that there is a cyclical nature to demand for education in new technologies. “We see this every time — something becomes hot and people need to get up to speed on it,” he says. “It was blockchain a few years ago; right now, it’s all about generative AI.”

At LBS, courses are being adapted and new offerings developed, such as the Next Generation Digital Strategy programme, launched in April. Birkinshaw says the challenge for training providers is distinguishing between hype and reality when developing programmes. 

“A few years ago, we were talking about Web3, but it never really came to anything,” he points out — referring to the vague term for a decentralised version of the internet. “We’re very conscious that things are always overly hyped up.” 

A second problem for business schools is the dizzying speed of technological development, which is shortening the shelf life of content. “Given how fast things change, it’s impossible for executives to keep up with what it means for them” says Theos Evgeniou, a professor of decision sciences and technology management at Insead. “They cannot just wait for the next programme a year from now.”

That is why Insead has developed a new “filler” course, AI Executive Forum, running over three half-days in June. Costing €2,990, it focuses on making sense of the latest AI advances and their business implications. But Evgeniou warns executives against losing sight of the technology’s fundamental aspects, such as IT infrastructure and data management. 

Becoming too focused on the noise surrounding AI can distract from understanding the broader context and implications, he suggests. “AI is so hyped that, sometimes, you miss the forest for the trees.” 

Even so, a final challenge for training providers is finding enough experts in the latest technologies — including AI — to teach their courses.

Hence MIT Sloan School of Management looks beyond its own faculty. It taps professors at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to deliver its Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Business Strategy programme. This course runs over six weeks online, costing $3,500. 

“We’re doing our best to keep pace with demand on the supply-side, but the expertise is in short supply,” says Peter Hirst, senior associate dean for Sloan executive education.

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