Smart leaders understand that the age of big data not only represents a technological revolution, but also a massive change in the way business leaders manage companies.
As more businesses seek insights from data to gain an advantage, leaders who fail to understand the power of data will likely be replaced by others who do.
That’s why the Columbia Business School faculty teaches a comprehensive curriculum designed for business in the digital age.
It covers tech fundamentals, analytics and artificial intelligence in business, technology strategy, and functional and industry applications, including digital marketing, fintech, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, digital investing, and a suite of digital product management courses.
Capstone courses bring MBA, engineering, and design students together in project teams, and a new, innovative course explores teams, management, and leadership in cross-functional settings.
The five courses highlighted here are a small sample of the Columbia Business School coursework that is evolving along with technology and attracting thousands of MBA students and business leaders in executive education.
Python for MBAs: Improving business decision-making
In recent decades, employers sought MBA graduates with analytical expertise in Excel, but today, Python can hold equally useful, complementary advantages, says Daniel Guetta, associate professor of professional practice and director of the Business Analytics Initiative.
“Python can deal with massive data sets that didn’t exist 20 years ago. It’s really on the cutting edge of business analytics,” says Guetta, who co-organizes Python for MBAs with Mattan Griffel, adjunct assistant professor of business and a two-time Y Combinator-backed entrepreneur and cofounder of Ophelia.
“The same way that being an Excel whiz was a superpower, now knowing Python gives you superpowers,” Griffel says. “You will be more effective at your job and in greater demand.”
Python for MBAs is not a coding course but rather an opportunity for business students to understand a common tool that informs the business decisions they will need to make or contribute to as part of a team, he says.
As an example, Guetta shares a case study of a New York restaurant chain that is using data to drive more of its decisions. The company’s data set has 2 million rows, one row for every order placed at its restaurants within a particular year, and includes what customers ordered, times of the day they ordered, and more. The analysis answers a series of questions: What time of day is most popular? What time of year is most popular? Are any of the restaurants in trouble? Should the company close a particular restaurant? Should it open a new one? Python minimizes the time to perform such a layered and complex inquiry, where Excel might require 10 times the commands to complete the same work.
Python for MBAs offers students a competitive edge and can help shape careers, Griffel says. It’s beneficial to MBA students coming through Columbia Business School and seeking jobs in product management, marketing, and operations roles that are more technical in nature, he says.
One of his students, Ernst van Bruggen ’18, began using Python for many of the projects he worked on at McKinsey Amsterdam. Today, he's the chief technology officer of Source.ag, an ag-tech company he cofounded in 2020 with Rien Kamman ’17.
Another student, Amrinder Chawla ’18, interned at Amazon, where he used Python to analyze data while working on the company’s Prime Video team. He was able to provide the team with a set of concrete recommendations that earned him a job offer, soon followed by a promotion. Today, he leads multiple technical projects for Amazon as principal product manager.
Guetta and Griffel are reaching a wider audience of individuals seeking to understand and use Python for their business projects. Last year, they published the book Python for MBAs, which details the advantages of using the programming tool in business. The course also has been offered to Columbia Business School alumni.
“We've got hundreds of alumni going back to school to learn this because it didn't exist when they went through business school and they realize how important and how relevant it is,” says Griffel.
Leading in a Data-Driven World: Being fearless and fierce with data
Data underlies most business decisions today, and no leader can operate a successful 21st century business without the insights that data can provide, says Oded Netzer, the Arthur J. Samberg Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.
Netzer and adjunct professors of business Chris Frank, vice president at American Express, and Paul Magnone, head of global strategic alliances at Google, are bridging theory and practice in their course, Leading in a Data-Driven World. The three instructors aim to demystify the notion that using data to solve business problems requires leaders to be number crunchers.
“You don’t need to have been top of class in math or an Excel whiz in order to be able to use data to make decisions,” says Netzer.
Quantitative Intuition (QI), a trademarked set of tools for making smarter business decisions, is the core of the course. QI has three pillars: ask precise questions, look at data in the context of your company, and synthesize your insights to drive action. The course operates on the assumption that the data is in hand and leaders need to decide how to use it to help them make a business decision, not necessarily viewing it through the lens of statistical analysis.
The QI techniques can help direct leaders to purposeful and actionable ways of using data. Precise questioning of data encourages dialogue within a group and can be as simple as asking the data analyst, “What surprised you about the data?” Other questions can focus on what Netzer, Frank, and Magnone call IWIKs, or “I wish I knew” statements.
Leaders need to look at the data from the perspective of their own business acumen and company knowledge. The instructors emphasize becoming fierce interrogators of data, bringing key questions to the discussion such as: “How do these numbers compare to historical data, or to our competitor’s numbers?”
Finally, leaders must synthesize the information and avoid a summary of facts. To best synthesize data, they need to apply their own judgment to advance discussion toward a decision.
Netzer says that although QI is described as a rapid-response tool, that doesn’t mean decisions need to be implemented quickly. “Because we live in a data-rich environment, sometimes a decision is prolonged, and not for the right reason — because there is always an opportunity to see more data,” he explains.
Netzer says the instructors want to dismiss the “certainty myth,” which implies if you keep looking at more data, you’ll be able to reach the nirvana of making certain decisions. “We will never get there,” he says. “There will always be uncertainty in making business decisions.” QI releases leaders from the restraints of expecting perfect data. Asking, “‘When do we think this is good enough for us to go and act on it?’ That’s what speeds up the process,” Netzer says.
The professors all use the QI tools in their business roles, including Netzer, an Amazon Scholar who splits his time between the company and Columbia Business School. Frank and Magnone have variously worked at American Express, Google, Microsoft, IBM and Deloitte, among other companies. Their common observation both on the front lines of business and teaching was that people often fear working with data, which led them to help launch the course.
Research reported in a May 2011 article published by McKinsey & Co. pointed to another reason they want to teach leaders how to use their data: The article noted, “By 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.”
Netzer points out that the push for more STEM education may address the first gap, but a lack of managers with the skills to use big data may require more courses like Leading in a Data-Driven World and others now taught at Columbia Business School and elsewhere.
Students say the class gave them tools that they found intuitive but have never used before. They also tell Netzer that their work with data has become much more purposeful, efficient, and actionable.
Immersive Teamwork: Balancing the three Cs in teams
Most teams want to save time and capitalize on their efforts, but teamwork can be a mixed bag of challenges. It also can bring hard-won success to groups that check their attitudes at the door, build trust, talk through disagreements, and effectively harness digital tools for communication and feedback.
“The core challenges of setting a compass and creating good habits of communication and talking through different points of view have been going on for many millennia, back to hunting and gathering,” says Daniel Ames, the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. “Launching a startup and taking down a mastodon look pretty different on the surface, but underneath, they share a lot of those same fundamental challenges of coordinating a group of people.” In some ways, says Ames, teamwork is very old, but what’s new is how it’s taught.
MBA students can now learn how to function in teams through Immersive Teamwork, a course Ames developed working with game designers and immersive theater specialists. Students get to experience team dynamics and learn to integrate multiple perspectives while facing other challenges teams must work through.
“They feel the same kinds of psychological dynamics people find in the workplace,” says Ames. Time, resources, and information are scarce during the course’s simulations. “In some activities, students find themselves deep in their own functional silos. And like in the workplace, team members must coordinate with each other without fully understanding everything about their colleagues' roles,” he says.
“This generation of MBAs is not going to be leading and managing in the age of the experimental future of work. It’s going to be leading and managing at hyperspeed and hyperscale.” Jeffrey L. Schwartz, adjunct assistant professor of business at Columbia Business School.
Most companies today practice collaboration, and business leaders are big proponents of forming diverse working groups to tackle ambitious projects. Cross-functional teams typically offer that diversity, with members from IT or data analytics, business operations, marketing, and other departments. No matter which business discipline MBAs go into, they will inevitably work on teams.
Effective teamwork rests on a set of core factors, which Ames describes with three-Cs: Communication habits, the ability to have healthy Conflict, and a team Climate of trust and psychological safety. When team members hail from different functions, like analytics and design, getting these factors right is both more challenging and more important.
Technology is changing the landscape of teamwork. In part, this means new tools, such as Slack and Zoom, for teaming up. “It's easier to get a piece of information to a team member or to pose a question or meet remotely than it was even a few years ago,” he says.
Technology enhances the Immersive Teamwork class experience: a two-and-a-half-day course that shuffles 36 students into six teams of six and puts them through a series of executional and creative challenges. Students provide peer feedback and self-reflections via web surveys multiple times per day. “We scrape all of that together, collate it, and push it back out as the course goes along. Everyone has their own dashboard that captures their reflections and feedback from peers,” Ames explains.
“We're harnessing technology for people to be reflective on this experience as they're going through it,” he says. “No other business school offers a class like this. We start on day one with a multi-team, multi-hour-long, intense simulation. And then on day two, students are formed into creative teams, modifying that simulation in a design challenge. Finally, on day three, they bring their creations to life in a showcase with classmates.”
Ames notes, however, that technology can be tricky. “These tools can provide an illusion of teamwork because we're in constant, instant contact,” he says. But technologies can interfere with teamwork. “If a design team of six people are supposed to be brainstorming and two of them are on their mobile devices, there’s a big, missed opportunity,” he says. The two distracted team members, who are not contributing, also send a signal to the other four that the activity may not be worthwhile.
“Technology yields some great tools for teamwork, but it also carries some challenges and risks for building and maintaining a high-functioning team,” says Ames.
Warby Parker’s CFO Steve Miller speaks with students in Columbia Business School’s New Frontiers in Retail class.
New Frontiers in Retail: Thriving at the center of retail innovation
Removing challenges for consumers and offering them technological tools that drive exciting shopping experiences are at the heart of Columbia Business School’s course titled New Frontiers in Retail: Magic and Logic.
This spring, the class paired two retail heavyweights, Kinshuk Jerath, professor of business in the marketing division, and Oliver Chen, adjunct professor of business, and managing director and senior equity research analyst at the investment bank Cowen. Prof. Jerath’s unparalleled academic knowledge and research combined with Prof. Chen’s Wall Street background created a unique learning environment where students were able to immerse themselves fully in the study of the future of retail.
Consumers looking to buy a new pair of eyeglasses or a perfect pair of pants and shoes to go with a favorite sweater now often find their online shopping experiences are enriched by virtual try-ons, personalized wardrobe suggestions, and rental as well as resale options. With your smartphone, you can place a pair of Warby Parker glasses on your face through augmented reality, or you can view six ensembles that match that bright, cashmere cardigan.
These shopping journeys are part of the ever-evolving world of experiential retail. Big advances in technologies such as AR and virtual reality and customer data platforms have had a significant impact on emerging and growing marketplaces. “This course is not about what has happened in the past,” says Jerath, “but about what’s going to happen next.”
Chen adds, “Mobile phones have become the new mall in many ways and a gateway to e-commerce. The integration of physical and digital, bricks and clicks, has been really impactful and meaningful as we think about new modalities and receiving goods.”
“How do you merge the virtual and the physical? How do you leverage your physical assets to drive excitement and engagement?” asks Chen, who, along with Jerath, focuses on those questions throughout the course.
“Change and disruption are opportunities,” says Chen. “This course prepares you for the future and really helps you think agilely.” Because change is constant and rapid, MBAs in the new world of retail marketing need to embrace it and have a new toolkit to respond with speed.
The two instructors provide frameworks that help students put into context what it means to create a better customer experience. One of those frameworks is magic and logic. The magic is the creative side of merchandising and anticipating what customers want to experience when they engage with products. Planning and implementing technology such as AI are the logic behind “surprise and delight” for consumers, says Chen. Another critical framework is called the three-Cs: a more “connected” retail experience, which understands “context,” and engages a “community” of customers.
Jerath notes two site visits focus on magic and logic and help students visualize the concepts in practice. They visit Saks Fifth Avenue and the New Jersey distribution center for Rent the Runway, a web platform that offers users options to rent, subscribe to, or buy designer clothing and accessories.
“Students see how the store runs, how it’s planned, and how Saks brings light to the customer,” says Jerath. In contrast, the major logistical issues that Rent the Runway must solve daily offer a look at the logic side. “Both sides are very important to running a tight retail operation,” he adds.
New Frontiers in Retail is highly focused on consumer analysis and learning to use data and customer interactions to maximize customer acquisition and retention, says Chen. “The course introduces students to a whole variety of new models and CEOs. We've had C-suite executives from Macy's, Walmart, Revolve, Warby Parker, Rent the Runway, The RealReal, and new companies and traditional companies, and much change is happening as all companies rethink data.”
Jerath says he and Chen want their students to be ready to create the future during customers’ retail journeys. “And we want to inform and educate them to think about all the important trends that are happening in retail right now, which will influence the industry for the next decade.”
“Columbia's at a unique place in terms of [being] geographically at the center of so much retail innovation,” he says. “And the Columbia curriculum really supports the development of many facets of what we're seeing in this broad industry as well.”
The Future of Work: Frameworks for leading through change
Technological innovations rush into the world as attitudes shift and society responds and adapts to uncontrollable events. With these events, a new, dynamic era of the future of work has transpired, marking rapid changes in business tools, talent markets, career models, and modes of work.
“What’s happened in the first couple of years in this decade is that we have fast-forwarded on all of these,” says Jeffrey L. Schwartz, adjunct assistant professor of business at Columbia Business School. Schwartz also co-teaches Future of Work: Strategy & Leadership with Stephan Meier, the James P. Gorman Professor of Business and chair of the management division at Columbia Business School. “The pandemic created the environment in which we had to fast-forward,” he says.
As technical innovations continue to fuel this accelerated pace, the evolution of the workforce, workplaces, and careers also will progress. “This generation of MBAs is not going to be leading and managing in the age of the experimental future of work. It’s going to be leading and managing at hyperspeed and hyperscale,” says Schwartz.
He says a decade of experimentation with technologies—human-machine collaborations, robotics, and artificial intelligence, as well as talent ecosystems, the internal talent marketplace, and remote and hybrid work—has set dynamic changes in motion that require leaders to develop and implement the most relevant models for businesses.
“Companies in every industry, large and small, around the world are moving from experimenting with these dimensions of the future of work, workforces, and workplaces to thinking about them in a more strategic, leadership, and holistic framework,” Schwartz says.
The Future of Work: Strategy and Leadership course is anchored to that framework, with Schwartz and Meier leading MBA and executive education students through their exploration. “Can we provide some frameworks that combine strategy and leadership with the elements of the future of work, so that when people are out there solving business problems, they can make the connection between strategy and management and work, workforce, and workplace?” says Schwartz, who also is the author of Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work and founding partner of Deloitte’s Future of Work practice.
Meier, an expert on business strategy, says, “A big part of our class is not just what is technically possible; it’s how you actually implement it.” He notes that the use of case studies in the course lays out the steps companies take to change strategies. For example, Unilever, a global consumer goods company, decided to sell more brands with purpose, incorporating environmentally friendly and social good values that drive sales of direct-to-consumer brands.
“Unilever took this issue that the world is changing and turned it around into potentially one of the more holistic approaches to the future of work,” says Meier. Focused on a strategy of aligning its operations with purpose, Unilever addressed the challenges of needing different types of talent and skills on a rapidly changing basis and an aging workforce that wasn’t yet at retirement age. “You can't have purpose and then lay off 30 percent of your workforce. That's not really purpose,” Meier says. The company invested in internal talent marketplace technology to offer workers options to upskill, reskill, and take advantage of different opportunities within the company, which gave Unilever agility to utilize all its workers and place them where the company needed them most.
Schwartz says his book emphasizes that 21st century business requires “21st century mental models and maps for work, workforces, and workplaces. It’s not good enough to use 20th century maps in order to educate, manage, and lead 21st century organizations.”