17 Dec 2018 19:22 IST

Reimagining the MBA for a parallel workforce

Breakthrough options can equip learners with the skills to deal with rapidly changing workplaces

Soumya Tiwari belongs to the growing tribe of knowledge workers in India’s gig economy. A graduate from the prestigious Industrial Design Centre at IIT Bombay, she designs products based on augmented reality for technology start-ups. From her experience as an independent design consultant, she believes every design school should consider introducing a basic business skills module.

“Designers, who are a fairly active lot in the gig economy, often come up with ideas that have the potential to turn into products. But as a community, we need to build the capabilities to successfully market these, as well as the entrepreneurial skills that can take what we do to the next level,” she explains.

We are entering a future where, to stand out, workers will need a different set of skills from what they learnt in college. In PwC’s 2017 Workforce of the Future Survey, 47 per cent of respondents said they believed we will be free agents in the future, with our own personal brands, selling our skills to those who need them.

The proliferation of tech-connected labour platforms and marketplaces is transforming the way skilled workers across the world find work and connect to clients. With just a click, today’s knowledge workers can match specialised services to specific needs a continent away, and collaborate in real time. Technology is enabling them to work remotely, on demand and with complete agility in a labour market without borders.

Virtual classrooms

But even as technology upends the way we work, it is dramatically reshaping the way we learn. The campus MBA has typically attracted aspiring leaders looking to advance their careers within an organisation or industry. Knowledge workers in the gig economy, however, are looking to advance their own brand in a global marketplace. Skilled contingent workers across the world, like Soumya, have vastly different goals from their counterparts with full-time jobs. But what most learners in this on-demand economy have in common is that they continue to earn even as they learn in a virtual classroom.

When Macquarie University partnered with Coursera to reimagine the next generation digital Global MBA, we went to the cutting edge of what learning would entail for this future workforce. Based on what they look for in an MBA programme, I’d like to share insights on how new approaches, supported by technology, are changing the learning paradigm.

Shapeshifting with 21st century skills

An MBA for tomorrow’s workforce must prepare workers to navigate a constantly changing terrain. We all know family or friends who have gone through difficult transitions caused by technology disruptions at the workplace. As automation displaces workers, many mid-career professionals land on their feet in the gig economy. The challenge they face there is building a value proposition to market their strengths, growing a network and maintaining a pipeline of opportunities.

Besides their core work skills, I believe every one of these workers has to add 21st century skills — resilience, adaptability and the capability to shift course and grow into other areas as professionals. The next-generation MBA has to be mapped to future-focused capabilities like strategic thinking, leading, analysing, adaptability, influencing and integration. Independent workers must find the sweet spot in the T intersection — vertically they may be designers or engineers, which is their core training. The horizontal intersection which determines their success, is how they are able to influence clients, manage stakeholders, think laterally and create value.

We have seen particular interest among independent workers in acquiring these skills as they look to constantly upskill and reinvent themselves. According to the Freelancing in America: 2017 study, freelancers update their skills more often — 65 per cent of full-time freelancers update their skills as jobs evolve, versus only 45 per cent of full-time employees.

Anywhere, anytime learning for round-the-clock workers

Independent workers juggle clients and field demands with dexterity and a host of diverse skills every single day. Continuous learning is a way of life for them, to stay agile. However, given the unpredictable nature of their work, workers in the on-demand economy look to learn in a format that fits easily into their lives and schedules. They want the flexibility to learn in shorter bursts and in between projects. Millennials, who are strong contributors to the gig economy globally, want mobile experiences so they can learn on the go. Collectively, they all want the networking and collaboration synonymous with a traditional MBA programme.

A digital MBA programme addresses the unique needs of the gig worker by offering the convenience of learning remotely, while still creating an environment that is high-touch and fosters learning as a group. The next-generation MBA is truly inclusive, with students from every corner of the world and every background coming together in a transformative virtual environment.

Video communication tools bring learners from their homes in Dubai, Malaysia or Australia into live classroom sessions, where they can then choose to break out into smaller groups, all the while interacting in real time. Given the deep levels of engagement, students find that a virtual classroom is not just high-tech, but also delivers high-touch learning. Tools like Slack and Yammer seamlessly allow learners and instructors to communicate individually and as teams. Breaking down barriers of geography, the digital MBA gives independent workers the chance to build meaningful connections and scale their network globally.

Fill skill gaps, stack to succeed

Gig workers value stackable credentials for the flexibility to fill in specific skills gaps, without committing to the entire programme. It gives them different entry pathways and the opportunity to learn as much or as little as they want. They can brush up their skills on how to manage client relations with a single course, choose to complete an entire specialisation or, if it is their goal, go on to enrol for an MBA degree.

A performance track that measures learners on individual credentials and is part of the admission criteria to the degree programme, levels the playing field. It gives non-traditional learners who may not have an undergraduate degree, but come with years of experience, an entry into the course.

Technology today does not just enable tremendous reach, scale and connectivity, it also democratises learning. The online medium is bringing world-class education within the reach of millions of learners who most benefit from it, without compromising on quality. It allows for adaptive, personalised learning experiences that are accessible and affordable to a wide audience.

It is now incumbent on universities to not just repackage programmes, but fundamentally rethink ways to deliver breakthrough learning options for entirely new audiences, serving new needs. Looking beyond traditional formats, they have the opportunity to equip learners with the skills that matter, in a workplace that changes everyday.

(The writer is Associate Professor and Academic Programme Director, Faculty of Business and Economics, Macquarie University. She is the academic lead for curriculum development and the delivery of digital experiences for the Global MBA, which recently launched in partnership with Coursera.)