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A Vision of Leadership for a Digitally Driven World: UCI Merage’s Vijay Gurbaxani

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Our lives are becoming more and more digitally mediated. We see it in quotidian routines like using Lyft to commute and in technological sea changes like self-driving cars and other artificial intelligence breakthroughs. How do we adapt ourselves and the businesses we create to keep pace with such rapid change? Vijay Gurbaxani, UCI Paul Merage School of Business professor and director of its Center for Digital Transformation (CDT), is on a mission to answer these questions. He’s spearheading a number of curricular and cultural changes at the Merage School designed to shape the next generation of business leaders into digitally-savvy pioneers and innovators.

The Merage School, located in the heart of Orange County’s “Tech Coast,“ is surrounded by a network of cutting-edge businesses which include an emerging ecosystem of tech firms such as Amazon, Google, and Western Digital and digitally savvy firms including Capital Group, Disney, Experian, Hyundai, Pacific Life, and Taco Bell. It is in this environment that the Merage School is reframing its curriculum to give students a high-caliber, holistic preparation to be effective leaders in a world of disruptive technology. “Most importantly,” says Gurbaxani, “we want our students to succeed. To do that, we must prepare them for the digitally driven world they will encounter. That is our primary focus here.”

Gurbaxani and his colleague Margarethe Wiersema, who holds the Dean’s Professorship in Strategic Management, have been working closely with the Merage School faculty to redesign the MBA curriculum through the lens of emerging digital technologies and their impact on industry and how business gets done. The goal of the new curriculum, set to roll out in Fall 2017, is not only to teach students the scope of these technologies, but also the potential power they have for business. Across the board, core courses will examine how technology is disrupting diverse industries, from manufacturing to finance to retail. “We need to start asking ourselves new questions to adapt as business leaders,” says Gurbaxani. “How do you invest in these emerging technologies? How do you manage the transformation of your company from an old way of doing business to a new one? How do you navigate the cultural shift that goes along with this transformation?”

As part of the curricular initiative, leading industry executives are meeting with faculty about the competencies they look for in new MBA hires and how they see their respective industries changing with technology. Core classes will aim to pin down what businesses need in the contemporary world, focusing on actionable ideas and building a new set of competencies suited to the digital age. Experience-based decision-making skills will be integrated with data-driven decision making at the forefront. Experiential learning components will continue to provide real world education, allowing teams of students to immerse themselves in valuable projects with real organizations.

To illustrate this new curricular perspective, Gurbaxani talked about his own course, “Edge,” an MBA elective course. Unlike many traditional business courses, “Edge doesn’t focus on issues within a manager’s control. Instead, it examines all of the ways in which the world is changing around us, posing the question of how to best adapt or reinvent a business for this new digitally driven environment. Participants study issues like globalization, changing consumer preferences, disruptive technologies and sustainability concerns. With a new understanding of forces outside of their control as leaders, students gain a fresh perspective on traditional business competencies like critical thinking, leadership, finance, and marketing.

Though this curricular shift toward forming leaders for a digitally driven world is new, the building blocks of a tech-business power hub were already in place at the university. Gurbaxani launched the Merage School’s Center for Digital Transformation in 2012, with a mission “to become a vital center of influence, advancing the competitiveness and productivity of business in the digital economy.” The Center does so through a landmark annual conference, “Road to Reinvention,” which brings together CEOs and thought leaders to discuss critical issues senior executives must consider as they guide the reinvention of their companies in the age of emerging technology. At the 2017 conference, CXOs of innovative businesses like Target, Lyft, Ticketmaster, Edmunds, and Warner Bros. spoke on themes of leadership, transformative technology, and reinventing business models. Another resource on campus is UCI Applied Innovation, an institute that fosters entrepreneurship and helps students and faculty to commercialize their ideas by partnering with Orange County’s vibrant business community. The institute helps individuals who want to launch new companies as well as those who want to learn how to innovate within existing companies.

Asked about the urgent need to educate astute digital leaders, Gurbaxani explained that in the past, many businesses have responded too slowly to seismic technological shifts. “What we see is that businesses are not adapting fast enough. For years, even though people were sounding the alarm, I think we saw a lot of senior leadership not paying attention to what was going on.” He took an example from the late 90s, tracing the fact that Borders had outsourced its web store to Amazon. “Even then, that struck me as a myopic decision: why would you outsource a key activity to a competitor?” It is the antidote to the Borders phenomenon that Gurbaxani wants to engender in his students.

In a similar way, he notes that the mantle of preparing business students to deal with the digitally driven world has not been taken up at large in the business school community. Though higher education management programs are stocked with tech-savvy, plugged-in people, to date no school has committed to the kind of holistic curricular and cultural shift that the Merage School is undertaking. Until recently, students could progress through an MBA curriculum without really dealing with the disruption of emerging technology in business, even at top schools. With its compelling new curriculum and centers for innovation, the Merage School is poised to enter a unique leadership role in educating generations of competent, digitally-aware leaders in our age of disruptive technology.

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