The education of business is a much bigger business for many Alberta universities than ever before. According to a report released by Statistics Canada in November 2018, business programs saw one of the largest increases in enrollments in post-secondary education. About 373,955 students enrolled in post-secondary business programs in 2017, an increase of just over 9,000 students from 2016.

But how should students prepare for attending a business program? What are employers looking for these days? Where is business headed? And how can future graduates get ahead of the curve? We asked some of the heads of Alberta's business schools for their thoughts.

Big Data Will Have a Major Impact

The impact of big data is seen as a major trend, not just in schooling but in the real world of business. Big data refers to a process that goes beyond traditional data mining and handling techniques to uncover meaningful insights in data.

"It's the ability to take data on whole neighborhoods or large groups of consumers and being able to find the relationship. The guy who owns the brown beagle dog is likely to vote for X , you know, it's that kind of ability to manipulate data," explains Ralph Troschke, Vice President of Finance & Operations and Interim Dean of the Leder School of Business at The King’s University in Edmonton.

According to Dale McNeely, Director of Business Career Services at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta, big data is already everywhere in the business world. “Virtually every sector in business and finance has access to incredible volumes of data. Whether it’s operations, or financial, or whatever it might be, there's not a system in place that doesn't collect data,” he says. “Having a good understanding and ability to data mine and do the physical analysis and make projections from data, that's critical as well.”

Big Data is also being used by entrepreneurs and startups, not just major corporations says Jim Dewald, Dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. “Big data is very much in the critical thinking space, but it's moving more towards what we would call entrepreneurial thinking. And that's taking big data and applying machine learning or artificial intelligence, which gives you predictive value and you can start seeing things,” Dewald said. “If you saw the movie or read the book "Moneyball," it's not so much what the individual stats are but it's how you mix them together and get some magic going.”

Soft Skills

While many business schools focus on number-crunching like accounting, financial planning and supply chain management, companies are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of softer skills.

According to McNeely, business schools originally focused on soft skills such as leadership, communication and critical thinking, but later concentrated on more technical skills so students would be better suited to getting an entry-level job after graduation. But that trend is now cycling back as more and more businesses demand that people also have more human skills. A lot of corporations are starting to tell business schools that if they can get a well-rounded, think-on-your-feet person, they can teach them the specifics of their workplace.

“There is always the need for some very well-prepared technical skills in any of the different disciplines you might work in. You have to have those technical skills and then still also have those good teamwork skills, communication, the ability to do good research, identify information, synthesize information into a new plan and so on and so forth,” McNeely said. “Can you read, understand, and integrate new information quickly and correctly? Can you write? Can you present? That's across all disciplines in business, whether you're an accountant, or an HR person, or an operations management person. You have to be able to communicate concisely, correctly, and well in the environment you're working in.”

Troschke also notes that having these soft skills is a much better long-term career plan. “If you don't have the broader critical thinking skills or the broader ability to work and converse with your fellow men, then your ability to move up the totem pole is somewhat limited,” he said. “If you take the perspective of, ‘where will I be 20 years from now’, you're probably better served in a program that has a greater balance between the business education and the liberal arts and science kind of education.”

The balance of teaching technical business concepts along with more liberal arts training is an interesting dilemma that many business schools are going through, Dewald adds.

“Do you teach people to be master technicians on that side, or do you teach them more to be focused on relationships and emotional intelligence, things that machines will never get? We don't have an answer for that,” Dewald said. “But that's probably a thing to watch out for in the future - where schools like us can land on that. We're trying to cover both right now, but it's an interesting discussion.”

Adaptability

According to some studies, 30-50 percent of the jobs business students will be doing in the next five years don’t exist now, and workers will change jobs five to eight times in their careers. If that turns out to be true, they’ll have to be adaptable.

“We need people to be nimble and not to get stuck in the ‘we never did it that way so we're not going to change’,” Dewald said. “But people can take down that wall. We're trying to teach our students that and when they get into decision-making roles, we'll have more nimble organizations that can adapt to changing technologies.”

Troschke agrees. “You might start off as an accountant, or in marketing, but who knows what you'll end up doing by the time you’re 65, and how many different things you may have attempted to do,” he says. “My best advice to anybody is to follow your passion. Whether that's business, or whether that's music or something else, just follow your passion and make it work for you.”