Management education is nothing if not adaptive. When the need for a new specialty arises, half a dozen schools are instantly on the scene with a revamped program model that suits the situation. Since the mid-’90s, one of those programs du jour has been the MIS MBA, a degree that melds core business courses with hands-on, technological know-how. Students who leave school with such a degree understand not only how to integrate technology into a business, but how that technology will affect the company, its employees, and its bottom line.
While schools worldwide have implemented technological changes into their classrooms and course deliveries, not every business school has focused on technology itself as an area of study. Not every school will feel it must. According to a report by AACSB International and researchers at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the majority of universities have chosen to integrate e-business and technology into their general management courses, not break them out into separate degrees.
The schools that have opted to develop an MIS MBA—or its equivalent— primarily have done so either because the school itself has a high technological aptitude or because it’s in a part of the world where tech skills are highly valued. For instance, Boston University in Boston, Mass achu setts, began its high-tech MBA program after tech watchers such as Computerworld gave high marks to its management and IS programs.
“The new degree has been revamped to train CEOs, because anybody in the future is going to need to be at the intersection of business and technology. You’ve got to be able to understand both to be successful today.” —John Chalykoff, Boston University
“We decided to build on our strength and make that our flagship program,” says John Chalykoff, associate dean of academic programs and director of the school’s MS IS program. He adds, “Our old degree really was geared toward training future CIOs. The new degree has been revamped to train CEOs, because anybody in the future is going to need to be at the intersection of business and technology. You’ve got to be able to understand both to be successful today.”
“Today, it’s almost incumbent for anybody at any level to have an understanding of technology,” agrees Arkalgud Ramaprasad, head of the information and decision sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “Even in finance, accounting, and marketing, you need to know something about databases. There is an expectation in any functional area that you will have technological literacy.”
The trick is to understand what you’re offering with a tech-based degree and why—and to make those reasons clear to students, employers, and other stakeholders. “The way we’ve approached it in our MBA program is to say that we’re not trying to create super programmers, but rather trying to enable MBA students to have a better understanding of information technology and information systems. That way they can make better decisions about investing in them and embarking on technology-related projects,” says Len Jessup, Philip L. Kays distinguished professor in management information systems at the Pullman campus of Washington State University.
“We decided that, for us, management of technology means an emphasis on three things,” says McRae C. Banks, department head and Harry G. Stoddard professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts. “The first is leading and managing in technology-based organizations. Those are primarily, but not necessarily, high-tech organizations. The second is integrating technology into existing organizations for companies that need a level of technology but don’t know how to implement it. Furthermore, they think it’s a financial decision and a technology decision, whereas probably 60 percent is a human resources decision. The third is creating new processes, products, services, and organizations based on technology.”
Technology is the infrastructure that supports these organizational cornerstones, Banks concludes. “Information technology is what enables organizations to make changes and continue advancing.”
Business leaders—the ultimate consumers for this new breed of graduate—seem to have embraced the students who’ve specialized in a mix of technology and management. “I had someone look at my curriculum and say, ‘You build people who can do all this? Oh my God, I want some of them,’” says Barb Marcolin, area chair of management education in the Faculty of Management, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta.
While Marcolin says management students with an IS specialty “have their choice of jobs,” she notes that students must be willing to sell themselves and their special knowledge. “They have to understand the value of what they’ve learned—not just the technology, but how to assess a problem and consider the capabilities of technology in a certain application area.”
Calgary and other schools enhance that salability by exposing students to real-world business situations, either through internships or intensive projects or both. For instance, at UIC, the school promotes “project courses” rather than internships. “Essentially the entire course is based on a project done by a student team, based on e-commerce, and led by a faculty member,” says Ramaprasad. “They’re very popular.”
University of Calgary offers extensive co-op programs that allow student teams to work for up to four months on techrelated jobs at various companies. In addition, the school sponsors a project office that matches students with companies that need some management help. “Last week, I talked to the CEO of a small oil and gas company who said, ‘I need an MBA to help me through my growth issues. Where do I find one?’” Marcolin reports. “So I sent him to the project office and said, ‘You can get a team of them, and they’ll demonstrate their value to you. You can not only assess their skills, but also how you might use an employee with an MBA.’”
A set of students at Boston University proved their value during an internship program by building an internal intranet system. They were part of a group of second-year students participating in Boston’s seven-month internship program in which students work on an IT project every Friday in a local company. “Companies present their projects, students bid on them, and teams are formed,” says Chalykoff. “The students are highly skilled, and the companies gain a great deal.” These projects are in addition to a regular summer internship program, during which students also can take a concentrated online course.
“There’s been a change in student strategies. Before, they focused on high-tech companies.Now they’re focusing on traditional manufacturing and consumer products companies, but still in a technical capacity.” —McRae C. Banks, Worcester Polytechnic
But the ultimate point of a specialized degree is to help students get a better job, not just a better internship, and program directors say that this is happening. For instance, WSU is located in a region that’s always hungry for graduates with any kind of technical expertise.
“A degree like this means our students are more competitive for the traditional kinds of jobs at more traditional companies—like, say, Safeco—that are ramping up their information technology, especially with respect to the Internet and electronic commerce,” says Jessup. “It also opens the doors for MBA students in places where they might not traditionally have thought about working—for example, firms like Microsoft and Amazon. When MBA students have technology as part of their skill set, it opens up their knowledge domain.”
In fact, students with a degree that emphasizes both business and management can begin to look almost anywhere as the need for tech skills spreads throughout business. “There’s been a change in student strategies,” says Banks of Worcester Polytechnic. “Before, they focused on high-tech companies. Now they’re focusing on traditional manufacturing and consumer products companies, but still in a technical capacity.”
The changing economy does affect the job situation, however, even for students with sought-after degrees. “What we’re seeing this year is a slowdown in the consulting sector,” says Banks. Dot-coms are also noticeably absent from job fairs, but he doesn’t find that surprising.
“Dot-coms weren’t actively recruiting our students before. Our people aren’t going into technical positions like that. They’re going into higher-level positions where they understand both the technology and the business.”
The only fallout for his students from the dot-com disaster has been a trickle-down effect, says Jessup. “Many of the people in technical positions that were laid off by dot-com firms are out looking for jobs, and some of them have decided to take more traditional corporate jobs. So now, people with engineering degrees or computer science degrees and a few years’ experience are taking that systems project management job at Boeing or Ford that an MBA student or MIS undergraduate might have taken. That hurts a little.”
The Quest for Staff
The biggest challenge facing schools that offer tech-based management degrees is not helping students find jobs, however; it’s hiring teachers. In a world where finding qualified teachers is already difficult, finding faculty who know both business and technology is a real challenge. Jessup points out that the problem is exacerbated by decisions that schools made in the last decade to cut back on doctoral programs, particularly in MIS programs. As a result, there were no freshly minted professors available when demand began to mushroom in the 1990s.
“Layer into that the fact that MIS is an academic discipline that is not very old,” Jessup continues. “The very first wave of MIS faculty members who started the discipline 20 or 30 years ago are starting to retire in droves. In the next three to five years, that whole wave of faculty will retire, and there’s nothing with which to reload. Factor into that the general growth in MIS programs, which means growth in demand for MIS faculty, and it’s really very difficult to find and hold on to MIS faculty.”
Even if a school perceives the solution to be simply adding a technology emphasis to all the disciplines within the management field, says Jessup, the problem still exists. “Then you’ve got to find faculty members in those areas who not only know their own discipline well, but also understand technology well. That’s really difficult.”
“We have a much narrower pool of applicants available to us than we would if we ran a broader program,” says Banks. He describes a recent effort to go through the pool of available professors to fill a faculty opening at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “Out of that group, those who had technical qualifications as well as the business background we were seeking formed a much smaller set. Ultimately we ended up with seven or eight people who had the type of package we were seeking.”
The scarcity of good help has led to an unexpected bonus for those who can meet the demand. “The good news is that MIS has been legitimized as a discipline,” says WSU’s Jessup. “Now to get a really good MIS faculty member, you pay about what you would pay to get a really good finance or accounting faculty member. It’s elevated the status of MIS in terms of the pay and stature.”
Marcolin agrees that MIS management salaries have risen at Calgary, and not just for the new hires. She says, “Our dean has said, ‘Look, we’ve got to keep the people we have.’ He’s looked at our internal salaries and worked very hard to keep them comparable to the market level. He recognizes that if we’re going to be an internationally recognized school, we’ve got to be able to compete with other schools.”
Stakeholders on Board
Starting an MIS MBA, however, is not only about staffing it, but also about selling it. First, of course, faculty members have to recognize what the degree is.
“Most of those outside of the information systems area in business schools think of technology as the network,” says Marcolin. “They think, ‘Well, let’s just put a network in, and then we’re fine.’ They don’t think about the systems part, which touches every little part of the organization. The technology is only 20 percent of the cost.”
Academic politics are equally challenging, says Ramaprasad. “There are schools at the technical end, there are schools at the managerial end, and there are schools that think MIS is not a field,” says Ramaprasad. But even if a school has decided to go ahead with an MIS management degree, it won’t be successful unless all the faculty members buy into the program. “The big issue involves where you are anchored in terms of which department is going to take the initiative. Do you locate it in computer science or business?” Too often, he says, the resulting program looks like one “designed by a committee.”
It’s not just the faculty members who have to be ready to accept a technology focus; the campus has to be prepared as well, Chalykoff points out. “You must have the infrastructure that can support it,” he says. “At Boston, every part of our business school is wired. You can’t sit anywhere, whether it’s in the cafeteria or the hallways, where you can’t plug in.”
A successful tech-related management degree also requires the involvement of the business community, Chalykoff notes. “That’s key. You have to have those internships set up,” he says. “We have an advisory council that is extremely supportive.”
Expansion and Improvement
Even schools that have successfully implemented tech-related management programs are looking for ways to improve their offerings—both for current students and potential students.
At Calgary, school officials want to expand the e-business program and make it more accessible to people in the community. “We see a huge demand for students who are outside the program, who don’t want to come back for two years under any format, so we’re trying to decide how to make the content more flexible,” says Marcolin. “We might make it a certificate program or a diploma program, something where people can get credit.”
Banks expects to see an influx of people with technical skills coming back to college for advanced degrees. He says that too many engineers and computer scientists are being put in positions where they must manage people, not equipment; many don’t have the necessary skills.
“We’re going to see more and more people who have gone through engineering programs and science programs come back to school and get graduate degrees in business,” he predicts. “We’ll see them coming into the marketplace and into the business schools to provide a more technical perspective.”
“I think technology is going to be critically important in the future. In fact, it may become so important that it will be absorbed into the functional areas, and we really won’t need separate MIS courses,” says Ramaprasad. “But there is sufficient new technology going forward that I think there is still a market for people who are more technically oriented.”
He expects future emphasis to be on more interdisciplinary programs that change the way MIS is viewed. “We have mislabeled it by calling it ‘management of information systems,’” he says. “We should call it management of information. I would like to think we’ll start focusing on information management, that we’ll go beyond information technology and information systems.”
Whether technology becomes so pervasive that it is absorbed into core courses, or whether it becomes so specialized that the best approach will be a dual degree, technology has become an integral part of the management education field. No corporation can survive today without a basic understanding of the Internet, electronic communication, and database management. No business school can survive without meeting the needs of those corporations—by producing students whose soft skills and hard knowledge make them savvy managers in today’s business world.