Skills: Learn to speak the language of business

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When Olivier Griot took an MBA at Wharton business school in 1991, the internet was in its infancy.

Few students used the
e-mail addresses they were given and it was only at the end of the course that Mr Griot was able to download assignments from the school’s computer.

However, while the equipment and systems have moved on, the management and other skills he learned remain highly relevant.

“I’m a business guy who works in the technology field,” explains Mr Griot, who today is managing director of mobile services at Hachette Filipacchi Media US, a subsidiary of the French publishing group.

“So, while I know the technology, I can’t do programming – but I can talk to a programmer and I can understand the business aspects of managing a technology enterprise.”

Others requiring an equivalent understanding include technology consumers within a business, since a vast chunk of capital spending is now IT-related.

This is not necessarily in the hands of the chief technology officer. In companies where IT spending is decentralised, heads of business units must also be able to make informed decisions.

“Both the technology itself and the tools are permeating the organisation – and that in many cases isn’t under the CIO’s control. An increasing amount of it is local initiatives,” says Stuart Madnick, professor of information technology at MIT Sloan School of Management.

“We’re trying to educate MBAs to understand the trade-offs of each approach – whether you’re going to control everything centrally or take the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach.”

At the same time, companies need to equip the specialists and programmers responsible for developing systems that will give them competitive advantage.

Mr Griot says that here, the MBA has its limitations. “Clearly, when is comes to the core skills, the hardcore technology knowledge, you won’t get that in a business school,” he says. “But to manage an IT staff for any company, you need general managements skills and skills in things like finance and marketing.”

With technology permeating every corner of commerce and companies such as Wal-Mart, FedEx and McDonald’s using IT for everything from exchanging knowledge and enhancing logistics to measuring performance and forecasting trends, business schools have responded.

Most provide not only modules that focus on the technology itself but also instruction on how to apply technology to business problems and strategies.

In Mr Griot’s day, it was called Decision Science or DSci (some institutions still use this title), and at Wharton it was part of the core curriculum.

“We were really pushing the envelope with Excel, using macros and programming to do some advanced financial modelling,” he says. “So leveraging technology to make the right business decision was very much a focus.”

Business schools can be too quick to embrace new developments, however.

In the late 1990s, a crop of
e-commerce MBA courses rapidly emerged to meet demand from budding internet entrepreneurs. With equal speed, these courses were abandoned or adapted as the dotcom crash took hold.

And occasionally, students prove to be better informed than the professors.

Alan Barbell, who heads Siemens’ disease management software line, says the MBA “opened my eyes to a whole different way of thinking about financial planning and project planning”.

However, he was also surprised to find a professor on one of the courses explaining the futility of a project model that Mr Barbell had by coincidence worked on in his professional life and had found highly successful.

Schools vary as to the depth to which students can pursue technology. Among those with the strongest IT focus is Tepper School of Business, at Carnegie Mellon University.

Its “Technology Leadership” track covers areas such as information security and privacy, management of software development, systems architecture and web application development.

At Sloan, Prof Madnick says the approach is to offer a menu of classes from which students can design their programme, according to how they see themselves using technology after they graduate.

He says: “Some students want to get a strong technology background. Others take enough technology, so that when they go into their organisations, they have a leg up. So students can build a custom programme that matches their career needs.”

However, he stresses that all MBA students need to be equipped to deal with IT, whatever their post-degree careers: “After all, what is financial services other than information technology? There are other things such as risk management but the vast majority of what they do involves applying technology,” says Prof Madnick.

“If you’re head of foreign exchange, IT wouldn’t be in the title but in terms of what you do on a daily basis, it’s oozing IT.”

Even those with IT in their job title must know how to speak the language of business with colleagues.

“You have to be able to translate what they’re saying to you and you have to bring business cases forward for the IT drivers that will help the corporation,” says Belinda Watkins, head of network computing and IT operations for FedEx Services.

“That’s one of the main reasons I chose to go back and get an MBA.”

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