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When the dotcom bubble burst in 2000 it was not just budding entrepreneurs and investors who had their fingers burnt. Business school professors who had pinned their hopes on teaching e-commerce and information technology courses also felt the pain. These days, though, it would seem that IT is increasingly creeping back on to the agenda in US business schools.
A recent survey by two professors at the Stern School of Business at New York University revealed that 43 out of 45 US business school deans interviewed believed that it was critical for executives of the future to have a clear understanding of how IT affected business and society.
Nearly half the deans interviewed believed IT was central to accelerating globalisation and was a significant contributor to wealth creation, according to Vasant Dhar, professor of information systems, and Arun Sundararajan, assistant professor, the authors of the report.
Some 27 per cent of those questioned believed that investment in IT was critical to the success of organisations and that successful managers needed to be able to make those decisions, while more than one-quarter also believed that being a successful executive depended on the creative use of electronic data.
Part of the reason for conducting the research was that a growing number of executives were concerned about the lack of IT knowledge among business school graduates, says Prof Dhar.
“There was an increasing sense of discomfort that executives were not trained to make IT decisions…We wondered whether business schools were looking forward enough, or whether they were looking in the rear-view mirror.”
The report shows that business schools are aware of the issues. Moreover, Haim Mendelson, professor of electronic business and commerce at the graduate school of business at Stanford University, believes that the past few years have seen a real change in the way IT is taught at business schools.
“In the past there had been a lot of emphasis on IT as a separate functional area,” he says. But that is now changing.
He compares IT teaching with the teaching of finance in business schools, which can be broken down into two broad categories: financial markets and corporate finance. Financial markets are an essential part of the curriculum for those entering that line of business, while corporate finance is central to nearly all of the jobs MBAs will hold in the future.
Prof Mendelson argues that, until recently, only general management schools such as Harvard Business School and Stanford have taught IT as a subject that is integral to every MBA student’s course, rather than as a programme for those destined to become chief information officers.
“Our philosophy [at Stanford] concentrates on what is important for general managers. We have developed IT content for them.”
Over the past three years, many schools have adopted the Harvard and Stanford approach, he says.
Some professors, however, believe that IT not only needs to be an integral part of the MBA curriculum but should be taught as a separate subject as well.
“It has to be infused into subjects [such as marketing and supply-chain management] because these subjects don’t exist without IT these days,” says Theodoros Evgeniou, assistant professor of technology management and decision sciences at Insead in Fontainebleau, near Paris.
“But my own bias is that unless there is a separate forum that focuses on technology issues, we won’t give enough attention to technology. And I believe that is dangerous.”
Prof Evgeniou gives the example of how e-mail has changed the way people live. “Technology is not just an enabler: it changes lives. We can’t send leaders out there without understanding the impacts of technology that are not obvious.”
The next question being explored by the NYU professors is whether there can be a standard IT curriculum that all schools can adopt.
Prof Mendelson is sceptical. With most subjects – finance, for example – both the content and the context of the teaching are relatively stable over several years, he says. With IT, the management issues – the content – do not change dramatically but the technology itself and the business applications – the context – does. Case studies need to be relevant to contemporary technology, he argues, so have to be constantly revised or replaced.
The two NYU professors, who presented the findings of their survey to a group of 20 participating schools at a meeting at Harvard Business School in May, believe their job is now to raise awareness of the issues. By the time the top schools meet again, IT’s relationship with business and society may have changed dramatically once again.