An MBA is what you make of IT

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Over the past 10 years years technology has revolutionised the way businesses operate, but with a few notable exceptions business schools have been slow to recognise these changes in their teaching.

This year at Harvard Business School, however, in-coming first-year students have had to take a compulsory module to get them all on the right track.

“We needed to get more IT into the MBA programme, as IT is not just a support function, it’s part of the business,” says David Upton, professor of technology and operations management. “We used to try to thread it through the programme but it didn’t really work. IT never really got the focus it needed.”

Before the module begins all MBA students, from software engineers to opera singers, have to complete a six-hour tutorial to give them the basic technology vocabulary. They complete a quiz at the end of the programme to test they have mastered the course.

“Technology is not the problem,” says Prof Upton, “but lack of knowledge of technology is.”

As the module begins, students have to study a number of specially written cases. These cover how to select and implement IT, how to manage IT and how to exploit the capabilities IT can bring. Not all paint a glowing picture of IT use. One of the initial implementation cases, for example, looks at Foremostco, a Miami-based importer of plant seedlings, cuttings and bulbs. The company almost died when it changed the computer systems in which it housed its billing and ordering systems.

Neither do all companies laud the implementation of the most sophisticated technology. At Zara, the
Spanish-headquartered fast fashion outlet, the technology in the local stores supports the concept of “fast fashion” rather than incorporating the latest whizzy technology.

Moreover, the ITC e-Choupal case looks at IT in a social context and explains how a large Indian agricultural company enabled small farmers to get a realistic price for their soya beans by installing internet computers in each village, giving farmers access to crop prices and so cutting out the middle man between the farmers and the purchaser.

In true Harvard fashion, the publishing arm of the business school is now selling the tutorial and the case studies to other business schools and universities.

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