An Encouraging Sign

This past fall I traveled to several business schools in order to present some recent research (watch this space to learn more; I’ll be soon be posting about this work, which is an attempt I’ve undertaken with some colleagues to directly address the question "Does IT matter in competitive battles?" ). In addition to talking about the work, at every campus we also talked about the state of IT teaching. And there was broad agreement that the biggest challenge we IT+business academics is getting enough students to take our courses.

Student demand drives many things at business schools, not least of which is departments’ ability to hire new faculty. Demand is also a very clear signal to deans that a particular area merits resources, attention, breathing room, and a seat at the table.

For a few brief shining years in the late 1990s, IT studies had all of these. The Internet, the Web, eCommerce, eBusiness, B2C, B2B, and Y2K combined to bring business students into our IT classrooms. We couldn’t generate new teaching materials and new courses fast enough, and we and our schools faced complaints that we were behind the times.

As you can imagine, all of that changed quite quickly after the spring of 2000. The tech wreck meant that the days of really easy, really fast money were over. More fundamentally, the collapse of many Internet companies and the hugely overblown Y2K ‘crisis’ indicated to many students, at both the MBA and executive levels, that both the promise and the perils of IT were overblown. Many students concluded that IT was something that did NOT need to be in the ‘toolkit’ of most managers, and could instead be outsourced, delegated, and essentially ignored without any serious consequences like loss of competitive position or advantage.

So the first years of this century were a dark time for us. Most courses at most schools were undersubscribed, and we faculty spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to bring students back into our classrooms. At a conference on IT teaching, Stanford’s Haim Mendelson articulated our challenge beautifully. We couldn’t pander to students, he said, because they see through efforts to sell fluff rather than to teach rich material. It was incumbent on us to figure out what that rich content was in the post-dot-com era, and to figure out the best pedagogic approaches for delivering it.

My colleague and mentor Dave Upton took my thinking about this one giant step forward when he encouraged me to frame the MBA course I was developing in terms of the business models and capabilities that IT enables, and that can’t realistically be obtained any other way. In other words, a good IT course should show business students what new, useful, and unique tools IT puts in their toolkits. 

In addition, it should also show them what they themselves need to do in order to use these tools effectively. Electricity lets companies do all kinds of amazing things, but this fact is irrelevant to most B school students because most business leaders have absolutely no role to play with respect to electricity. If the relationship between business leaders and IT is more of a two-way street — if leaders need IT to succeed, and if IT success requires business leader involvement — then we have the conditions for a vital addition to a business curriculum.

I don’t pretend for a minute that I’ve cracked either half of this case — that I’ve nailed once and for all how to teach about either IT capabilities or about business leaders’ IT-related responsibilities. But I do know that this is what I’m trying to do in the classroom, and I see some positive reactions to the effort.

I taught Managing in the Information Age (MIA), my full-semester MBA elective, to about 20 students a year ago. The students were great. In a class that small there’s really no place to hide, and they were well-prepared and enthusiastic. My pre-registration for the current version of the course, which started last week, was about 30 students.

I was more than a little surprised when over 50 second year students (there are no electives in the HBS first year curriculum) showed up for the first day of class, and even more surprised when 70+ came for the second day. The classroom I’m teaching in holds 82 students, and over the weekend I started hearing from prospective cross-registrants that they weren’t able to get in to the course; it was full. Sure enough, every seat was full yesterday (HBS’s course shopping period was over today and students were locked in to their selections. Knowing that they could no longer switch out of MIA, I introduced my Excel-based random cold caller to loud groans this morning.).

I’m sure that the tremendous amount of interest around such recent Internet phenomena as Wikipedia, the YouTube deal, and Web 2.0 is behind some of this demand surge. But our first few case discussions have clearly shown me that there’s something else going on as well. My students, I’ve learned, don’t need to be convinced much that IT and business are now inseparable. And none of them have advanced the argument that technology decisions and responsibilities should be delegated.

I get the strong impression that they’re largely technology enthusiasts (even the ones who don’t self-identify as geeks), and that they want theories, frameworks, and concepts — ways to think about IT-related business issues — that will help them turn that enthusiasm into action. And they don’t just want to understand what a Trojan Horse is or how anyone makes money from open-source software (although we do talk about these and many other tech-y issues over the semester). Dave Upton was exactly right; they want to understand the kinds of capabilities and businesses that IT lets them build, and what they need to do as part of this work. They’ll use this knowledge, I believe and hope, to do exactly what we want our graduates to do: create value, shake up markets, and vex competitors.