01 Apr 1996

Technology for Learning's Sake

A strong tradition of technological innovation in the HBS curriculum takes a dramatic leap forward as cutting-edge computer technology brings real-life business situations to the desktop.
by by Deborah Blagg; photo by David Zadig


In an interview in last December's Bulletin Dean Kim B. Clark talked of launching "a profound transformation around information technology (IT)," an initiative that would earn for the School an unequaled reputation for intelligent, creative, and efficient utilization of IT in support of the School's education and research mission. "Today's general manager is operating in an information-inundated world," Clark elaborated recently. "We need to prepare our students to meet that challenge. We also need to take full advantage of cutting-edge technologies that allow us to bring our students face to face with realistic business situations right in the classroom."

Building rapidly on the skill base and fiber network already in place at the School, such an initiative has indeed been launched. Progress to date has included the development of an entirely new information infrastructure, the replacement of most faculty and administrative desktop machines, the introduction of a single electronic-mail system, and the construction of a 100-machine personal computer lab in previously unfinished space in the basement of Shad Hall. "If we had a minute to think about it, we'd probably be pretty amazed that we've come so far so fast," says Associate Professor David M. Upton, who has spearheaded the latest initiative with the strategic input of Clark and many others on the faculty, the services of a legion of IT professionals, and the hands-on assistance of newly appointed Chief Technology Officer Susan Rogers, an accomplished HBS administrator with a wealth of experience in technology and other projects, including total responsibility for the recent reconstruction of Morgan Hall.

Ground Wires

As Upton and others involved in the recent technological leap at HBS are quick to point out, the initiative's rapid progress has been aided greatly by the strength of the technology groundwork that has been established at the School over the past few decades. "This is not something brand new," notes Professor F. Warren McFarlan, senior associate dean, director of External Relations. "We've been working steadily for years to understand new technology in a managerial context and using it where it makes sense to link it to our pedagogy. Along the way, we've made the best of new technology as it became available - from mainframes, to stand-alone PCs, and now to fiber-enabled telecommunications."

McFarlan, in fact, was involved in overseeing one of the earliest regular uses of computers in the MBA Program when the "Business Game" became an annual exercise for generations of MBAs beginning in the mid-1960s. Originally introduced by then Assistant Professor James L. McKenney and conducted on shared terminals in Baker Library, the game required first-year students to put their newly acquired knowledge of marketing, control, finance, and operations to the test in a simulated competitive business environment. In addition to the game, starting in 1968 MBA students were given 24-hour access to more than thirty time-sharing terminals for use in course preparation.

As computer use in the business world expanded, in 1983 the School began an experiment in conjunction with IBM to see how the use of personal computers could be incorporated into the Program for Management Development (PMD) curriculum. In that exercise, designed to make managers more comfortable using personal computers and to help them recognize the changes technology would bring to their organizations, each participant was provided with a personal computer to use for analysis and class preparation and for electronic-mail communication.

Building on the knowledge gained from that project and from the use of personal computers in a few carefully selected MBA courses, the School moved in the mid-1980s to recommend strongly that students use computers as part of regular class preparation. In the 1984-85 academic year, more than 150 first-year cases had software that was specifically designed to help students analyze cases. PC use eventually became commonplace in second-year courses and exams as well. (More than 90 percent of all exams today are completed on computers.) Each academic area was asked to produce its own materials for PC use, and projects ranged from the adaptation of traditional cases for computer analysis to the development of entirely new case materials.

Another significant milestone was reached in 1990, when a new, user-friendly Apple computer network was introduced in the PMD and an IBM-based network built around Lotus Notes in the Advanced Management Program. These two initiatives led to enhanced faculty collaboration and the first use of interactive multimedia teaching tools for case discussion.

Just as many companies during this period scrambled to adopt emerging technologies to improve productivity and efficiency in their daily operations, so did HBS faculty find themselves in the position of trying to determine if and how information technology could add value in a curriculum deeply rooted in a tradition of analysis and decision-making around real-life problems. It was a complicated challenge. Early experience suggested that computer-aided case analysis could enhance classroom discussion and bring real-life business issues into sharper focus. Faculty engaged in a continual process of experimentation in different areas, weighing the value-enhancement of various technologies. Particular areas, such as Finance, Marketing, Control, and Managerial economics, seemed to lend themselves naturally to computer analysis, as did cases on manufacturing, where computers could provide instant feedback on, for instance, the selection process for the site of a new plant. But in subjects such as business history and leadership, the contributions of IT were much more limited. The result was a curriculum with pockets of IT excellence.

"We had a lot of very bright individuals working on cutting-edge projects in their own areas," McFarlan observes, "but the technology that would really enable us to take it to the next level - the ability to combine integrated digitized text and exhibits - was only developed very recently." "We're at a juncture today in the technology where all the work we've been doing over the years is coming together and is really going to pay off," elaborates Susan Rogers, who points to the evolution of the Internet and the ascendance of digital technology as key factors in the School's ability to move forward. "We can now embed digitized video directly into cases; that was literally impossible two years ago."

Going Digital

Some basic principles have guided those charged with determining how to bring information technology into the heart of HBS. First and foremost is the faculty's belief that the technology should not be an end in and of itself; rather, it should augment the School's traditional research, teaching, and publishing strengths. "The work we are doing in technology right now is intended to open up a host of opportunities," explains Dean Clark. "Yes, we are making an extraordinary investment in hardware and software, but the real success of our endeavor will lie in our ability to integrate the technology with our distinctive mission and to put in place the processes that will allow us to recognize and implement valuable new technology and then use it to develop powerful new applications as quickly as possible."

"As we thought about what we wanted to be able to do right away - things such as creating electronic cases with integrated digitized text and 'live' exhibits, taking students on-site via video sequences within a given case, and exploiting the full power of the Internet as a learning tool - we knew that our network and desktop infrastructure had to provide reliable, high-performance access to the digital world," elaborates Upton, a Technology and Operations Management professor with a Ph.D. in industrial engineering. The current initiative began with the refitting of the School with an open architecture using Internet-based protocols (ways of regulating how data will be exchanged between computers running on different operating systems).

"Our strategy is to use internally the kind of protocols the Internet uses outside the School," Upton notes. "We've built something called an 'intranet' using open protocols: no one company owns them. So if we don't like the mail reader we use, we can go out and get another one. As the technology advances, we will be able to advance with it."

"We've also accepted the fact that people like to use different desktops - some Macintosh and some PC," adds Rogers. "Building in that flexibility enables us to know that not only will the technology and the networking that we're doing work now, but it will also work with future generations of machines." The pursuit of the open systems strategy and the commitment to integration has required focused development and the solution of a number of tough problems. "We haven't taken the easiest route on anything," admits Upton, "but we have chosen the path that will take us in the right strategic direction for the future. To pursue the open strategy relentlessly, we have had to do things that many of our suppliers said couldn't be done. In the lab, for example, we start up and manage the 100 computers running either MAC/OS or Windows 95 from the server without any proprietary network management software."

Overall progress has included the implementation of a single campuswide electronic-mail system that is fully compatible with the Internet, the opening of direct links to the Internet, the creation of a strong HBS presence on the World Wide Web that includes accessibility to faculty research, the construction of the computer lab, and the upgrading of faculty and staff computers. In a critical phase of the project, the School's older PCs were replaced with new Pentium and Power PC computers with the capacity to deliver digital video on the desktop, Windows 3.1 operating systems were scrapped for Windows 95, and twenty new SUN server workstations were added to support the newly installed systems.

"We're looking at the best practice of other institutions and then pushing it a lot further to meet the special educational needs of the HBS student," notes Upton. "For instance, the work we've done to deliver random access, fully digitized video to students' desktops via a Web-based interface [Netscape] is a real industry breakthrough. Until now, you had to play almost an entire video clip or do lots of manipulating to play a little bit. To support our pedagogical mission, what we wanted was the ability to organize short clips and link them on command on our 'intranet.' Since that wasn't being done anywhere, we had to find the right combination of vendors to help us solve the problem." This technology is being widely used for the first time in this spring's Advanced Management Program: International Senior Managers' Program.

The Message and the Medium

As the last yards of new fiber-optic cables are installed, updated terminals are delivered to desktops all over campus, and state-of-the-art software whirs into action, a critical challenge of the IT initiative remains. "Part of the challenge is to show students how a well-run organization uses IT to best advantage," explains Upton. "If students have that experience while they are here, when they become managers they will be adept at using IT tools to enhance their learning on the job. And they will know how to use those tools to help build better organizations."

Throughout the campus, students are being offered numerous opportunities to explore the benefits of IT. Computer terminals in student dining areas now offer immediate access to the Internet for those who want to "surf" between classes. The MBA calendar - including listings of club events, speakers, recruiting schedules, and Student Association notices - is on-line and available on each student's personal computer. Large-screen monitors in Aldrich Hall display a daily HBS calendar, enabling even the busiest students to keep up with campus events as they dash into class. In addition, the January cohort of the 1997 MBA class will conduct academic discussions on the Web and will also be the first MBAs to receive lifelong HBS e-mail addresses, which will facilitate electronic communication among classmates while they are on campus and help them to stay in touch with each other and with the School after graduation. (Plans are also under way to provide current alumni with lifelong Internet addresses.)

But beyond the outward appearances of technological innovation, a more subtle transformation is taking place as well. "We're beginning to redefine how field-based, experiential learning will operate in the 21st century," states Dean Clark. "Recent advances in IT have opened a new world of possibilities that will help us to do an even better job of educating students while they are here and to reach out to our graduates throughout their careers. We now have powerful tools that will help us make the case method more relevant than ever, and as a faculty, we are starting to take the steps to turn the vision into reality."

Evidence of this progress is cropping up throughout the curriculum, in courses that not only incorporate technology in isolated exercises or cases but also suggest approaches that are valid in a broad spectrum of courses. "One of our current objectives is to use things that have worked well in one area to create a model for how that technology can be useful and applicable throughout the curriculum," notes Warren McFarlan. "If an IT application works well in TOM, for instance, we're looking at whether you could strip out the TOM content and use it as a framework in a general management or BGIE course."

Following are profiles of three innovative courses that may provide the kinds of pedagogical frameworks McFarlan and others are looking for as the School's IT initiative moves forward.

Changing the Nature of Case Debate

A few years ago, Associate Professor Amar Bhide introduced a new method to help students prepare for classroom discussion. Recently augmented by advances in technology, his concept is leading to a significant shift in the nature of case discussion and classroom dynamics. Starting in 1991, Bhide asked students in his Entrepreneurial Management elective course to indicate their key case decision and support it by three bullet points by early morning on class day. Initially, students submitted their responses via a text-based VAX system. Bhide, along with Professor Howard H. Stevenson, who also taught the class, then upgraded the material to a database system that allowed them to process the results more easily and prepare for the day's class presentation.

Today, students can access and answer the questions on a form posted on the Internet. Bhide then analyzes the submitted data and prepares for class by quickly putting together several presentation overheads. Instead of opening the class with the standard cold-call, Bhide is able to present the results of the survey along with a summary of the students' qualitative comments.

The quality of both teaching and learning has been affected dramatically. "Class begins with a 'consensus view' rather than the perspective of a single individual," explains Bhide. "Important but obvious background information, which might otherwise consume over one-half of class time, is presented within a matter of five or ten minutes. This creates an opportunity to explore more basic issues and discuss methods of implementation that might otherwise have to be rushed." In addition, this approach ensures a consistent level of student preparation. Bhide has also created an on-line bulletin board where students can post additional observations after class discussion. These comments are given the same weight as in-class participation.

Bhide views the School's technology initiative as having a strong positive effect on his classroom method, but he cites common frustrations caused by existing technological limitations. "Sometimes the students can't log on to the Internet and have to send me their decisions via e-mail, making it more difficult for me to manipulate the data," he notes. "But as we get more sophisticated with the technology, it will all straighten itself out."

Hands-On Decision Making

Long viewed as an essential aspect of managerial education at HBS, field-based learning is taking on a new twist in Professor John A. Quelch's International Marketing Management course, where students are able to "eavesdrop" on customers' opinions of new products and hear, firsthand, top management's marketing objectives before committing themselves to a course of action.

In preparing for a recent class, Quelch's students used a CD-ROM to view PC users from the United Kingdom discussing their computer-related preferences and needs and then heard European marketing managers from Intel Corporation state the company's marketing priorities. Those same executives then turned to the students for recommendations for a new television advertising campaign.

"We have all the necessary information on CD-ROM to give students a real taste of what it feels like to make marketing decisions under pressure," Quelch explains. Students worked in teams of five or six, clicking through actual television commercials and video clips of customer and Intel executives discussing company strategy. "The assignment is to select one or two television commercials for Intel's Pentium microprocessor launch in the U.K. market and to develop supporting arguments for their selections," he notes. "They are given a working budget of $125,000 to develop rough-cut 'animatics' of television commercials and to commission qualitative and quantitative market research. Decision-making is automatically cut off when the budget ceiling is reached."

Students had a true-to-life managerial experience, choosing which of eight commercial concepts to "produce" and determining what market research to buy to aid their choice of commercials. As data on the copy concepts from focus groups and customer surveys were revealed, many students found that they had to adjust their strategies.

Student teams worked in shifts through a weekend to complete the case and submit their findings to Quelch. Comparing notes after the exercise, most found they had reached similar conclusions. As an added bonus, the class also learned what ads Intel ultimately chose - and why - directly from Linda Clark, Intel's director of Worldwide Advertising, who spoke to the class after the discussion.

Electronic Learning in Context

Not surprisingly, David Upton's own teaching reflects his intimate involvement with the School's overall IT initiative. Upton's course Designing, Managing, and Improving Operations (DMIO) embraces the "how we teach is what we teach" philosophy and is intended to serve as a template for electronic course development throughout the HBS curriculum.

Students in DMIO use Web technology to access course materials and assignments and to interact with each other and their professor. Course material has been reformatted for electronic use, with cases designed to be read on the screen. Content remains "locked" until the appropriate time in the course when it becomes accessible. After each class, Upton's slides are available on the course's Web page. The Web interface is designed to fully integrate all aspects of the course, including written materials, exhibits, and open-ended interactions between students in an on-line forum.

The underlying design of the course's delivery system demonstrates powerful principles that have applications both in the teaching and practice of business. "We're providing a set of standards and procedures, using state-of-the-art technology that can be used to transform and deliver any HBS course," notes Upton. (As early as this September, courses throughout the MBA curriculum will employ Web technology similar to that used in DMIO.) "But we're also preparing tomorrow's managers to incorporate IT into their skill base," he adds.

"Long-term success in modern operations and information systems management is increasingly dependent on an understanding of the importance of details - as well as the details themselves," Upton elaborates. "The ability to react to and exploit apparently minor changes, such as a new network protocol or a novel material, is much better done by managers who understand it, rather than by those who see it only in general terms."

Like many other organizations, HBS is being challenged by the pace and magnitude of technological innovation. Upton's DMIO students are being given an opportunity to learn about the course's issues in context. They are experiencing a response to a real problem, not unlike problems they will have to solve in the real world.

*Special thanks to Evanthia Malliris and Patty Toland, who also contributed to this article.


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