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A New MBA for the E-Corp.: Half-Geek, Half-Manager

March 14, 1999

 

Reprinted from Fortune -- March 15, 1999

Professor Gerald Ferrera's new cyberlaw class at Bentley College is looking today at a case involving two jazz clubs, both called the Blue Note. One, in New York City's Greenwich Village, is famous the world over. The other, in Columbia, Mo., bills itself as "Mid-Missouri's finest live-entertainment venue." Time was when two such Blue Notes might have found a way to co-exist, but that was before the Internet. When the Missouri Blue Note put up a Website, the New Yorkers perceived a trademark threat and sued. They wound up in federal court.

"Try to get a sense of this," professor Ferrera implores. "You have this very small club in Columbia, Mo., threatening the Blue Note in New York City!"

As I sit in the back row observing, what impresses me more is the analogy with the story I'm here to report. Try to get a sense of this: You have a virtually unknown business college in Waltham, Mass., revamping its entire curriculum to suit the information-technology revolution, and threatening Harvard Business School!

Well, maybe not Harvard right away. At the moment, Bentley's not even the top college in Waltham whose name begins with a "B" (that would be Brandeis). Its MBA program has never been ranked by Business Week, U.S. News, or anybody else. For an institution that aspires to technology leadership, it's sort of embarrassing that Bentley can't even crack Yahoo's list of the 100 Most Wired Colleges.

Then again, Bentley has Joseph Morone, 44, a graduate of Yale (with a Ph.D. in political science) and General Electric (seven years in GE's famed R&D labs), and the former dean of the Lally School of Management and Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic. Morone became president of Bentley in 1997. He is a passionate, articulate, charismatic leader. Spend an hour talking with him in his corporate-style office overlooking Bentley's red-brick campus; listen to his pitch about the brave new business world of "unlimited communications, unlimited computing power, and unlimited data"; give him rein to expand on tech's "profound effects in every field of business practice" and how all this translates into radical curriculum reform at Bentley; let him take you outside and show you the dirt pile that anticipates by some 18 months the $20 million Smith Academic Technology Center, future home of Bentley's freshly conceived Information Age MBA; and afterward, well, you may still have doubts about how far he can go--but you'll be intrigued, and you may believe that the change taking place at Bentley is a harbinger of what has to happen to every business school.

Morone has been sprinting ever since he got here. He emerged from his first trustees' meeting with backers lined up for the Smith Center, plus a commitment to fund three new professorships: one for Raj Sisodia, who is designing the Smith Center's new Marketing Technologies Showcase, an IT playground with HDTV videoconferencing and four techno mini-labs called sandboxes; another for Jay Cooprider, director of Bentley's Center for Commerce and Technology; and a third coming this spring. The Smith Center will also have a state-of-the-art trading room, 20 high-tech classrooms with touch-screen "faculty consoles" for calling up Web pages, and tons of computer ports for easy access to e-mail and the Net. "This is not the [MIT] media Lab," cautions Cooprider. "It's not for techno dreamers. It's for the business professional who has to understand how to leverage technology for leadership."

Is it just a marketing ploy? Well, look; there are nearly 800 MBA degree programs in the U.S. Those with real brand value you could count on two hands, maybe one. Morone well knows that Bentley needs an angle to stand out. Sisodia puts it bluntly: "We can't get top students by offering a standard MBA." Hence the all-out ad blitz Bentley is unleashing on Boston, featuring a comely brown-eyed co-ed, a.k.a. Becky Bentley. ("We've done a quick calculation," says Tom Moore, dean of the Olin School at nearby Babson College. "Their print budget alone is five or six times that of any other local business school.")

That said, the angle Morone has chosen for his push--the intersection of management and infotech--is legitimate. It gets at skills the new generation of corporate leaders must have, and it prefigures how the traditional MBA curriculum will evolve. Toward acceptance, that is, of what every e-corporation already knows: IT changes everything. Every function, every formula, every model. You can't talk about managing without bringing IT into the conversation. You can't have geeks on the one hand and managers on the other.

"I don't think any competent CEO or manager would say, 'I don't know anything about finance; I delegate that to my CFO,' " says Tom Malone, a professor at MIT's Sloan School and co-director of MIT's initiative on Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century. "In the same way, information technology is too important to be left to the technologists."

MIT, it happens, has been granting a master's degree in management of technology (MOT)--sponsored jointly by the Sloan School and the school of engineering--for nearly 20 years, and dozens of institutions now offer something similar. But those programs mostly start with raw techies and give them a management shine. You have to be a geek to get in. The Sloan School's new elective track in e-commerce and marketing, on the other hand, is intended for managers, not functional specialists. Says Erik Brynjolfsson, the program's co-director: "We think the biggest gap is not in pushing technology further, but in understanding how to use the tools and the new business models that technology enables."

Morone would agree, absolutely. But then he asks, So why not put IT at the core of every course you teach? "Academia has isolated technology," he says. "But we're looking at a world where [business and technology] are combined."

Morone makes three points. One, IT is pervasive: "We can't find a field of business practice this isn't influencing." Two, IT is more accessible now: While the first wave of IT fortunes went to techies who knew something about business, like Bill Gates, the second wave is going to shrewd managers who know how to leverage what the techies have wrought, like Amazon's Jeff Bezos. And three, IT "reaches into the guts of business practice," recasting disciplines like sales, marketing, and finance, and begetting whole new ways to create value. "If every field is transformed," Morone asks, "what are we doing teaching in the traditional mold?"

Bentley's first Info Age MBA candidates arrive next fall. They'll jump into a full menu of IT-dense offerings with names that are mouthfuls: Information Technology for Competitive Advantage, for instance, and Data Collection, Analysis, and Management. Two years later, if all goes according to Morone's dream, they'll graduate with impressive job offers; a trickle of applications will become a flow; the academic world will salute; and Bentley will head for the big time.

Stranger things have happened in the IT revolution. "We're all in this collective grope," says Morone. "A few of us will get there first."

 

Fortune Magazine Issue: Vol. 139, No. 5, March 15, 1999

BENTLEY UNIVERSITY is one of the nation’s leading business schools, dedicated to preparing a new kind of business leader – one with the deep technical skills, broad global perspective, and high ethical standards required to make a difference in an ever-changing world. Our rich, diverse arts and sciences program, combined with an advanced business curriculum, prepares informed professionals who make an impact in their chosen fields. Located on a classic New England campus minutes from Boston, Bentley is a dynamic community of leaders, scholars and creative thinkers. The Graduate School emphasizes the impact of technology on business practice, in offerings that include MBA and Master of Science programs, PhD programs in accountancy and in business, and customized executive education programs. The university enrolls approximately 4,100 full-time undergraduate, 140 adult part-time undergraduate, 1,430 graduate, and 43 doctoral students. Bentley is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; and the European Quality Improvement System, which benchmarks quality in management and business education. For more information, please visit www.bentley.edu

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