How much IT education does an MBA student need?

M.S. Krishnan knows all about the IT-business disconnect.

I recently had a conversation with the professor and co-author of the recently published New Age of Innovation: Driving Co-Created Value Through Global Networks. At the end of our interview, he asked me what I thought of the book’s premise – which is that companies must change their business models to source what they need from suppliers around the world and to treat all customers as individuals, not a segment. I told him I kept coming back to a reference he and C.K. Prahalad make in a chapter about the IT impediments to growth, which looked at the root cause of the conflicts between technology managers and their departmental colleagues.

“The problem starts right from the business schools where these senior business executives are groomed,” they write. “Less than 15 per cent of the top business schools in the United States mandate a course in the role of information technology in enabling business processes and fuelling business innovation and efficiency as part of their core MBA curriculum . . . in some cases, the business schools also end up offering courses that are so totally focused on technology that MBA students do not find them relevant.”

I don’t know which schools those might be, but I can’t imagine they would be all that relevant to computer science students, either. As the next round of future IT managers, CIOs and developers graduate this spring, they no doubt have it drilled into them that an understanding of business objectives is key to their career success. What is far less certain is how much MBA grads need to know about technology, and whether their degree program gave them the grounding in it they need.

Let’s start with a few assumptions here: most MBA grads probably have a BlackBerry, smart phone or other mobile computing device. They understand and appreciate the power of information access IT brings them. Over the course of their education they have probably had to connect with each other online, whether through tutorials or in chat rooms. A great deal of the business processes that facilitated their registration and course selection might have happened through the kind of Web-based interface that will greet them when they take on their first job in an enterprise. So far, so good.

What MBA students may not have experienced is the disruptive nature of a technological change to an existing process or the introduction of a new process. This is where being a power user makes little difference. If the underlying platforms aren’t providing what you need, your actual equipment is secondary. This is when you get pulled into meetings with technical staff you’ve avoided previously, and where the nuts and bolts of putting together a piece of software seem like minor steps towards an overall profitability or efficiency goal.

The balance that Krishnan and Prahalad hint at in their book around IT education for business managers comes down to this: MBA students need to learn how to clearly define and request what they need to move a company forward. They need to understand enough about technology to know what kind of timeline, scope and resources to expect when they make their request. And they need empathy towards the technology professionals who act upon those requests. Attaining this might not get them on the honour roll, but it will absolutely put them in their future IT department’s hall of fame.

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