Collective failure of the imagination

July 11, 1997

Martin Gandoff and Martin Hulse argue that universities are not equipping students with an understanding of how the IT revolution is transforming business and their futures

We are not educating our students to be prepared for their careers in the 21st century. It will be the first full century for information technology. Today, we are shopping with our smart cards in retail outlets, organising our banking by telephone, transacting our business by fax or email and surfing the web for information. A hundred years ago, business was transacted by post. The underlying transport that carried mail was the horse, the ship and the train; as a result, the pace of business was much slower than today. Then, it was a challenge to go round the world in 80 days both for people and information. Now, we can send business information round the world in a fraction of a second - very much faster than people or packages can travel. Hence, business has been transformed. So, where are we educating today's students to understand how technology transforms business and equally important, how change affects the business? Will they be able to survive the transformations that will occur during their careers?

The "Management in the 90s" research programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT 90s) examined how enterprises respond to a constant state of turbulence, and emphasised the importance of management processes as the vital and missing link between business strategy and IT. The MIT researchers were careful to describe the importance of changing the organisation by transforming the way it does business and the way it works, rather than just hiding behind the overworked phrase "managing change". Their report described the new types of business organisation needed to make extensive use of electronic integration and the way IT is essential to assist these teams.

It highlighted the need to keep the flexible workforce informed irrespective of where they are sited and it noted that the rate of progress in IT is not going to slow down. There will be opportunities to create new ways of doing business based on new technologies. The Internet and interactive television are obvious examples, but MIT 90s predicted that there will be many others across the next century.

Today's students are tomorrow's managers, who are going to have to make these organisational changes happen.

MIT 90s distinguished five levels of IT application that induce or support business transformation. The first two were classified as evolutionary because they do not require fundamental changes in the organisation's business processes. The other three were said to be revolutionary because they require major changes in business processes to take advantage of the opportunities offered by IT.

The biggest potential benefits were anticipated from the profound kind of transformation which the report called business scope redefinition. It noted that at this level, managers need to appreciate thoroughly the power and potential of IT and to have the imagination to recognise and articulate the opportunities it presents.

How many of today's students are we equipping to do this well? The Bangemann report of June 1994, on Europe and the global information society, noted that throughout the world information and communications technologies are generating a new industrial revolution, already as significant and as far reaching as those in the past. Like the MIT report it envisaged new technologies being exploited not merely to raise the efficiency of management processes but in more radical changes to business organisation and methods. Among the ten applications essential to launch the "information society" in Europe Bangemann listed distance learning, a network for universities and research centres, and teleworking. To achieve the first will need a major effort to expand computer literacy in the teaching professions. How many computer studies courses identify the consequences described by Bangemann? Business studies and computer studies are generally separate educational streams in United Kingdom universities. Staff are more likely to be segregated than integrated - how many business studies programmes use their own team to teach computer studies rather than their colleagues from a computing (or information systems) school? How many in the computing team can read a balance sheet or understand a cashflow forecast or project costing exercise? If the educators do not recognise the interdependence of business studies and IT studies, how can we expect students to get the message?

* Business does not really understand IT * IT has never really tried to understand business * Both are in the same boat - they need each other and they have to respond to change - separately and together.

Few computer studies students are going to work all their life in the IT supply industry - most will work for enterprises that employ IT. We have to equip then to talk to managers across the enterprise about business demands on IT - in short, they need to share a language and approach with the business studies students. Indeed, if we can base the integration of business and IT studies on a common model or architecture that clearly teaches the importance of IT in business success, we can contribute to business transformation for the next century.

Martin Hulse (mhulse@sco.com) is a senior consultant with the Santa Cruz Operation. Martin Gandoff (martin.gandoff@tvu. ac.uk) is a senior lecturer in business systems at Thames Valley University. They plan to draft a textbook which brings business and IT together in a new way, and would be interested to hear from anyone who has views or who might be interested in collaboration.

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