French course puts accent on e-business partnerships

May 7, 1999

A business school in France's alpine city of Grenoble has received hundreds of enquiries about a masters course in electronic business that begins in the 1999-2000 academic year.

The one-year course, in the process of accreditation, will teach up to 40 future managers how to use internet technologies to improve business productivity.

The computer company, IBM, has helped the Ecole Superieure de Commerce (ESC Grenoble) to develop the course, but course director Lee Schlenker insists that students will not just be trained to use IBM technology. When top IBM executives lecture the students, they will be preaching what they practise. Students will be exposed to software from other companies such as SAP.

Professor Schlenker believes students can learn from IBM's painful recovery from near-collapse in the early 1990s: "We have found a partner we can work very closely with. It is not necessarily a question of them having the best technology. But interesting at IBM was the fact that they applied internally what they were preaching and selling externally.

"The pain that they have gone through to try to turn themselves around is knowledge that we would like the students to share."

For three years, the school has offered a masters course, Entreprise Communic@nte (communicating business). Fifteen students took it this year. The new course has developed out of that, with the subject matter reorganised around themes of enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management (SCM) and client relation management (CRM). These buzzwords have displaced traditional concepts of finance, logistics and marketing, and you would hear a lot of them from IBM consultants called in to sort out your business. You would also hear about groupware - collaborative work and learning.

Once, a company would have kept its stock databases secret and cut tough deals with suppliers and customers. As an example of the new thinking engendered by internet technology, Professor Schlenker says that a firm can now share its logistical database with customers and suppliers, managing the flow of goods and money so that all parties get a fair slice of the resulting savings.

The course will also look at the human impact of new technologies and the cultural change that is required when they are introduced. It will teach managers to develop technology plans, present them convincingly to the board of directors, measure the business benefits achieved, and build a case for continuing investment.

The school is well equipped with computing and communications equipment from IBM and other suppliers such as Hewlett-Packard. Students carry IBM laptops, bought at around 60 per cent off the normal price.

One or two of the e-business course's seven modules will be taught over the internet, but the school's chief executive Jean-Paul Leonardi warned:

"Distance learning often provides no more than the illusion of accessibility. Distance learning does not form communities, let alone helping students access them. Distance learning may even restrict access to, and of, local communities."

A problem with such courses is that technologies and management fashions change fast. Professor Schlenker acknowledges this, but he hopes students will leave with some durable skills: "We do not even know the technologies that will be in use in two or three years' time. However we can develop evaluation skills to try to understand quickly the pertinence of these technologies for a company's productivity."

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