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Are e-commerce degrees just a fad?

CIO

(IDG) -- Stand next to any graduate business school these days, and you may hear some strange rumblings. Unless you're standing on a fault line, chances are the buildings themselves aren't coming down. The reverberations are less tangible than aftershocks, but they have far greater implications for the future of graduate business education and the greater business world. They are the sounds of e-commerce shaking business schools to their cores.

And business schools are responding. Some are offering e-commerce concentrations as part of MBAs. Others are eschewing this approach in favor of something more controversial--an actual master of science degree in e-commerce. But there's a lot of debate swirling around the best way to integrate e-commerce into graduate schools, and it's not just academic. Both students and employers need to take a long, hard look at what's going into these degrees--and what benefits, if any, will emerge for companies desperate for e-commerce expertise. As graduate business education reshapes itself to the new economy, the sense of urgency may be diverting attention from the real question: Which programs are preparing its students to meet an electronic future? And the answer is important for both CIOs contemplating career moves and those in charge of hiring for their companies' online efforts who are left wondering what kind of education to seek in their applicants.

Critics charge exploitation

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Many academic institutions are betting that e-commerce graduate training of various stripes will be just the thing to meet the sky-high demand for Web-conversant executives. But critics of the trend of separate e-commerce degree programs think universities are exploiting the popularity and coolness of e-commerce, when in fact what students really need is on-the-job training or a basic grounding in business. According to Roy Moore, director of the Baccalaureate/Graduate Degree Commission of the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), an accreditation association for business education in Overland Park, Kan., schools are using the e-commerce hype to line their wallets rather than thinking carefully about what students need. "E-commerce is being blown up to be more than it is," he says. "I'm not sure it deserves a separate discipline. I see it more as a money-making gimmick." And he may have a point. After all, graduate schools are not educating students out of the goodness of their hearts. The more prospective students they attract, the more selective universities can be. And as the caliber of the students grows, so too does the attention of recruiters, raising a school's standing on those coveted best-of lists. So there's a lot of incentive for both schools and students to buy into the hype.

I'll take mine with extra e-commerce

Despite the uncertainty, some schools have already inaugurated various forms of e-commerce education. Consider the MS in e-commerce, which has recently debuted at Carnegie Mellon, Claremont Graduate University and Marlboro College, among others (see "School choices for e-students," linked below). These degrees typically run one year and combine some business courses with courses in subjects like database management, computer security and supply chain management (see "A course comparison," linked below). The idea is that while students don't learn how to run a database or fix a network, they learn how to communicate with the people who can--the link between business and technology that has become a crucial part of doing business today. What makes Carnegie's program attractive is "the fact that it is focused on e-commerce--no extras," says Tridas Mukhopadhyay, the director of Carnegie Mellon's program in Pittsburgh. (Of course, that raises the question of whether the "extras" are actually necessities, producing the scary thought that students who choose one of these new master's over an MBA may be missing out on some crucial business education.)

But if these degrees are lighter on the business than an MBA is, they're certainly heavier on the technology--and technophobes need not apply. "Students should be prepared to come here and learn the technology," says Mukhopadhyay. "If they don't have the stomach for [the technology] they should opt for a general business degree." Mukhopadhyay notes that students in Carnegie's program typically come in with degrees in engineering, computer science or business, though some come from a liberal arts background and a few already have MBAs. They usually have an average of seven years of work experience in areas like Internet business development, consulting, MIS management and Web development, among others. And the first graduating class has found jobs with e-commerce, business development and project management consultancies and Internet startups.

"A sense of urgency"

At Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt., the master's in Internet strategy management (ISM) emerged in 1998 after the small, ultraliberal arts college created a graduate center to meet a growing need for programs for working professionals. "Our notion here was that at the end of this program, people would have an understanding of what they would need to shape a company's Internet strategy," says Paul LeBlanc, the founder of the program and president of Marlboro College. "That's a question we get a lot: How are you different from an MBA? MBAs are great, but the reality is that there is a sense of urgency that drives our students." LeBlanc notes that one student flies to Vermont every week from San Francisco because he can't find a similar program on the West Coast.

And if Marlboro's students' backgrounds are varied, so too are the jobs they take after completing the program. One 1998 ISM graduate was a nurse before entering the program; now she's the CIO for a network of hospitals in Vermont. Another graduate worked as an IBM mainframe software developer before the program and is now the director of Internet strategy for private banking company Brown Brothers Harriman. Still another was a former manager of a Mercedes Benz dealership and is now president of an Internet marketing consulting company that provides resources to online auto dealerships.

At Boston University's Metropolitan College, the master's degree in e-commerce, which launched January 2000, combines classes from BU's administrative sciences and computer science departments. The degree is geared toward both local working professionals and full-time international students. "We are probably attracting people who thought the MBA was not specialized enough," says Vijay Kanabar, the program's director, who points out that when the program debuted it attracted three times the number of students it could accommodate.

Why the popularity? Kanabar believes students are attracted to the thought of learning a good blend of computer science and management tips. He expects that students, who come from fields as varied as medicine (the current class includes two MDs), telecommunications and software, will take jobs as e-commerce security providers, designers, webmasters or analysts—jobs that require a certain amount of technical proficiency mixed with business understanding. "Since the e-commerce program is offered jointly with the computer science department, students are technically smarter than the pure MBA student," he adds.

But in creating these programs, universities are facing some tricky questions, and potential students and employers must weigh the offerings accordingly: What, exactly, makes up e-commerce? Is it the technology behind selling on the Web or is it the business decisions behind the technology? A combination of the two? Does it include B2B, or is that a separate discipline? And can anyone really fit both business and technology into 12 months of study?

Keep it integrated

Because the academic picture is still unclear, some educators doubt that dividing e-commerce from the rest of business education is the best way to train future new-economy leaders. While few schools dispute that e-commerce needs to become part of business school curriculums in some way--at a recent International Association for Management Education conference the panic emitting from deans and professors was nearly palpable--some think a more solid way to introduce e-commerce to these students is to serve it as a side dish, as part of an MBA concentration, rather than as the main course. That might mean that those MBA students get the best of both worlds--a solid grounding in business and enough e-commerce to be able to speak the language of the new economy to those who do the technology work. Typically, students taking this approach spend two years in a program, take core courses in standard MBA fare, like financial accounting and statistical analysis, and then add courses in areas like channel management or electronic commerce management. (See "A Course Comparison," linked below.)

That is what's happening at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business where a major in e-commerce is part of the MBA offerings. And at Michigan State University's Broad School of Business, the newly unveiled marketing technology MBA concentration combines classroom learning with input from an industry board that includes DaimlerChrysler, IBM and MVP.com. And at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, an e-business concentration will appear this fall as part of the MBA program.

So which is better?

With business schools performing makeovers faster than a stylist at Vidal Sasson, what's a business looking to hire some of these graduates to think? Academic insiders believe there is indeed a difference between students coming out with an MBA and those holding a focused e-commerce degree. Though these programs are still too new to categorize definitively, it's fair to say that the master's degrees in e-commerce attract students with more of a technology bent who have some interest in learning the business basics, while MBA degrees with e-commerce concentrations attract students who wish to dig deep into the business aspect and learn enough e-commerce technology to give those business lessons some context.

Dave Schmittlein, deputy dean at Wharton, sees different goals in the two types of degrees. "It's not that we think that [the e-commerce degree] is a wrong path to take," he concedes. "But I think some of the MEB [master's in electronic business] programs are training people to play a role in midlevel staff positions at an eBay or an Amazon.com or for smaller companies looking for help managing e-business." In elite MBA programs like Wharton's, he says, there's more chance for entrepreneurs to thrive, faster access to venture capital and more of an opportunity to put together comprehensive business plans because the program's focus is on hard-core business lessons while still incorporating e-commerce.

Rob Kaufmann, an associate professor at Minnesota's Carlson, worries that some schools are jumping in too quickly without figuring out how these new degrees fit into their overall offerings: "Students ask, 'When will it be available?' Our response is, 'We have to integrate the learning better than we've ever done it before.'" And while he notes that the competition will become keen between Carlson's program and one like Carnegie's, Kaufmann doesn't think that people who seek high-level posts like heads of marketing can attain them without an MBA. "I think the lion's share of MBA recruiting will remain traditional," he adds, making the point that companies will still look for students with a deep grasp of business rather than the more shallow overview that e-commerce master's degrees offer.

Robert Nason, chairman of the department of marketing and supply chain management at Michigan State University's Eli Broad Graduate School of Management, speaks more bluntly of the emergence of e-commerce courses: "We believe those are fad programs." The best programs, he says, integrate the changes e-commerce is bringing to the business world into existing degrees rather than slicing them out of the wider business context. And he adds that even in MBA programs, students--and the people who hire them--need to be prepared for changes. "I tell every student, 'What I tell you now may not be what we offer you next year.'"

Expereience, not degree

Outside academe, where many are highly skeptical of the e-commerce degree trend, the arguments take a different shape. Dave Happe, president of Ecruiters.net in Chanhassen, Minn., an executive search company that specializes in Internet technology and e-commerce, thinks that these degrees aren't getting at the heart of what is needed today. "Our clients would take a young talent with six months' worth of 18-hour days at a B2B startup company over a Harvard e-commerce graduate," he says. "Ideas that led the industry a year ago now bankrupt companies that haven't changed several times since then." ACBSP's Moore adds that private schools may be jumping on the bandwagon quickly because their financial needs are more urgent than those of public institutions.

However, at the same time, industry also wants universities to produce students ready to tackle e-commerce. Carnegie Mellon puts students to work on real-world problems furnished by the likes of the Texas Supreme Court and Diamond Technology. Sue Unger, CIO of DaimlerChrysler, who serves on the industry board of MSU's marketing technology MBA concentration, is glad to see universities taking on the challenge of linking business degrees with e-commerce: "Businesses have a responsibility to help any university shape what they need." But she emphasizes that a comprehensive understanding of business is important, which may bode badly for the focused e-commerce degrees. "If you do anything with 100 percent focus there's a danger the technology is going to change."

But Carnegie Mellon, which has long enjoyed a stellar reputation in both business and technology, defends its MS in e-commerce. "I don't want to give the impression that the MBA is not a good degree. It's a very good degree. But our people have an advantage when it comes to e-commerce. What they learn is not possible in an MBA program," says Carnegie's Mukhopadhyay, referring to the intense focus on e-commerce and the hands-on experience students get in industry projects. And there's something to be said for the length of the program--with the business world changing rapidly, students who spend less time away from the real world may realize an advantage over those who devote two years to school.

At Claremont Graduate University, Lorne Olfman, dean of the school of information sciences, is unabashed about the program's focus on e-commerce. "I think people think this is where the jobs are going to be," he says. "The biggest challenge is packing what people need into the number of units they're going to pay for." But interestingly enough, Blake Fitch, a student in the BU program who is developing a site with other students in her program to sell original artwork and photography online, thinks she will go back and get an MBA eventually, even after she has her master's in e-commerce in hand. Why? "In my heart of hearts I feel like the job placement is just better [with an MBA]," she admits.

Ravi Tripuraneni, a student in Claremont's program, already has a PhD in marketing and an MBA under his belt. But he still felt a void--"This whole industry is too huge to miss," he says--so he signed up for Claremont's master's program. However, while non-MBA students coming into the program do get some sort of grounding in business basics, he notes that his classmates with MBAs have a firmer grasp of implementation and strategy development than those without.

Whether or not these degrees serve Tripuraneni and others like him forever, they're still attracting plenty of positive attention. "I think for at least the next several years this will be worth a lot to people who have the right set of core skills," asserts Tripuraneni, who plans to go into e-commerce consulting or startup strategy development when he completes his degree. Claremont's Olfman voices little concern about the degree's potential for survival. "If the demand goes away we won't offer the degree anymore," he says.

The future looks... well, uncertain

Just to complicate matters, Boston University's graduate school also offers a dual IS-MBA degree with an emphasis on e-business, and Temple University's Fox School of Business is set to offer one this fall. Others are sure to follow. Maybe these schools have the right idea. But changing a university's curriculum is never an easy task, and universities are not known for their agility. And now that schools are ready to try to keep pace with business, they face hurdles in faculty, budget approval and time. Temple University began marketing its dual-degree program before it had fully gained approval from the university board. If it hadn't, the university would have lost students--and their money--to other schools implementing similar programs faster. And that brings up another point. Even with high-tech stocks misbehaving on Wall Street, there's a chance for schools heavy into e-commerce to produce dotcom millionaires, who then look kindly on the schools that got them where they are. You get the picture.

But no matter how many times universities put "E" in front of their programs or concentrations, the fact remains that the basic tenets of business aren't going anywhere anytime soon. To be successful, companies still have to turn a profit (that means you, too, dotcoms), acquire new customers, manage growth and keep up with changing times. For each type of student--and for each type of employer--the needs and expectations from business degree programs may vary. Educators and students agree that this is a year of enormous upheaval in graduate business education. Anyone involved had better hang on tight. It's going to be quite a ride.




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