A number of forces are converging to make it far more convenient for mid-career professionals to update their management knowledge through a business degree program. Fueled primarily by the growing resources of the Internet, these programs are finding expanded opportunities to enhance the quality and breadth of their traditional offerings. One of these major forces is the knowledge management movement in which organizations use powerful collaborative technologies to create more fluid, organic work environments. These technologies optimize the effective employment of a firm’s intellectual property.
This new connectivity also provides a delivery system for “corporate university” initiatives that pose new competition for traditional university programs. This article explores these issues, and argues that both the classrooms of the university and of corporate America may be mutually enhanced through a common “virtual knowledge network.” This technology may provide a more effective and economical means of meeting the objectives of the professional development process.
Organizations are adapting to enormous changes brought on by technological breakthroughs in computers and communication. Accelerated particularly by continuing developments in collaborative technologies known as groupware, these advances are having a profound impact on the management process. Described as the Network Era by leading scholars, virtual workplaces are being created in which dispersed team members from multiple disciplines interact electronically as they adapt to competitive situations. Electronic meetings “anytime, anywhere” have become a common response to an increasingly competitive, global marketplace. At the heart of these new, team-based information systems is the objective of capturing, organizing, and distributing the intellectual capital of the firm. This process is referred to as “knowledge management.” The knowledge management movement, in turn, creates new challenges and opportunities for the field of professional education.
Professional Education Programs
Corporate America, government agencies, and non-profits spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year in formal education programs for management personnel. These programs range from brief seminars to business degree programs. Almost all of these courses are taken in some form of “limited residency” to allow the student to continue to carry out his or her work responsibilities. The student moves back and forth between the culture of industry and that of the classroom where he or she develops new relationships with students from other disciplines and industries. Many graduates of these programs attribute much of their learning to these relationships and continue them throughout their careers.
This education environment has many of the attributes of the collaborative learning process of virtual team structures, particularly the need for knowledge sharing. For example, many professional education courses rely heavily on case method teaching which requires class preparation through study group meetings. For students, the class environment is highly analogous to that of the emerging multi-disciplined teams in today’s organizations. Further analogies can be found in the nature of the case analysis task that requires preparation of a recommended intervention within a limited time frame. Students with expertise in the subject industry, or discipline, usually add a rich dimension to these analyses. In many programs, guest speakers also add their perspectives to student discussions. Faculty facilitate this learning process by constantly challenging assumptions and guiding decision-making processes.
The Role of Information Technology
While electronic meetings employing threaded discussions have become commonplace among dispersed group members in the workplace, this technology is not yet commonly found in the classroom. Student and instructor communication typically remains face-to-face (same time, same place) despite the increasing trend to extend the time between class meetings. In an effort to meet the increasing demands of student’s work schedules, many management programs have implemented “limited residency” programs where class meetings have intervals as long as eight weeks. Ironically, despite a rapidly growing investment in IT infrastructure in most management schools, a significant gap remains in utilizing these technologies to enhance the learning process. Not only does research show that these collaborative technologies can enhance the quality of learning, they can provide universities with a new opportunity to leverage their investment by providing a “virtual knowledge network” to students, employers, alumni, and corporate partners.
A second major force impacting the professional education supply chain is the transition to digital content. Text publishers, academic journals, and university libraries are moving rapidly to utilize the Internet to meet the document demands of computer literate students, researchers, and instructors. Digital content allows the instructor to publish, deliver, and receive timely updates at any time among knowledge groups. Similarly, Internet software developers are introducing low cost video and audio transmission tools that provide access to “same time, different place” meetings such as lectures at other universities and on-line conferences. Recently, for example, Harvard Business School alumni could “attend” their annual conference on the Internet.
The Virtual Knowledge Network
Figure 1 depicts a scenario for this new network. As resident class meetings become less frequent and students are recruited from wider geographic areas, faculty will be the primary drivers in integrating a virtual classroom. They will assume a new role as true knowledge managers facilitating the management of study groups. Student access to these electronic networks will be included in tuition, while alumni and corporate partners will participate through annual subscriptions. Course materials, documents, and related materials will be purchased directly by members through electronic commerce. On-line communities of scholars will be created from a broad base of university stakeholders.
For example, Cathy, a 35 year-old marketing manager from an early stage pharmaceutical firm, is a student in Professor M’s class. Cathy has had 12 years of experience in sales and marketing with major medical firms since receiving her bachelor’s degree in economics. She has been with her current firm for the past eight years and has been given increasing responsibilities in product management. Her job assignment requires that she coordinate a team responsible for launching a new product about to be approved by the FDA. She has also learned that a major pharmaceutical firm is interested in buying her company.
Cathy attends school every other Saturday and is a member of an online discussion group that includes fellow students, an alumnus, and the director of technology planning from a local firm. She is also a member of a five-person group working on a thesis project due next year as part of the degree requirements. Professor M has mentioned that the university’s executive program has had a number of students from the pharmaceutical industry of whom one, recently named CEO of a new venture in the industry, spoke to his class last year. Cathy identified this individual by searching the university knowledge base and invited him to participate in the thesis groups’ electronic meetings. He, in turn, included Cathy in his firms’ monthly “open forum” Web conference designed to keep clients current on product developments.
Cathy’s search also revealed a faculty member who is a consultant in FDA regulations and a student in another class who was writing a paper on the performance of emerging drug companies. The university’s law school also provided access to a Web conference on new advertising regulations in the pharmaceutical industry. Cathy shared this information with her colleagues at work, some of whom participated in the conference.
This brief scenario highlights a segment of the rich information flows and knowledge sources that students and faculty experience in university management programs.
The Transformation Process
The challenge to utilize information technologies to enhance the emerging educational needs of the professional student, however, will require the same dramatic transformation in university organizational structure and processes as those experienced by industry. Curriculum structure and delivery systems must be approached with a “clean slate.” Inter and intra class linkages must be seamless. Students must be allowed to continue their university relationship as part of a learning “community” after completion of their program. Faculty must be at the heart of this transformation, acting as “knowledge managers” in a new structure that transcends time and space in serving a more demanding constituency.
Professional education programs cannot escape the same dramatic shifts in infrastructure and process redesign experienced by industry and government in this emerging network era. Failure to augment their traditional “bricks and mortar” delivery system with powerful information networks designed to optimize the vast knowledge base of their faculty, students, and alumni will only strengthen the competitive advantage of those who do.