Summer 1997

WPI at the Crossroads

Managing in the Age of Technology

Editor's Note: Over the past few decades, the world has become far more complicated for the men and women who transact the world's business. Perhaps the most profound change to transform the business world is the rise of computer and communications technology. No aspect of business and industry - and no profession - has been untouched by the Information Revolution. Modern technology has accelerated the pace of business, catalyzed the growth of the global marketplace, and redefined the nature of work itself. To manage people and organizations today, one must understand technology and be adept at using it.

In the second installment of this series dedicated to looking at the issues and opportunities the university faces with the approach of a new millennium, we look at how the discipline of management at WPI is evolving to meet this challenge and at how WPI's Department of Management is working to become the national leader in education for the management of technology.

Those familiar with the initials "WPI" most often associate them with the word "engineering."

In fact, for more than 130 years, WPI has been preparing engineers and other technological professionals to deftly balance theory and practice in all manner of professions. But while many of those graduates went on to manage people and organizations as part of their jobs, they may not have felt well prepared to deal with the realities of management when they left the university. That's about to change.

"Business Week predicted that in the not too distant future, the typical job will require at least a master's degree. Behind that pronouncement was the recognition of the increasing technological sophistication of business." - McRae Banks

Two years ago, McRae Banks came to WPI from Mississippi State University to head WPI's Department of Management, where he found a challenging set of tasks waiting for him: strengthening the department's undergraduate and graduate programs, earning national accreditation for its programs, and developing a more effective presence in distance education. With the help of the management faculty and Norm Wilkinson, director of graduate management programs, Banks dove right in. Under his leadership, the department has emerged with a bold strategic intent: "Within the next 15 years," he says, "WPI will become the premier provider of graduate and undergraduate education in the management of technology."

The Department of Management was officially founded in 1974, though WPI reportedly offered a management engineering concentration as early as 1942. The reasons for teaching technological professionals about management haven't changed much over the decades, Wilkinson says. "There are skills we teach in management that students who do purely technical course work generally don't acquire. These are skills that employers tell us they'd like to see in their technical employees. In addition, engineers are quite likely to end up in managerial positions. In fact, more than 80 percent of the students who enroll in our MBA program have engineering backgrounds."

"More than 80 percent of the students who enroll in our MBA program have engineering backgrounds." - Norm Wilkinson

Undergraduates and technological professionals who choose WPI's management offerings benefit from a program with a unique focus. Rather than merely covering the fundamentals of business, as do most university management programs, WPI has designed its program to prepare students for the future of management, which Banks and Wilkinson say means managing organizations in the age of technology. The department recently drafted a new mission statement that defines the management of technology in three ways: "the conversion of technology into commercial products/services, the integration of technology into the work environment, and the management of technological organizations."

"We want students to understand how to use technology to help their organizations work better and to help people be more effective," Banks says. "An article in Business Week predicted that in the not too distant future, the typical job will require at least a master's degree. Behind that pronouncement was the recognition of the increasing technological sophistication of business. If people don't understand that, they're not going to work effectively. If our students graduate and understand the importance of technology, they will be far ahead of everyone else."

The Road to the Future

The first step toward the fulfillment of the department's plan for the future was strengthening its existing programs. "When our graduate committee looked at restructuring our programs, we talked to students, alumni, employers, our board of advisors and our faculty to find out what skills they thought our graduates needed to come away with," Wilkinson says. "That's how we came to recognize that our programs needed to give students a global perspective, provide them with leadership training, and help them develop communications skills."

These skills are the focus of several core courses developed for WPI's new 49-credit MBA program. Complementing the course work is the new three-credit Graduate Qualifying Project (GQP). Similar to the qualifying projects undergraduates complete as part of the project-based WPI Plan, the GQP will help students gain experience in real-world problem solving. Management is the first department at WPI to require such a project of its graduate students. "The GQP is designed to pull together a number of business functions to focus the students' creative energies on both analyzing and solving a problem," Banks says. "We're now looking for corporations to sponsor these projects."

In addition to putting a global and technological spin on the MBA program, the department has begun offering two new

30-credit master of science programs: Marketing and Technological Innovation, and Operations and Information Technology. Both are geared toward students who already have a general business degree and are looking for a more focused program, or students who simply have a more specialized need than the MBA program can satisfy. "If you're in, or are aspiring to, a position that requires one of these specific skills, it makes sense to take one of our new focused degree programs," Wilkinson says.

Worcester, Waltham, the World

Professor Frank Noonan conducts a class in the television studio in WPI's Fuller Labs. The recorded session will then be distributed through the Advanced Distance Learning Network.

During the past academic year, the Department of Management began offering graduate certificate programs at WPI's new Waltham campus. Located in an office building just outside of Boston on Route 128 - in the heart of one of America's high-technology strongholds - the campus beckons passing motorists with a bright red sign that reads "WPI Waltham Campus." "It's a beautiful facility," Banks says. "And it's right in the area where we need to be. We have high visibility in Waltham and the campus is surrounded by technology-oriented companies."

To existing five-course, 15-credit certificate programs in technology marketing and the management of technology, the department recently added a new program in information technology. "We've found that about half of our certificate students have prior graduate degrees," Wilkinson says. "So people who already have an MBA or an M.S. in an engineering field are coming back for one of these specializations. The certificate programs also lead nicely into our graduate degree programs. Quite a few potential students who express an interest in a certificate program end up applying to a degree program, and even more are looking in that direction."

Another option for those seeking management education from WPI is the Advanced Distance Learning Network (ADLN), which enables students all over the world to take courses at WPI. The network distributes course lectures to students on videocassettes. Students communicate with one another and with their professors via the Internet, phone and fax. Courses can also be delivered to remote classrooms, often at corporate sites, using videoconferencing technology. "WPI has been offering distance learning programs since 1979," Banks says, "and we may well have been the first university to provide an entire MBA program at a distance."

"The criteria, the expectations and the grading procedures are the same, whether one takes a graduate management program on campus or via ADLN," Wilkinson says. "We've found that our distance students perform as well - if not better - than on-campus students. Many say they feel they have more contact with their instructors than on-campus students do. During the course, they have a semester-long e-mail conversation with a professor, rather than just three hours a week in a classroom."

As more departments at WPI begin developing distance learning programs, Banks says time in the university's television studio will be at a premium. Recognizing this, the Department of Management is exploring other distance learning technologies to assure that it can maintain its capacity to meet the growing demand for its programs. These technologies include the World Wide Web, which is already being used by many universities (including WPI) to deliver courses remotely, and CD-ROMs and digital videodisks.

Undergraduate Changes

As it worked to revise its graduate programs, the department has also been taking time to reinvigorate its undergraduate offerings. Currently, the management and management engineering major programs are being reworked to complement a newly revamped management information systems (MIS) major. Faculty members Dieter Klein, Diane Strong and Wenhong Luo made the MIS program one of the first in the nation to conform to IS '97, a new set of guidelines for this major. "The MIS program needed to be strengthened," Banks says. "The outcome of that strengthening was an immediate increase in enrollment. We began the 1996-97 academic year with five MIS majors. The new program was passed by the faculty last October, and in January we had 41 majors."

"We may well have been the first university to provide an entire MBA program at a distance."

The 1995-96 academic year saw the debut of a new major: industrial engineering. "Few business schools offer a major in industrial engineering," Banks says. "Our students take more management topics than the traditional industrial engineering major would. That's because of our belief that the industrial engineer needs to be aware of the larger context of business. We're also concentrating much more on the service side than on the manufacturing side. By doing this, we're creating a program that gives our graduates a competitive advantage."

Like the revamped MIS program, the industrial engineering major seems to be a hit with students. "It's a new program," Banks says, "and without any advertising, we brought in five majors last year. Two months into the school year, industrial engineering enrollment had grown to 32 with internal transfers. This year, despite graduations, the department is up to 48 IE majors. Sharon Johnson, director of the IE program, Frank Noonan and Art Gerstenfeld have done an outstanding job in getting the IE program off the ground."

Traditionally, most undergraduates majoring in management programs at WPI have been internal transfers - students who've moved from other majors to management. But Banks says the department's new and revamped undergraduate programs are designed to draw the attention of high school juniors and seniors.

The changes in the undergraduate program come about at a time when parents are beginning to understand the need for their sons and daughters to receive management training. Banks recalls one parent who peppered him with questions during a department open house last year. Afterward, she said to him, "I want my daughter to understand the technical side, but I also want her to understand the management side." "That's what we do at WPI," Banks says. "We merge the two, producing much stronger graduates than other universities."

"Students can build programs that go in a number of directions. That's made possible by the flexibility of the Plan."

Banks says the WPI Plan adds even more value to the undergraduate management programs. "It's a tremendous advantage to be part of the WPI Plan," he says. "Within management, students can build programs that go in a number of directions. That's made possible by the flexibility of the Plan. Students can bundle courses together in a unique manner to come up with a focus that's going to help them meet their own career objectives. Also, our projects tend to address real problems faced by real organizations. That experience adds tremendously to our students' backgrounds. I think that's why our undergraduates tend to earn higher than average starting salaries and why, after five years, they earn much more than other majors from WPI."

Looking ahead

Professor Michael Elmes

What's next for management at WPI? "In addition to rolling out our new undergraduate and graduate programs and enhancing our distance learning programs, we're taking the first steps toward accreditation," Banks says. "The department is a candidate for accreditation by AACSB, the International Association for Management Education. That's at least a five-year process.

"Another initiative the department is pursuing is an increased presence in outreach and research. We have many faculty members who are interested in working with the business community on applied research projects. These are projects that the companies define with our faculty members, either to solve a specific problem or to improve their general understanding of some area they feel is critical to their future success." Among the research centers the department is exploring are ones focused on financial distress, data quality and new product development.

"We're also trying to tackle what may be one of the more important obstacles to our future growth and success: a lack of community among our students, faculty and alumni. We want to make sure that our undergraduate and graduate students feel as though they have a tie to the department and vice versa. By doing that, we believe we can foster a much stronger alumni body in years to come."

Although Banks says he feels the department is doing a good job of building a sense of community at the undergraduate level, he and Wilkinson acknowledge the difficulty of accomplishing that same goal with a population that includes a substantial number of part-time graduate students. "We've tried to include families in a lot of the activities we sponsor, because many of our students have families and they already spend time away from them to pursue our degree programs," Wilkinson says. "For example, when we do our own graduate management student orientation each fall, we include a department-wide barbecue. We're putting together a graduate management student organization, a member of which will sit on the department's graduate policy and curriculum committee."

The department is also developing a graduate management alumni association. "We have nearly 800 graduate alums out there," Wilkinson says. "They constitute a loyal alumni group." Adds Banks, "Admittedly, we haven't really stayed in close contact with them. We hope we can build a relationship with our graduate alumni that will benefit them and the department."

By strengthening its programs and building a sense of community, the department seems to be well on its way toward achieving its lofty goal: to be the premier provider of graduate and undergraduate education in the management of technology. "We'll get there," Banks says. "WPI has a tremendous reputation that we can leverage. We have outstanding faculty members in the department and we have outstanding students at the graduate and undergraduate levels. There's no reason we can't achieve our goal."

Amy L. Marr '96

Marr is WPI's World Wide Web Coordinator and a WPI graduate student in management, pursuing an M.S. in marketing and technological innovation.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:03 EDT 1999