A synergistic strategy for MIS curriculum development: response to rapidly advancing information technology

A synergistic strategy for MIS curriculum development: response to rapidly advancing information technology – Management information systems

Mayur S. Desai

Training and education of Information Systems (IS) professionals by both business organizations and educational institutions are critical in the pervasive Information Technology (IT) advances and utilization by end users. Due to rapid changes in IT, educational institutions have to constantly upgrade their training for providing appropriate education to their graduating students who along with their employers will be the end users of IT. It also makes these students more marketable in the competitive environment. The present strategy of MIS curricula seems to be broad and focuses more on concepts versus specific IT tools. This study addresses key issues with the existing strategies and proposes a synergistic approach to MIS curriculum development to augment the current strategies. A synergistic approach calls for a four-way partnership between Information Systems faculty, software developers, business and education faculty, and corporate management. The proposed strategy is based on a technique similar to integrated IT planning in organizations suggested by several researchers.

Introduction

The advent of foreign competition, increased efficiency, and the spread of postindustrial revolution have forced business leaders to regard training end users as a major part of their total expense. The postindustrial revolution is an era in which there is a widespread retraining need by white-collar, college-educated employees in contrast to traditional blue-collar workers retraining (Sims, 1990). These white-collar, college graduates are the future end users of information technology (IT). The prime objective of training end users is to help achieve the goals of business leaders through the optimum use of personnel. Training can reduce, if not eliminate, the difference between actual and the desired end-user performance (Agresta, 1992). This implies that organizations should provide special attention in formulating effective training mechanisms. Business leaders have also realized the importance of retraining the end users of IT rather than replacing them (Sims, 1990). Since the knowledge base of science will expand and each new wave of technology will embody more knowledge than its predecessor, training for new technology will continue to grow in importance (Rosow and Zager, 1988). By 1996, more than half of U.S. firms of over 100 employees provided computer programming training and over 70 trained people in PC applications. (Training, 1996). It is possible that end users’ computer skills could become obsolete in a short period of time due to fast changing Information Technology (IT). Thus, trainers and designers of training programs should provide effective training methods to retool end users’ computer skills to use new IT (Chang, 1994). IT itself is enhancing training opportunities, as corporate intranet use expands for this purpose. (Croft, 1996).

New technology designed to process and transport data and information has been developing at an exceptional rate for more than four decades (Frenzel, 1996). This has resulted in increase in end-user-computing (EUC), need for proficient end users, and end-user training. For many, the growth of IT has been a blessing. “New” technology was a major part of their formal education that forms the basis of their employment, and serves as a platform on which their future depends (Frenzel, 1996). While, as noted above, most large organizations provide IT / Computer training to their end users, most of it is delivered by outside groups. This implies that educational institutions can have an important role as a provider of IT training. In turn, they face a major challenge of retooling the skills of their staffs so that they can better serve the needs of the students and trainees (Hadidi, 1996; Pick, 1996). The end result is to create end users with good IT skills, such as ability to apply the techniques they learned in the training to their present tasks

This paper proposes a synergistic (model) approach in formulating MIS curriculum that requires a close partnership between business faculty and IS faculty. Several researchers have suggested an integrated approach to IT planning that organizations should use as a part of their overall strategy (Frenzel, 1996; O’brien, 1993). The synergistic model is based on the integrated approach to IT planning. It is the authors’ contention that such a curriculum will provide students with an education necessary to understand IT; to manage it; and to develop and use new IT applications.

Implications for Educational Institutions and the MIS curriculum

A number of researchers and organizations report IT’s increasing pervasiveness. For example, Client-Server technology is gaining momentum in a number of organizations. To understand client-server systems (CSS) technology requires knowledge of heterogeneous hardware and software products, their use within CSS and the impact of CSS on various organizational functions and its cost assessment. Thus, a student who aspires to be an IS manager must have both the business knowledge and the technical ability to apply the tools used in the business. If an MIS curriculum is totally based on IT, it might produce an acceptable IT expert. However, this expert is not sufficiently versed on IT’s implications for business processes and functions. This suggests certain standards for developing curriculum. Such standards will provide a curriculum that imparts necessary ingredients of IT and business knowledge. They also induce the faculty to assess skills they need to provide students the requisite IT knowledge so that these students enter the industry as competent end users.

Figure 1 outlines a proposed model that identifies the modified role of colleges and universities in educating their business and information systems (IS) undergraduate and graduate students. The model depicts relationships among the principal variables: Information technology (IT), Business Management, Self-or on-the-job training, In-house training, Outside training, and the Educational institution. These variables and their significance in the development of IS curriculum are explained in the following section. This model is expanded and developed in the later sections of this paper.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

IT Training Options

IT education and its interrelationship with business are the key variables and the focus of this paper. IT refers to any technology that, directly or indirectly, has made information, easily accessible to end users in any organization and society. Whenever a new technology is introduced within an institution (industrial or educational) its members are required to retrain or retool their skills to maintain their performance level. As noted above (Training, 1996), retraining and training are currently, rendered through some form of training or education. Further, most organizations use one or a combination of the four approaches shown in Figure 1.

(1) Self-training or On the Job Training (OJT) – refers to the training an employee gets while at work. This type of end-user training can be obtained via manuals, a mentor/tutor, or distance learning, Intranet, or by trial-and-error.

(2) In-house training – denotes formal training an individual’s employer provides via scheduled instruction on their organizational premises. Organizations such as Texas Instruments and EDS have in-house training programs for their end users of IT.

(3) Outside Training – many organizations outsource some part of formal training to outside training consultants. The outside training may be due to unavailability of or greater cost of in-house expertise for a specific technology.

(4) Formal Education – In some cases, employees may be required to pursue a formal degree program. The focus of this paper is on this last approach.

A Prerequisite Step to Development of MIS Curriculum

An IS professional may acquire a broad general knowledge of IT. However, the skills obtained by end users may not be the “specific” skills today’s IT demands. The issue of acquiring specific technical skill is further compounded in the distributed computing or CSS environment. In the distributed computing environment an end user is expected to have technical knowledge about a variety of heterogeneous components including hardware and software platforms. An end user is also expected to understand the managerial aspect of this complex technical environment. For example, a person responsible for transposing an existing application from one client/server environment to another, must understand the cultural processes of the organization, the software language used in that application, the old and new servers technology, and the network and support issues. Industry expects institutions prepare individuals to apply their education in such a scenario.

The need for technical skills, managerial skills, and job skills most demanded in the market place have been identified by several researchers (Koolish and Mashaw, 1996; Joseph et al., 1996; Frenzel, 1996; Todd et al., 1995; Prabhakar et al., 1996). Advertisements indicate the magnitude of demand for “specific” training, often provided by consulting firms. Thus, educational institutions face direct competition from such firms, as well as from in-house self-paced and intranet training packages.

Recent experiences in the IS job market revealed that colleges and universities are revisiting their strategy for developing their MIS curricula (Pick 1996). In some cases, they use adjunct instructor practitioners to provide “specific” training to their students, such as preparation for Microsoft Certification. Thus, it is likely that educational institutions are now reevaluating their strategy and offering more practical training to create technically savvy end users. As such, they add the “new or modified role” of providing IT “specific” training (in addition to basic education) to fill this void (see Figure 1). For example, a school in a north suburb of a U.S. city offers and accelerated program to provide such training. Educational institutions should be able to distinguish between IT education versus IT “specific” training. However, a systematic approach generally is lacking. This paper suggests a reasonable strategy toward this end. This strategy prescribes a curriculum incorporating IT “specific” training, conceptual IS education, and business management education. Such a curriculum addresses the needs of both information-based and knowledge-based organizations (Sveiby, 1997).

A Proposed Strategy for MIS Curriculum

An approach similar to integrated-IT planning is used to develop a strategy for MIS curriculum. An integrated IT plan requires a partnership between IS professionals and business managers. In educational institutions, a partnership between IS faculty and business faculty is proposed. Every course in the Business core should be evaluated jointly by the IS and business faculty. Conversely, any IS technical or management course developed by IS faculty should be reviewed by both faculties. In addition to the traditional course development, IS faculty should also assess industry trends for “specific” IT. IS faculty should retool their skills continuously in order to prepare their students for productive employment immediately, or with a small amount of additional training. This strategy will be more effective if business faculty consult with the industrial business community and IS faculty consult with their industry counterparts. Thus, a four-way partnership between business faculty, business community, IS faculty and IS professionals is suggested for developing an MIS curriculum.

Figure 2 shows the key relationships within educational institutions and organizations and four-way interactive relationships among these constituencies. This is proposed as a “synergistic approach”, employing both integrative and intensive strategies in MIS curriculum development. A large university in a southwest U.S. city uses a similar approach in the development of their MIS curriculum. This institution works in close partnership with the business organizations located around the institution. A number of members of their curriculum committee is represented by the business organizations. These business organizations understand the importance of EUC and thus provide input regarding the skills demand of the business organizations. In case of demands for new skills, the faculty members are sent to business organization to acquire these skills so that they can bring these skills to their classrooms and provide the necessary education.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Proposed Strategic Model

The basic theme of the proposed model developed by the authors for MIS curriculum development is a “four way” partnership among the four key constructs that underlies this model. Figure 2 depicts the relationships among the “four way” partnership constructs. These constructs are: information technology expertise in business organizations; information technology in educational institutions; business management in industrial organizations; business school or division in educational institutions. Four linkages (links 1,2, 3, and 4) represent the interactions among these constructs. A fifth linkage, the convergence of the four links, represents a synergistic result of effective collaboration. The following section briefly describes these constructs and the linkages.

Within a business setting, the IT groups and business management work closely together in planning the IT. The overlap between the IT and business management (area 2) in Figure 2 indicates the use of IT as part of information systems (IS). Organizations use IS in transaction processing, payroll, expert, executive decision and management systems. The IT “specific” development area in Figure 2 represents the activities of IT creators and developers. They research and experiment with new technology, developing existing or new IS to fulfill business processes demand. This sector may be labeled “continuous research and development,” enhancing the quality of existing and new IS.

Within the educational institution setting, the IT and business faculty work together in planning their coursework for the students. The overlap between the IT and business school (area 1) in Figure 2 represents the information system courses and their impact on business functions. Typical examples are: introduction to information systems, database management systems (DBMS), and systems analysis and design. This overlap is assumed to be well accepted and understood (at least conceptually) by the schools. However, the area represented by IT “specific” training needs a special attention. This represents the IT “specific” knowledge needed by faculty to provide IT tool “specific” training to the students. It should be delivered as “training” rather than in conceptual form. This is the area where a student learns how to use a specific tool such as CASE (e.g., Texas Instrument’s Composer) in the industrial setting. Faculty might develop an expertise in using such a tool by working with an IT creator or industry expert. This is represented by an overlap between IT “specific” training and IT “specific” development (area 3) in Figure 2. This overlap implies that IS faculty will have an ongoing, continuous upgrading of IT tool specific skills in collaboration with IT practitioners. This link is believed to be the weakest link in the model and requires close attention.

Business management in an industrial organization represents management strategy and operational functions such as marketing, accounting, finance, etc., also reflected in the business school curriculum. The overlap between the business school and business management (area 4) in Figure 2 represents this interaction, helping business faculty to provide appropriate business and management education. This is a long established relationship and therefore is assumed to be the strongest link.

Discussion and Future Directions

The areas 1, 2, and 4 in Figure 2 have been addressed and presumed to be well- understood in both educational, and business organizations. However, area 3 is often weak and requires special attention. A close relationship between IS faculty and IT creators in the field helps provide training to students along with the education students need. It also helps business organizations reduce the learning curve of their new employees. Overlapping area 1 also needs attention. It helps IS faculty understand the expectations of the business faculty so that IS faculty can relate projects directly to the business faculty’s expectations. This helps students understand the purpose of their specific IS courses and how these courses can make them successful end users of IT. Area 5 represents the intersection of all four constructs and a focal point of all interaction. It implies that every group in business and educational organizations needs to understand the collaborative roles and the interrelationships among them. Such interactions can produce a curriculum of IS education that best serves the student community and result in technically sound end users. This synergistic result is a measure of the overall effectiveness of the participants’ interactions.

A future research agenda would be to evaluate the existing MIS curricula in several educational institutions against the synergistic model criteria in this proposal. A further study could include the views and actions of colleges and university committees. The results of such studies can test this model and subsequently lay the groundwork for a standard approach to required changes in future MIS curricula.

Conclusion

It is suggested that a synergistic approach to MIS curriculum development will be very useful for future graduates who will also be the end users of IT. It will also help faculty reassess their strategy and priorities in designing their curricula and courses. This approach will help fulfill stakeholder obligations to the business community, the profession, and, most importantly, the students. It can definitely help business organizations reduce the learning curve for their newly hired graduates in a high-demand field. While possibly making businesses more profitable, the learning curve benefits should accrue to the educational institution as well, increasing their external support and their students’ career opportunities.

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DR. MAYUR S. DESAI

Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems

DR. THOMAS VON DER EMBSE

Professor of Management and Dean

School of Business

Indiana University – Kokomo

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