E-Curriculum: Easy Come, Easy Go
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Last winter Stanford's new e-commerce elective was the hottest thing on the business school's campus, with 28 students using their single "silver bullet" to secure one of the 66 available spots. This quarter there are empty seats. While the Internet marketing class at MIT's Sloan School of Management is still popular, enrollment is down almost 29% from last year. And just five of the 135 student entries in MIT's annual business-plan competition proposed businesses ending in ".com," compared with 66 out of 206 last year.
Clearly, MBA students know how to read a stock chart. So the bursting of the dot-com bubble means the nations's top business schools, which just two years ago rushed to pepper their curriculums with e-commerce case studies, courses, and even majors, are now downplaying those changes--and planning to absorb e-education into the general curriculum.
Mohanbir Sawhney, who heads the e-commerce and technology major at Northwestern's Kellogg School, argues that the B-schools' emphasis on e-commerce made sense at the time. "When this new phenomenon was starting," he says, setting Internet-oriented businesses apart "was useful to get focus." Wharton followed similar logic, initiating a major in managing e-commerce in 1999, about the same time Harvard Business School was putting new emphasis on entrepreneurship and adding scores of new-economy case studies. Jay Light, a senior associate dean, explained Harvard's transformation to the New York Times this way: "We need to change--indeed get out in front of the parade--to continue to attract these bright 25-year-olds."
But even some boom-time students think the schools overdid it. Phil Buchanan, who graduated from Harvard Business School last year, says he got a solid education but criticizes an "overzealous embracing of e-everything" at the school. And employers don't necessarily applaud an abundance of e-courses either. "The main thing employers are looking for" in MBA grads, says Steve Pollock, president of career site WetFeet, "is a solid grasp of the fundamentals: financial modeling skills, analytical capabilities, being able to do realistic cash-flow analysis. To the extent that special programs take away from those areas, it's a negative."
No wonder the whir of backpedaling can now be heard from Boston to Berkeley. Says Mike Roberts, executive director of entrepreneurial studies at Harvard's B-school: "We knew when we were writing these Internet cases that they'd have a limited shelf life." Says Sawhney: "I fully intend to dismantle our e-commerce group over time." Wharton's e-commerce major "may or may not survive a five-year period," according to deputy dean David Schmittlein.
But that doesn't mean teaching about e-commerce is going away; indeed, some professors argue that the most valuable applications of the Internet are just getting started. Now, Sawhney says, business schools must teach "e-business for the rest of us"--that is, for large, established companies, not for dot-coms. He adds, "It's not so much about coming up with disruptive business models, but about overhauling infrastructure, your business processes, and your organization, and positioning it to capitalize on new technologies." In other words, the focus will become less "e" and more "t"--technology, that is.
In the meantime, some professors say that the dot-com debacle has actually benefited their teaching. B-schools are often criticized for focusing too much on success stories, according to Stanford professor Garth Saloner. "People say, 'Where are the failure cases?' " he says. "This is an area that's rife with failure cases."