The Business of Tech: MBA Programs in Information Technology

How an MBA program with an IT focus can help tackle emerging needs

Cloud computing. E-commerce. Mobile apps. IT is big business, and it looks like it will stay that way for some time to come.

IT-related industries like social media, game development, and even online eyeglasses sales are some of the fastest-growing worldwide. According to the US Department of Labor, the IT sector is expected to continue to add jobs, outpacing most other industries. 

So, how can an MBA program help address these growing needs?

For those who already have a tech background, doing an MBA can provide a business perspective beyond day-to-day IT operations. For example, Many students begin the Management Information Systems MBA program at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business with one single technology-oriented area of expertise, such as software development.

According to Richard Franklin, who teaches on the program, the MBA helps students "get more breadth". Not only do they "become more literate and aware of what's going on in other areas," the program gives them the opportunity to focus on other functional areas as well, such as marketing or finance. 

This combination of technical experience and a managerial skillset can be a huge career asset. Knowledge of technology is nice, but a wider understanding of the potential applications of that technology is what drives innovation and strategy at successful companies "tech-oriented or otherwise" around the world. 

But a technical expertise is not required for a specialized program. At Temple University, cohorts on the Fox School of Business's information technology management (ITM) MBA concentration are a mix of students with and without technical experience. Both types of students can benefit, according to David Schuff, an associate professor in Fox's MIS department. 

"You have people with a more technical background who want to advance in the current job they're in", says Schuff. "And then people who don't have as much of a technical background are being increasingly put into positions where they have to interface with technology people".

For those without a background in technology who want to quickly get up to speed on the nuts and bolts, there are other education options beyond an MBA. For example, Georgia State's Robinson College of Business offers a one-year Master of Science in Information Systems, which combines a basic business curriculum with more specialized courses in topics like telecommunications design and database management. 

According to Ephraim McLean, director of Robinson's Center for Research in Information Systems, this kind of program is designed for "an accountant or even a history major", who might say, "I missed the IT boat. I'm not in computing. Can I get into it?" 

In many cases, technology-focused MBA programs explore technological topics through the use of real-world examples and hands-on, practical activities. McLean says that every one of Robinson's IT courses has a "field project or internship component."

At Temple, David Schuff tries to find current, relevant angles so that students can better relate to complex or abstract subjects. For example, in a data analytics course last year, he introduced the recent film Moneyball as a discussion topic. The film documents how one baseball executive used often-ignored statistics to assemble a winning team, and immediately prompted students to wonder if the same couldn't be done inside of their own companies.

According to Schuff, they starting asking themselves, "what are the key components of a good employee, and can they be quantified in the same way that performance indicators of a good baseball player can be quantified? It crosses ethical issues with analytics issues."

Keeping up

Data analytics, along with social media, mobile technology, and a range of other fields, represents one of many emerging topics that many businesses are increasingly facing today. Even in the wake of the tech bubble crash and elevated fears of outsourcing, the need for skilled managers with IT acumen persists. 

"Basically, business runs on IT," Katz's Richard Franklin says.

Franklin sees a need for tech-trained executives from an increasingly varied assortment of industries and specialities. It's not just about marketing people getting interested in e-commerce or mobile sales, he says, but also an emergent need for IT skills in the data-heavy financial services industry.

"Someone who has been working in the servicing side of financial services might not have any IT background at all, but sees how important it is", says Franklin. 

David Schuff similarly sees a growing demand for IT professionals in the healthcare industry. Temple Fox shares some of its core technology and information services courses with the health care information management program in Temple's College of Health Professions.

"How do you get an electronic health data record in a portable format?", asks Schuff. "How do you efficiently move a patient through the system? It's a really interesting set of technology problems."

These challenges speak to today's rapidly-changing IT environment, and what businesses may face in the future. But keeping up is also a challenge for business schools, too.

Katz's Richard Franklin says that each year, he is forced to "throw out" 25-30 percent of the content in the e-commerce course that he teaches. 

"Is that a challenge?," he asks rhetorically. "Yeah, but it's also fun."

Photo: Victorgrigas / Creative Commons

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