e-Biz CEOs gain IT training

Managers of e-biz getting IT training to understand technology and make strategic IT decisions.

Beth Vanstory's MBA from Northwestern University's prestigious Kellogg Graduate School of Management certainly helped her land her job as president of automotive e-tailer iMotors.com Inc. But it is her undergraduate degree in computer science from the same school that will help her hold onto it.

"My goal has always been to work with IT to make sure that technology solves a business need. I have no desire to take control of IT."

Beth Vanstory

Indeed, VanStory said her technology background speeds up the decision-making process in choosing a business partner or what vendor's product to use. And in the fast-paced e-business world, the ability to execute quickly is critical.

Today's companies need leaders who are able to wield technology as a strategic weapon, according to industry observers. But finding CEOs and other managers with the ability to think analytically about both business and technology is no easy task. After all, what CIO hasn't had trouble selling the idea of security or directory services to an executive far more interested in the latest e-biz buzzword?

Corporations hope to change all that, however, by demanding that future business leaders understand IT and be ready to adopt new approaches to align technology strategies with overall organizational needs. As a result, MBAs with master's degrees in IS management are in high demand among dot-coms and corporate e-business spinoffs.

Many companies are turning to schools like the Boston University School of Management and Bentley College's McCallum Graduate School of Business to meet their e-business management needs.

While business schools have long equipped CIOs and IT managers with business fundamentals, both B.U. and Bentley have established new programs designed to teach students—presumably the CEOs of tomorrow—how to understand technology and make strategic IT decisions.

"Having a CEO whom you can communicate with at a much lower level and who really understands the real problems IT deals with makes a tre men dous difference," said Chas Di Fatta, vice president of systems engineering at Freeworks.com Inc., in Mountain View, Calif. "They have a real understanding of the value of IT."

These university programs have IT pros like DiFatta breathing sighs of relief—especially since business executives are beginning to voice their own opinions about technology.

"CEOs are becoming increasingly articulate about their expectations of how IT can contribute to business results," said Rod Hall, a consultant at Compass America Inc., of Reston, Va.

To help aspiring business executives get up to speed on IT, B.U. last month unveiled a new degree. The school's MS.MBA program enables students to work toward concurrent master's degrees in business and IS to prepare future CEOs for the new economy. And last year, Bentley College began enrollment for its Information Age MBA program, in which students are more likely to take courses in how to strategically choose and implement an enterprise resource planning system such as SAP AG's R/3 than in accounting.

The response from corporations has been overwhelmingly positive, said Patricia Flynn, dean of the McCallum school, in Waltham, Mass. "Considering the expense of adopting new technologies these days, companies need CEOs who can ask the right questions of the technology people," Flynn said. "The CEOs of today need to know more technology than in the past."

Does having a techie CEO really make a difference? At Freeworks, President and CEO Dave Stubenvoll has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Clarkson Univer sity, an MBA from Carnegie Mellon Univer sity and a JD from Boston College School of Law. While Stubenvoll admits he cannot configure a router, he said he understands that what may seem like a simple change to a product may take days for his IT staff to complete. That alone makes his relationship with DiFatta and the IT department much stronger.

There is, however, a line that must never be crossed when CEOs start developing a taste for technology. iMotors' VanStory sums it up this way: "My goal has always been to work with IT to make sure that technology solves a business need. I have no desire to take control of IT." Rather, she leaves that up to the technology experts who hold the title of CIO or chief technology officer.