Back in business

Peter Todd is coming back to his alma mater to prove IT means business.

Todd, the senior associate dean at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, was hired this week by McGill University in Montreal to lead its Faculty

of Management. At Virginia, Todd has helped lead a number of projects around e-commerce, decision-making in information processing and technology adoption/satisfaction rates. 

Todd’s career began as a professor of management information systems at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. He later worked as director of the Information Systems Research Center and associate dean of the University of Houston College of Business Adminstration. spoke with Todd about his experiences in the U.S., and what he’ll be bringing to McGill. When did you first start making this blend between IT and management?

Peter Todd: All of my career I’ve been in business school so I understand it pretty well. I have an IT background and an IT educational experience, but I’ve always been on the border of those two worlds, if you want to call them that. For the last four years while I’ve been at the University of Virginia, and even at the University of Houston before that, I had the opportunity to run a lot of hybrid organizations in the business schools that joined technology and management. At Houston, at the Information Research Center that I ran, we brought leading corporate IT executives in to talk about IT and management. And here, one of the things we’ve done is integrated business integration. We don’t think about taking functions or taking silo-based knowledge nearly as much as we did 10 or 12 years ago. We’ve run a couple of very interesting programs here that blend those two facets together. One is an executive Master’s degree in IT management that I’ve been heading up since I’ve been here, and that program I think in a very unique way tries to take the best of an MBA-based educational experience and the best of a kind of a technical systems engineering kind of experience, and really pull those things together. And to always as we do that focus on how to get the business value out of technology. We take very much a return-on-investment perspective on technology. As I think about going into McGill – and I can’t claim at this point to be an expert on all the inside elements of McGill’s programs – that notion of integration is important for a university like McGill, and I think they’ve done various integration in various areas like health care and other kinds of things. I think we’ll bring that same kind of thinking to the study of technology and business. A Gartner Inc. study recently said 15 per cent of IT workers will drop out of the profession by 2015. How should companies deal with that and reinvigorate the profession?

PT: I think the big issue for us to be thinking about from an educational point of view and even as an IT professional is where is the value added for those investments in technology capital and technology labour going to come from? I think the things that are going to drop out of the marketplace – I consider myself both an optimist and a realist around this – are the things that are easily automated. The things that are moving offshore, I think, are things that are going to be automated, the help desks and programming tasks. To really drive the profession forward we have to focus on the top-end activities and that really is to me the interface the interface between analyzing the business problem and process in the context of overall business strategy, and figuring out how you’re going to use technology and deploy it effectively. And increasingly thinking about managing technology relationships within the organization, but more importantly across organizations as well. It doesn’t seem, based on all the outsourcing failures, that we’ve been doing a great job of that so far.

PT: I think that that is true, and I actually spent some time while I was at Houston working with a doctoral student and another colleague on IT/vendor relationshp management issues. In some of the work that we were doing, one of the things that we found is that people needed to deal with sort of the long-term aspects of the relationship and how to make it work over a long timeframe by putting in – not good legalistic processes so much, although I don’t want to discount the value of contracts – but really building the underlying nature of the relationship and developing a sense of reciprocity in those relationships. I don’t think we’re anywhere near as good at that as we should be, building good communication structures and making sure we understand from the business side what the vendors can do and making sure the vendors understand the business. In the work that we did, the vendors would say, “We have the technology expertise and we want to understand your business,” and the on the business side, the people would say, “Look, we’re hiring you for your technology expertise. Bring us that. We’re not concerned with how you understand the business side.” I think that can lead to a mismatch. When you take over McGill’s faculty of management, you’re going to be dealing with the most tech-savvy group of students in years. How is that going to change the relationship between business and IT?

PT: I think that for many of the students I’ve dealt with over the last decade, and it’s increasingly true year to year, the technology just becomes a natural part of the way (students) think about these things. When I said before I’m a realist and an optimist, I’m optimistic in the sense that finding ways to think about how to effectively use technology is becoming in some sense second nature to the students. When I think about some of the things we’ve stopped teaching, I think it speaks to that. If you go back to five, six, seven years even, we were still teaching things like Excel, PowerPoint, and some of those basics. We don’t teach those at all anymore. In the last year we’ve stopped even teaching some of the Web development stuff because we’re finding the students are coming to us with that kind of experience. They already have the basic kind of background. I think what that does, it means when we’re teaching them about technology, we can be teaching them more about – not the nuts and bolts about how things work, but the fundamental issues of how to exploit the technology in a business environment to drive return on investment. And that is a much more interesting conversation to be able to have with the students, in my view. What’s the morale of this year’s group of graduates in IT programs? What’s their feeling about their future careers?

PT: In the IT area, we’re seeing about a quarter of our students who graduate from the business school go into consulting. And that’s mostly IT consulting. We still see IT as a consulting direction for the students. It’s a popular option, there’s plently of work for them. We may be a little biased here because of our location – we’re about two hours outside of Washington – but there is a huge amount of federal IT work going on, so a lot of consulting firms ramping up to hire for people going into Homeland Security, into defence or other areas. Our local economy may distort that a little bit, but we’re still seeing good results here on the ground. For those entering management-related IT programs today, how do you respond to fears that their jobs may be outsourced or that they’re going to face a lot of turmoil in their career? 

PT: One of things I’ve always told our students is that they need to develop backgrounds that are not just in technology have a strong understanding of an important aspect of business, and I usually tell students that’s accounting, finance or marketing. They need to integrate that with your knowledge of technology, and I think that makes you uniquely more valuable resource in an organization. There’s still an incredible productivity challenge, and I think that’s even more critical in Canada than in the U.S. when you look at some of the productivity growth numbers. There’s continued opportunity to leverage technology and spending on technology, which has been relatively flat over the last five years, though it has started to pick up again. The technology isn’t going to go away, I think the channels of distributions are going to change: the way we use it, the people who are involved with it. It is going to be a more global resource. But I think in many ways that makes it more exciting, particularly a world to think about managing in.

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