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Better Business Through technology

Andrew McAfee, a 29-year-old doctoral student at Harvard Business School, is studying a computerized video about an Australian business executive who tried and failed to resurrect a sock-manufacturing plant outside Beijing. The executive is explaining how he had trouble with Chinese government bureaucracy. His words make it sound like red tape doomed the plant. But his face is slightly flushed. The tone of his voice is edgy, tinged with frustration and impatience.

Leaning close to the computer screen, McAfee analyzes these emotional cues and reaches an alternative hypothesis. Perhaps the executive should have made an effort to learn the language, shown more sensitivity to local customs, been more patient and accommodating. Perhaps it was his lack of respect for Chinese culture that doomed the plant.

Shad Hall at the Business School houses an exceedingly upscale gymnasium, and with the addition of the research and technology lab in the basement, it becomes a place for the exercise of mind as well as body.
Shad Hall at the Business School houses an exceedingly upscale gymnasium, and with the addition of the research and technology lab in the basement, it becomes a place for the exercise of mind as well as body.Photograph by Webb Chappell
Equipped with a new $11-million computer system that allows students to study such on-line video case studies of real-life business problems, the business school has advanced over the past year to the cutting edge of American graduate business programs, using technology to better prepare students for the subtleties of management.

The creation of the new case studies is one of several changes led by Dean Kim B. Clark '74, Ph.D. '78, who took office October 1, 1995, vowing to modernize a program that some students had criticized as technologically backward. In addition to increasing the school's use of technology, Clark in his first year has also spearheaded moves to require Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores for all applicants, revise the curriculum, reduce the size of class sections, and allow students to enroll in January as well as September.

But it is with the new computer system that Clark's imprint on the school is felt daily by students and professors. In the past, for example, when students wanted to find out what case studies they had to read for future classes, they often had to go to the library and look at a chalk board. Now they log onto the school's website for homework assignments, continuously updated class schedules, and school announcements.

In the traditional case-method study system, students examine written descriptions of real business problems and then discuss their conclusions in class. The printed case studies are presented in a traditional, linear narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. But the on-line case studies use hypertext (text with nonsequential links to other fields of information) to allow students to jump immediately to the subjects they find most relevant. The computerized versions have built-in search engines, so students can scan for a particular piece of data, and are programmed to allow simulations of possible outcomes if a manager tries a certain strategy. Video and audio recordings of the people involved in the business situations supplement the hypertext cases, allowing students to pick up critically important hints from body language, tone of voice, and social context.

The transition in case studies is just beginning, with only about 10 of the 600 case studies created this year in the new format. But administrators plan to expand this number to between 50 and 100 new on-line video case studies next year

~ Tom Pelton