Forget Wall Street. MBAs are heading to cyberspace

Across the US, business students learn to hawk their wares on the Net.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After working for years as an accountant in Washington, Julie Sandberg decided it was time to go back to school and start a new career.

Technology and the Internet had piqued her interest, so she enrolled in the University of Denver's recently developed graduate program in electronic commerce.

As it turns out, her decision was well timed. As more and more businesses venture online, they are finding that it may take more to run a business in cyberspace than just the skills from a traditional MBA.

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In fact, online sales are growing so fast that companies are scrambling to find employees with both the technical expertise and marketing skills necessary for the unique challenges of the Internet. Online purchases will jump from $7.1 billion in 1998 to $41.1 billion in 2002, predicts the research firm Jupiter Communications.

This remarkable growth has led many business programs in schools across the US to move beyond just offering elective classes in e-commerce to starting full-fledged degree programs. Some are even teaming with big Internet firms to develop MBAs devoted exclusively to online business.

"There's a tremendous demand for e-commerce or Internet marketing people," says Peter Veruki, director of the Career Management Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "But employers don't want just Web-page design skills; they want a fully trained MBA who can integrate marketing, operations, and corporate decision-making."

Indeed, five years ago, few had even heard of the Internet. Today, its exponential growth has made the world a smaller place for businesses, changing the scope as well as the nature of sales. Even small companies can now reach a broad consumer base and compete in the international marketplace.

But it has changed business in other ways as well. Technology is rewriting the rules of marketing techniques, and many believe blanket mass-market advertising - epitomized by TV commercials and print ads - will be replaced by targeted, personalized ads.

Moreover, consumer behavior online is evolving as fast as the technology. Trying to hawk a product in cyberspace is different from the real world, a fact businesses have been slow to learn. Already the ubiquitous banner ads posted all over Web sites - an idea taken from traditional advertising techniques - barely register to people surfing the Net.

For Ms. Sandberg, these rapid changes create a world of possibilities. The Internet, she says, is "exciting because nobody's figured out the perfect model for this new medium yet. Anyone who comes out of school now has the same chance of shaping the industry as someone who's been in the business for years."

And it's not hurting the wallet, either. The need for qualified employees is driving up starting salaries. Says Mr. Veruki, "The average base salary for my MBA graduates this year was $75,000. For my e-commerce graduates, that base was $85,000."

Universities, too, are trying to seize these possibilities. Drexel University in Philadelphia is joining forces with local technology firms to develop its Center for Electronic Commerce Management.

Other universities, including MIT, the University of Texas at Austin, and Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, have also developed programs.

"In all my years of academics, I've never seen anything grow quite so quickly as this," says Pamela Lewis, a dean at Drexel.

Even so, while not dismissing the need for these programs, some observers are wary of the rush to set up programs in e-commerce. They wonder if schools have faculty experienced and qualified enough to develop a worthwhile curriculum.

"Is this the same set of classes configured in a different way and called e-commerce?" asks Charles Hickman of the International Association for Management Education in St. Louis.

Most educators and business consultants, including Mr. Hickman, envision the long-term staying power of the Internet and foresee a time when e-commerce classes are offered as part of a standard business curriculum.

"Today, this is an anomaly," says one industry executive. "Tomorrow it will be an integrated part of our lives."

"At some point in the future, it'll be in the same class as the telephone."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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