The push for an e-business school

Peter Ho

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Step into the office of Professor Richard Ho, Dean of Faculty of Business, and what immediately catches your eye are the two—not one—computer monitors sitting side by side on his desktop.

"It's not for show," Professor Ho hastily explained. "Two monitors are needed in our paperless document management environment—one for calling up and reading the paper in circulation, the other for writing my comments and viewing the comments of other members." The Faculty implemented an on-line group decision support system, modified from a commercial product, two years ago as part of its push to become an e-business school. With the on-line system, key members of the Faculty can now, for example, rate and rank funding proposals before the faculty research committee meets. "The proposals from the two ends—That is, the best and the weakest ones-- can now generally be removed by members' consensus," Professor Ho said. "The meeting will then concentrate on the borderline cases--cases that need members' discussion and deliberation." While the total meeting time may not necessarily be shortened, the quality of the discussion has greatly improved.

A change of mindset
Professor Ho gave this on-line endeavour as an example of the momentous change his Faculty has gone through in recent months. "When we say we will go the way of becoming an e-business school, we are talking about more than just offering one or two additional courses or programmes,"he said. "We also have to have a change of mindset." The holistic approach involves, among other things, a rethinking of the Faculty's academic support and administrative processes, much like streamlining and digitizing the entire back office operations to match the storefront activities in an on-line retail business. Yet he admitted that the changes at the back office, however important they are, are often less visible and immediate in impact than those taking place at the storefront?hat is, the programmes and courses that thousands of students come across on a day-to-day basis.

The trumpet call for the push towards an e-business environment was first heard in a Faculty retreat in June 2000, where some 30 senior members, drawn from all six constituent departments and the Faculty office, gathered and brainstormed. Their task was, in the words of Professor Ho "a quantum jump" : to integrate the "e" elements in its undergraduate courses. Four or five years ago, the Faculty re-engineered its entire Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) programme into a more broad-based curriculum, with emphasis on a solid common foundation in business education for all first-year students before they move on to their selected majors. Two years ago, the Faculty also launched, with considerable success, Hong Kong's first Interactive Master of Business Administration (iMBA) programme that utilized broadband interactive television and Internet technologies. This time around, Professor Ho and his senior colleagues believe, if the Faculty is to transform into a genuine e-business school, it will have to augment its entire undergraduate BBA programme to meet the needs of the emerging new economy. The change is necessary because, first, Hong Kong is moving towards a knowledge-based economy in which new business activities are becoming increasing e-driven or e-related, and second, such a move is seen as an opportunity to leap-frog over other local institutions.

A game plan to become an e-business school was drawn up after the summer retreat. In essence, it rests on a multi-part strategy: revamping the entire BBA curriculum, forming partnerships with industry, and improving students' learning experience.

"E" is for everything
In the area of curriculum innovation, first and foremost, compulsory cross-disciplinary courses on e-business have been introduced into the common foundation for all BBA first-year students, while the scope of electives for e-business has been strengthened and widened. Lecturers and instructors are also encouraged to augment their existing courses with on-line components to liven up and broaden the student learning experience. Two investment courses offered by the Department of Economics and Finance, for example, will introduce a web-based learning mode, in addition to the existing chalk-and-talk lecture method, said Professor Ho. The 300 students in the two courses were given a choice, and nearly a quarter have signed up for the on-line mode, indicating a general willingness on the part of the younger generation to embrace technology-based learning. But in the new initiatives, the need to keep in touch with students will not be neglected. All the lecturers and instructors concerned will either call, or send e-mail messages to, students once a month to check on their progress. "Initially, the cost of running an on-line course may be much higher than a traditional course," commented Professor Ho. "We might have to employ more teaching assistants to ensure our students are properly coached."

Overall, despite the addition of new courses and content, the Faculty will seek to reduce the study load of the BBA programme to 90-95 credit units. And to follow up on the experience gained in the iMBA programme, the Faculty will target 20% of the undergraduate programme to be taught by professionals and experts in business and industry. "This is highly desirable if we want to keep the course contents fresh, vibrant and up-to-date with the latest developments in the field," Professor Ho explained. In the production of the iMBA video programmes, outside professionals, who are usually more media-savvy and photogenic than professors, have been enlisted in some cases as presenters, while Faculty staff will concentrate on writing the scripts and will occasionally appear before the camera as guest experts.

Apart from revamping the entire BBA programme, the Faculty also lost no time in building up its own flagship BBA Electronic Commerce programme, the only one of its kind in Hong Kong at the undergraduate level, according to Professor Ho. Offered under the auspices of the Information Systems Department and introduced in September 2000, the dedicated e-business programme now has 100 students in years one and two. The former group is drawn from the existing pool of first-year BBA students, while the latter consists mostly of higher diploma graduates who chose to articulate into degree studies. The first batch of JUPAS applicants for the BBA Electronic Commerce will not be admitted until September 2001. "Judging from the enthusiastic response so far," Professor Ho said, "I'm confident that the programme will rank among the most popular for students."

To niche or not to niche
Some professors of the Faculty feel that, among the various streams and sectors of the new economy, the CityU team has the best strength in two critical areas that have particular relevance to Hong Kong: e-logistics; and e-banking and e-finance. These are the niche areas where CityU staff have gathered critical mass and can easily excel in research and consultancy work over the other universities in Hong Kong. While Professor Ho agrees that these two areas hold enormous promise, for CityU and for Hong Kong, he cautions that e-business is still in its infancy and, as such, the boundaries and delineations between disciplines have not yet been defined. "E-business is still evolving," he said, "it revolutionizes all the business processes that involve digitized procedures, cutting across the disciplines of accounting, finance, marketing and human resources management. I don't think we have to focus too early on anything until the picture is clearer. If we start doing this, we have in a way gone back to the old days, before e-time, by slotting knowledge into tiny different compartments." He believes, even in the age of new business education, students should be given as wide an exposure as possible in e-business knowledge to broaden their outlook. Instead of urging students to specialize too early, the Faculty focuses on teaching new skills that are applicable to all e-business areas. One example is data mining, Professor Ho said. Also known as knowledge discovery in databases, this emerging technology burrows through gigabytes of data to search for patterns that cannot be anticipated in advance. In fact, the Faculty's push into this technology has led to a partnership between the Management Sciences Department and the SAS Institute, one of the largest statistical software companies in the world. On 12 December, the two partners launched the first Knowledge Discovery Centre, to be located in the Department, for enterprises in Hong Kong, with the SAS donating US$1 million worth of proprietary software and the Department contributing its expertise to set up training seminars and workshops beginning early 2001.

Partnership with industry
The partnership with SAS, Professor Ho said, may be the first of a series of similar joint ventures with the industry. At the time of writing, the Faculty is about to sign two more agreements, one with another statistical software firm, and another with a major international mobile communication company. Such industry ties may satisfy in part the Faculty's call for the setting up of an e-business institute, which will serve as a resource centre for the business community, especially for small and medium enterprises. Other complementary reforms to support the curriculum shift can be found in what the Faculty calls "improved infrastructure support". A self-study centre for students has been planned, with on-line short courses developed in-house or purchased externally. Another idea in the pipeline is the appointment of a Chief Technology Officer at associate dean level to monitor the development of e-business courses and activities in the Faculty and to serve as a conduit to speed up the flow of knowledge between the University and the Faculty. Selected staff members, known as champions, will be supported for concessions in hardware purchase, reduction in workloads and even allowed share options in start-ups. The purpose of all these plans is to encourage staff development, in individuals or a team, for a leadership role in spreading the new e-business culture. On the physical ambience side, a number of e-lobbies or e-cafe—small, cozy places fitted out with sofas, chairs and a few computers hooked to the Internet—are now a feature in the Faculty's Departments. These recreational spaces are meant to help students mingle and interact with each other and with the lecturers. The next step will be the setting up of an e-corridor, in the Department of Management Sciences, where students will undergo a unique interactive learning experience when they pass through it.

Despite the addition of new courses and new electronic tools in the new curriculum, the Faculty's ultimate goal remains: to train a generation of young and aspiring intellectuals with broad-based knowledge, who have the skills to think analytically, to communicate clearly, and to co-operate with others. The difference is that now these students will be expected to have the added advantage of knowing how to use information technology—the necessary tools and mindset—to solve tomorrow's business problems.

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