Thinking Holistically About IT: The Applied Project

June 07, 2012

As an IT consultant and part-time professor of computer information systems, Daniel Jewell can confidently say that he’s about as knowledgeable as anyone can be when it comes to the latest and greatest in business-focused technologies. Besides, he has good reason to be: To stay competitive in his industry, and to stay relevant in the classroom, he has to know everything there is to know in that realm.

About a year ago, however, Jewell began to wonder if just knowing IT was enough—enough, that is, to propel his career forward.

In his years as a consultant, Jewell had seen first-hand that decisions about IT and IT strategy weren’t necessarily made in an IT silo. Rather, like any other major decision made within a company, those decisions are made with many other considerations in mind — business considerations that Jewell didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to learn much about.

Once he came to that realization, he says, he knew the time had come expand his knowledge base. The only question was how, and where.

"I was really interested in finding a graduate program that would help me be able to understand more of the business side of IT," Jewell says. "One of the downsides of being in IT is that you often don't get a lot of exposure on that other side of things. So I was really looking for a program that would give me some real-world experience on the management side, to go along with my IT experience."

Jewell found precisely the program, and precisely the knowledge, he was looking for in the W. P. Carey School’s master of information management (MSIM), a program for working professionals that aims to give its students expanded business knowledge and management skills—and, by extension, a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The MSIM is offered on campus or online.

Applying knowledge

The program is rigorous and challenging, but what really sets it apart, to hear faculty and students tell it, is the signature group project that stands at its center—a year-long, highly detailed project that asks students to both identify and solve a real-world problem at a real-world company.

By asking students to apply IT knowledge within an actual business environment, these projects encapsulate precisely what the MSIM program was created to do: Help IT professional think more holistically about IT, and deliver practical, valuable solutions to the companies they serve.

"It's quite intense, actually," Jewell says of his project, which saw him and three fellow team members draw up a complete IT overhaul for a crane and rigging company. "It's challenging. It pushes you. It makes you really think about what you're doing and how you can apply it."

Information Systems Professor Raghu Santanam says that's precisely the point.

Santanam says the MSIM program was created specifically to serve students like Jewell—those who have the IT knowledge, but not necessarily the applied business knowledge, to climb the corporate ladder. The group project serves as a means to bring everything those students learn in the program together.

"The main intent is to create a truly integrated experience for these students," Santanam says. "They will go through a one-year program with 10 courses, but this project will span from the time they start until the time they graduate. We know that they are learning important things in the courses, but the real value of the program comes out of having an integrated understanding of how all of these things come together in a real business context. That's the reason we make them go through this experience—an experience where they take on a single problem, at a single business."

For students the rewards can be huge—not only from an intellectual standpoint, but also in the workplace.

“My boss asks me business related questions all of the time now, and I actually have not just an opinion, but an opinion backed by supporting facts and the business skills and knowledge to follow through on it,” says David Jones, a recent program graduate. “I found the process to be incredibly valuable.”

Transformation through IT

For Jewell, the capstone project involved a fairly massive challenge: He and his teammates were charged with creating an IT infrastructure for a company that didn't really have one. More specifically, he said, the goal was to formulate a plan that would not only be practical for the company to implement, but would also deliver bottom-line results.

"Our project was both an analysis and a transformation," he said. "This company had a few rudimentary systems, but our project was a complete transformation of that company's business model. We wanted the entire business to be able to revolve around IT and actually give them a computer system that would enable them to expand their business, generate new business and new sales leads, and ultimately increase their profit margin."

Because of the wide-ranging scope of their project, Jewell says his team was compelled to draw on both their established IT knowledge and still-developing management skills. Beyond that, he notes, they were also forced to work as a team.

That part of the experience, he says, proved to be just as valuable as any of the real-world learnings he picked up along the way.

“You cannot understand the importance of a team until you're really asked to work as a team, and this program definitely stresses teamwork,” he says. “It was absolutely necessary to become very used to and very comfortable with that, because during the implementation process in the real world you're going to have to interface with so many different people in so many different departments. The idea is to get down to that understanding of what the business needs and how your IT decision will impact these other people."

Bringing IT home

For Mitch Thompson, that last consideration was especially paramount. After all, the IT proposal he helped draw up during his MSIM project would impact not just theoretical people, but rather the people he worked with on a daily basis. That’s because when the time came to tackle his group project, he ended up looking at Swift Transportation, the company he has worked at for the past 16 years.

After slowly climbing the ladder from senior programmer to senior business intelligence analyst to data warehouse manager, Thompson said he eventually got to the point where he felt his vast IT knowledge just wasn't enough. He believed he needed to broaden his expertise—and the MSIM program, he figured, would do precisely that.

By the time he jumped into the program, he had spoken with Swift's CIO and received clearance to move forward on a project that would both identify a core business problem and deliver a technology-enabled solution.

"My team and I were focused on identifying a problem at Swift that, if solved, could have a significant impact on the company’s bottom line," Thompson says. "With my many years at Swift I had a strong grasp of the truckload transportation industry and the costs that drive the industry."

Eventually, Thompson and his team decided to focus their efforts on so-called engine-idle-time—an enormous waste of fuel within the industry. Their stated goal was to reduce that idle time by 15 percent, while at the same time increasing the company's fuel efficiency by 5 percent.

It was a lofty goal, but one that the team was able to achieve thanks to a technology-driven incentives program that gave Swift's drivers a good reason to idle less and drive with fuel efficiency in mind.

"In order to find a solution, we had to identify the core problem that was contributing to the wasteful use of one of the key resources to the truckload transportation industry," he said. "We felt it really came down to an incentive problem for Swift’s drivers. ... After discussing this concept with the team we quickly grabbed hold of this concept and devised a way to utilize technology to create an incentive structure that we were confident could lead Swift’s drivers to become more efficient and provide Swift with a significant return on investment.”

Integrating new skills and knowledge

Asked how his project experience will benefit him as his career moves forward, Thompson echoed Jewell’s thoughts: The true value of the project, he says, lies in the fact that it forces students to deal with IT in reality, rather than the abstract.

After all, there’s no fooling the bottom line.

“I think the applied project provides an excellent framework that one can reuse to evaluate the industry your firm competes in, and its position within that industry, and then create opportunities to improve the firm’s performance,” he says. “This framework is the most valuable thing one can take with you from the applied project.”

Santanam, for his part, would agree.

The MSIM program, and the group project that defines it, were intentionally designed to be challenging, intellectually stimulating and, above all, a true representation of on-the-ground business realities.

“All the classes are integrated into a tough, rigorous, multi-stage project that challenges and re-emphasizes everything learned,” Santanam says. “It enables the integration of the parts into the realization of a comprehensive approach to transformational business analysis. When students complete this journey they will be better for it—as will the companies they serve.”