Monday, June 8, 2009

Technology strategy course provides competitive edge - SDM Pulse, Summer 2009

By Kristina Richardson, SDM ’08

Editor’s note: This article introduces SDM’s foundation course in technology strategy. The author, an officer in the US Army, took the class as an SDM student and served as a teaching assistant (TA) for the course this past spring.

Kristina Richardson
SDM ’08
Technology Strategy is one of the foundation courses in the System Design and Management (SDM) Program—typically the first management course that students in the program take. The course focuses on making the connection between technology and major business decisions—those strategic decisions that affect long-term success.

Case studies form the cornerstone of instruction, as students are expected to identify the web of connections
linking technologies, systems, products, customers, and competitors. The content of such case studies are specifically chosen to illustrate the links between technology and major business decisions—revealing what is different about strategy in high-tech environments, where SDM course participants actually work. This is a major strength of the SDM class curriculum compared to similar courses at other business schools.

To prepare technology leaders, the strategy course covers several key areas: decision-making under uncertainty; looking at scenarios and sensitivity (viewing products and services within their strategic context); real options and big bets; the timing of decisions; and how to have an effective process.

Senior Lecturer Michael Davies begins the class by presenting students with a series of strategic frameworks for managing high-technology businesses. The emphasis is on developing and applying conceptual models that clarify the interactions between competition, patterns of technological and market change, and the structure and development of internal firm capabilities.

Building on that framework, Davies encourages course participants to take a larger view, thinking about what is going on in the system as a whole. This work establishes the critical thinking skills required to address the cases involved in each lecture.

Davies enriches these case studies by inviting executives to discuss their business decisions—for example, recent speakers have come from A123 Systems,, Polaroid, and Nokia. SDM students also enhance the class experience by sharing information from their current companies (as appropriate and applicable) as well as by providing supplemental articles and additional materials to expand the class discussions.

Students are expected to read and review case studies before class, as quality class participation is fundamental to success in this course.

The case studies are updated each year, to ensure that the class remains current. This year, for example, a major discussion centered on Apple’s iPhone, and how Nokia, Microsoft, Google and other major players are responding to the success of this product.

It was interesting for me to see this evolving debate as a TA, because when I was a student in the class last year, we discussed the iPhone in a different context. At that time, we considered the iPhone as an innovative technology and compared it to the Blackberry as both began to emerge as possible dominant designs for the cell phone industry. As times have changed, this core SDM class has changed too, shifting the class focus to those competitors emerging to challenge the iPhone.

One of the most satisfying features of this course from a TA’s perspective was seeing the students grow and gain real depth of understanding in the subject—progress that was especially evident during the final team project presentations.

For these course-long projects, students form teams to select, evaluate and analyze chosen company problem areas. In each case, students have to identify critical strategy recommendations for the target companies. Among the projects this year, for example, teams examined the potential of ultra-capacitors for energy storage; evaluated a plan for replacing an aging fleet of buses for a metropolitan transportation system; considered the potential of cloud computing as a Microsoft Service; and worked to create and capture value in the IT health care services domain. As a collective body of work, the final presentations were fantastically insightful. This is not an easy course, because technology strategy is not an easy subject—but students who apply themselves will be rewarded with a thorough introduction to this complex, dynamic, and uncertain area.

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