Taking technology management to task

27 May 2004

A few years ago further education was far from Sean Hegarty’s mind. As the managing director of a successful computer resales company based in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Waterford, Hegarty had his degree in business and law tucked under his belt all right but he was fully absorbed in his business, managing several new divisions that he had set up in response to the runaway IT growth of the late Nineties. The technology crash changed all that.

One of the lessons Hegarty learned from that difficult period was that he needed to be more strategic about the way he ran his business. He felt that although he had good commercial skills, these were not matched by a sound understanding of technology and how to manage it. “I was looking for something that would introduce me to the technical side but I didn’t want to do anything too technical,” he explains.

The choices were limited but eventually he found what he was looking for in a new two-year master’s degree in technology management distance learning course run jointly by University College Cork, NUI Galway and the University of Limerick. He is now among 45 students – business and IT professionals working in the indigenous and multinational sector – who will be the first graduates of the course this December.

The MSc in Technology Management grew out of a joint submission by the three universities to Enterprise Ireland, which had issued a tender for the development of such a programme in the south-west and subsequently provided funding of €1.3m to get it off the ground.

Hegarty clearly feels there is a real need for a course of study that integrates commercial and technical disciplines. “It’s a key issue. Technical people need to have business perspective and managements skills. They need to be able to talk to business owners and explain the value of technology to them. Business managers and owners on the other hand have a duty to be aware of these issues and to make proper decisions about technology. Those that are aware quite often run successful businesses; those that are not usually just tip along.”

The question is whether the MSc in Technology Management and others like it can turn individuals into ‘hybrid managers’ and what the impact of such individuals is on the organisations they work for.

Dr Joe McDonagh, senior lecturer in strategic change and information technology at the School of Business Studies, Trinity College Dublin, believes that while it makes good economic sense for managers to have knowledge of both the business and technology areas what these courses can achieve in practical terms needs to be kept in perspective.

Drawing upon his previous role as director of Trinity’s four-year business and technology degree, McDonagh says that while combined business and technology courses work well on an academic level, what these courses can achieve for the individual tends to be overstated. For example, if a course contains 20 modules, it is extremely unlikely that a graduate will be equally adept at all of them. Thus the concept of the hybrid manager is stillborn in many cases. “The percentage of students at the end of a programme who think in a holistic and systemic way – you’re talking about a very small number. There’s a need for a great dose of realism here,” he says.

He further adds that even if the well-rounded managers emerge from these courses, the jury is still out on whether they can overcome certain stubborn barriers such as deep-rooted organisational culture.

“If you are in IT, there is a powerful stereotype that sees you in a certain type of way. You’re expected to behave like a techie and have expertise in this area … There’s a firmly embedded mindset among business executives that anything to do with IT should be thrown over the fence for the IT specialists to deal with,” he says.

This organisational apartheid between business and technical roles is so engrained, he points out, that when businesses advertise for senior technical people, very rarely does the job description integrate both roles; it focuses purely on the technical skillsets required.

This leads to another problem: lack of career development for the business-cum-IT specialist. It’s all very well churning out graduates in technology management but where do they go? Is there a place for them in the organisation, an identifiable career path to follow? McDonagh thinks not: “You’re neither fish nor fowl.”

His conclusion is straightforward: “An educational intervention on its own won’t change things. It needs to be accompanied by other interventions too.”

The lack of a career path argument is disputed by Professor Roy Green of NUI Galway, one of three academic directors of the MSc in Technology Management programme. “People make their own career paths these days,” he asserts. “It’s clear that there is a career track out there. You don’t need to convince managers of that. The harder job is convincing young students that IT is worth going into.”

What is more, he adds, far from churning out graduates with nowhere to go, the course has actually a very specific mandate: to furnish the 280 companies that make up the Atlantic Technology Corridor with the appropriate change management skills. “The idea of the MSc in Technology Management is to shift from the notion of vertical supply chains to horizontal inter-firm collaboration. This is a form of clustering and provides the platform for indigenous firms to operate directly in global markets,” says Green.

Whatever grand ambition a university professor may have for a particular course, what matters most perhaps is whether the individual students feel they have benefited. Hegarty is married with a small child, has a full-on job yet has to find time from somewhere to study. Still, he doesn’t doubt the value of the course.

“I’m getting great benefit from it. I’ve restructured the business into three departments, have recruited high-level people and am introducing performance metrics. It might sound ridiculous for a small company but any business that wants to be successful needs to have such a strategy in place,” he concludes.

By Brian Skelly

Pictured are the academic directors of the online masters programme in technology management (from left): Professor Eamonn Murphy, University of Limerick; Professor Roy Green, NUI Galway; and Dr barry O’Connor, University College Cork