Seeing is believing: Page 3

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Return on inspiration

Students have adopted the system enthusiastically. Clark notes that the video servers produce on average 5,000 sessions each day, which translates into roughly two video sessions per day for each student. New applications are being built on the system, says Bouthillier, which allow students to bookmark and share interesting video segments with others. And just down the road is another app that will offer users the ability to post comments and have online discussions tied to video clips.

The faculty's warm embrace of the new system also heartens HBS's IT staff. Bouthillier has been especially impressed with the way some early adopters have molded the system to their own needs. Take, for example, professor Earl Sasser's innovative use of the system in teaching the Southwest Airlines case. Sasser, a professor in the entrepreneurial and service management department, has used the case for years. In it, students are asked to play general manager. Their task is to review several candidates for a new job and then to vote on their choice. Their candidate selection becomes the jumping off point for the class discussion.

Sasser's idea, Bouthillier says, was to combine the streaming video application with the online polling tool that had recently been developed at the school. "He's organized it so that now the students can break from class, go back to their rooms during lunch, review the video clips of the interviews, and fill out the online questionnaire," Bouthillier explains. "By the time class meets back at 2 o'clock, he's got a printout of the student poll. That lets him shape the discussion instantly."

What pleases Bouthillier most about this example is the way it embodies a key truth: "When an intranet reaches critical mass, users start driving innovation in ways no central organization would have thought of. You give them the tools and the rest just snowballs."

As Schultz, the MRG analyst, has noted, "it takes a believer" to overcome the obstacles to implementing cutting-edge technology and to envision its potential. Fortunately, Harvard Business School is one of those places where hard-headed practicality coexists comfortably with blue-sky idealism. And inspiration is in no shortage at the top. The justification process for expensive IT projects is a case in point. While HBS declines to put a dollar figure on its investment in streaming video, Clark will say the school currently spends 10% of its yearly revenues on IT. In a meeting with high-level executives recently, Clark was asked how he could justify investment in applications like streaming video.

"I said, 'Hey, we know all about ROI. We teach ROI. But that's not how we think about this,'" he says. "The issue for us was, 'Are we going to remain at the old level of investment in IT and end up doing a disservice to our students, or are we going to be preeminent in the world and follow our mission to produce great leaders?'"

The answer to that one, as they say at Harvard, was a no-brainer.IJ

About the author:

Stephanie Wilkinson is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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