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Ahead of the Class

THE CUTTING EDGE

Harvard Business School's adoption of an Intranet for its educational and administrative needs offers a case study in improved efficiency

April 22, 1996|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You're an Australian manufacturing expert. You've been parachuted into your company's money-losing sock factory in China. You don't speak Chinese, the factory's computer data has been wiped clean, and you are so swamped with technical problems that you can't get any sleep. What to do?

This is the kind of case study Harvard Business School students have been presented with for years. But this particular study, of Pacific Dunlop China--which will be used by executive trainees this term--comes with a high-tech twist.

The case sits on a World Wide Web site, where, at the click of a mouse, students can watch videos of key executives discussing the factory's problems or get a glimpse of the factory and the workers' living conditions. There is even an online spreadsheet that shows students how different production schedule options would affect the factory's sales, inventory and costs.

This isn't an isolated experiment in high-tech learning. Harvard Business School, for years a technological backwater, has jumped to the top of its class by building a high-speed, state-of-the art "Intranet," an internal network based on Internet standards that it uses to more efficiently address a full range of educational and administrative needs.

Intranets have become the rage among corporations and other large institutions in recent months because they're relatively cheap, they can exploit Internet features such as the ability to establish Web sites to disseminate information, and they use popular browsers like Netscape to search for information.

Once you have an Intranet in place, says Susan Rogers, chief technical officer at HBS, "everything that is being developed for the World Wide Web quickly becomes attributes you can attach to your network."

At the same time, because the Intranet operates over an institution's own communications lines and includes "firewalls" to ward off outside invaders, it doesn't face the security concerns and slow speeds characteristic of the Internet.

"There will be a dramatic transformation in the way people acquire and use information," says Kim Clark, who was appointed dean of HBS in September. "We want to be leaders in that process. The challenge is to reinvent the Harvard Business School."

HBS students, staff members and professors are trained to exploit the Intranet: They use the same Netscape browser to pick up assignments, read materials and class schedules on class Web sites as many now use to surf the Net.

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Other universities have already traveled a long way down that road. The University of Washington, for example, has trained members of its men's and women's basketball teams to use the Internet to gather information, write papers and communicate with their professors while on the road. The university also teaches about 1,600 freshmen each year, roughly half the entering class, how to use the Net for research and how to build personal Web sites.

Employees at AT&T Corp.'s Bell Laboratories can put up their own Web pages incorporating video clips. Many corporations see great potential in using the Intranet to offer training to employees. Netscape says 70% of its sales are for products used on corporate and other Intranets.

But few institutions have moved as far and as fast as the Harvard Business School has in building an Intranet to handle all administrative and educational needs.

Since Clark became dean, the business school has spent $11 million on the system, including new communications equipment and 1,400 new computers for the staff, students and faculty. The school's video servers, which offer the kind of real-time video that cable companies have long promised but haven't delivered, are the envy of the high-tech community.

"What the Harvard Business School is doing is groundbreaking," says Jim Long, chief executive of Mountain View, Calif.-based Starlight Networks Inc., which makes software used to help deliver video clips over Web sites.

Whether through good planning or dumb luck, Long says, Harvard Business School's decision to build an Intranet came at an opportune time. "We've just had a huge turn of the technology wheel," he says.

"Harvard was getting a lot of knocks for not being technologically engaged," says Barbara Gordon, vice president of academic and research computing at Sun Microsystems Inc. "Clark did things that allowed [HBS] to jump to the head of the pack."

Last fall, HBS had a hodgepodge of dated technology. "We had one of everything," Clark says. The school had six e-mail systems that couldn't all talk to one another. That created communications barriers among divisions such as the library, the executive education programs, alumni office and the faculty. The business school's 200 faculty members had personal computers in 75 configurations, making support difficult.

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