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Claremont to Offer Master's in E-Commerce

May 28, 1999|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Internet accelerates the pace of business innovation, universities are working hard to keep up. This fall, the new School of Information Science at Claremont Graduate University will launch one of the country's first master's degree programs in electronic commerce.

Students at the Claremont campus will study the nuts and bolts of building e-commerce systems and how online retailing is changing the way companies do business. Lorne Olfman, director of the School of Information Science, said he expects to produce about 30 graduates a year.

The academic study of electronic commerce shows that the Internet is not merely a passing business fad, Olfman said. In an interview with The Times, he explained why:

Question: What exactly is information science?

Answer: It's the study of the use of information in organizations. I use "organizations" very broadly--it can be profit, nonprofit or educational institutions. It's about using information to do whatever work process you have to do.

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Q: Where does the technology come in?

A: It's in how you apply the information in an organization. You have to know what a network is, what software is, what a computer interface is and how you build it. You have to be able to understand how information is used in the work setting.

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Q: Is technology the best way to manage information?

A: We tend to believe that, yes.

The best example is "groupware"--being able to share information virtually.

Knowledge management and data management is another example. You just couldn't take the zillions of pieces of information and make sense out of them unless you had the technology tools to make that happen.

E-commerce is a third example. You can't do electronic commerce without technology. I guess you could send smoke signals--it's still technology, but not computer technology.

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Q: What was the impetus for starting a master's program in electronic commerce?

A: We saw the demand for this kind of program. The board was really excited about this, and the expectations are really high.

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Q: How will you teach electronic commerce?

A: There are eight courses to take over the course of a year. There's a beginning course called Doing Business on the Internet, which introduces students to what the Internet is, how we use it, and introduces topics like security issues and societal issues.

The students need to take a class on databases and a class on telecommunications. There's a course on human factors and information systems, which is really about building the interface between the user and the system. We have a course called Electronic Markets, which we're still developing. It's much more a business course than an information science course. There's a course in systems security.

The last semester, students have to do a real e-commerce project, which could be developing a business plan and prototype Web site for a small business or doing a project in a big company. The last course is Information Systems Policy--understanding how the systems person interacts with the management in an organization.

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Q: What companies will you study?

A: I'm sure there are many cases written about Amazon.com. EBay may be another one. Someone's gone in and studied AOL and Yahoo and Netscape. The lessons range from "Here are the kinds of technology decisions that you should have made" to "Here are the kinds of people you should have hired."

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Q: Does e-commerce have to be about selling something?

A: I don't think so. A better way of thinking about it is the relationship with somebody who needs some product or service on the Internet--and it may be a free product or service in some cases.

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Q: Can people learn as much in school as they can by actually working in an e-commerce company?

A: We have to say yes. In any situation, people can learn on the job. From an academic standpoint, the framework we put around it and the structure we put into it will help you learn faster. If you're working just on one project, you may not have as many options available to you as you might get in the classroom.

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Q: The Internet is moving so fast. Will the information that students learn the first semester still be relevant by the time they graduate?

A: It will be relevant. We focus less on specific technologies and more on the key general principles. Of course, if you're trained to learn about databases from an Oracle perspective and Oracle goes under, you've lost something.

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Q: What kind of job would a graduate get with a master's degree in electronic commerce?

A: I think we'll find two categories.

One type will be consultants who are implementing e-commerce projects in companies.

The other type will be people who are actually working in companies to develop their own e-commerce projects or being liaisons to the consultants. They'll be thinking about systems in a much different way. The way you market things is going to be so different--for example, the way Amazon tracks clicks and says, "Here are some other things you could be interested in."

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Q: Once you have educated all these e-commerce experts, what improvements will e-shoppers notice?

A: You'll see a much more broad presence of e-commerce everywhere. Competition will be improved, and customers will benefit. That will be the long-run implication.

A lot of e-commerce will be at the business-to-business level, and the customer will see those improvements as better prices and faster delivery times.

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