Colleges Step Up ECommerce Training

May 14, 2002
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At a time when e-commerce is projected to become a multi-trillion dollar industry – yes, trillion - in just a few years, Paul Lane knew that more had to be done to prepare the work force for what's ahead.

So last August he and his colleagues at Grand Valley State University's Seidman School of Business went to work. Their goal was to develop a new course to educate professionals working in the emerging Internet economy.

The result is a new 6-month e-commerce program aimed largely at graduate students who are taking on the job of developing, implementing and managing e-commerce strategies for their employers. The GVSU program, launched last month, is the latest addition locally to a growing number business schools offering courses dedicated to e-commerce.

"We believe in the future (an e-commerce strategy) should become one more tool in the set of business tools," said Lane, chairman of the Marketing Department at GVSU's Seidman School of Business. "We need to understand the power and potential of the technology in order to best understand how to use it."

GVSU is far from alone in its thinking.

Davenport University and the University of Phoenix in Grand Rapids have also ramped up e-commerce programs in the past year to keep up with the booming demand for people trained to work in the Internet economy.

"Everyone sees the exploding growth of the Internet and the projections. We all see the tremendous opportunities that are available in the future, and certainly the future in terms of changes and innovation is just going to be staggering," said Ronald Draayer, an assistant professor who helped develop Davenport University's e-commerce program.

In the past, the business schools taught e-commerce principles within the context of their traditional business courses.

As e-commerce continues to explode, school administrators opted to develop stand-alone programs that can cover the subject matter more thoroughly.

"The traditional degree just wasn't cutting it," said Lileen Pyszkowski, a business instructor who teaches e-commerce at the University of Phoenix here.

"It's more than just a niche."

The Internet research firm Jupiter Communications projects business-to-business e-commerce to grow from an estimated $336 billion in 2000 to $6.3 trillion on 2005. During that period, buying and selling online will swell from three percent to 42 percent of all domestic trade conducted between businesses, Jupiter projects.

While e-commerce may be revolutionizing business, age-old business principles still apply.

Managing an emerging business sector that's growing so large so rapidly requires the creation of a new pool of talent that can take the traditional business skills used in sales, marketing and strategic planning and put them to work in a new format.

"Yes, it's new and revolutionary and everything, but when you boil it down, it's using a lot of traditional concepts and how do you apply them to the new economy," said Steven Miller, an e-commerce consultant with the Grand Rapids office of Ernst & Young.

"I would say these people, when they graduate, there's probably going to be a pretty good demand for their services,' Miller said.

Seven out of 10 jobs in the Internet economy are in traditional professions, rather than high-tech positions, according to a recent study by the University of Texas Center for Research in Electronic Commerce. Information technology accounts for just 28 percent of Inter-related jobs. Sales and marketing positions account for 33 percent, with the remaining jobs split between operations and manufacturing (17 percent), accounting and finance (12 percent), and administration and executive positions (10 percent), according to the University of Texas study.

With the bulk of e-commerce jobs coming in areas other than information technology, educators are structuring courses toward people who are seeking to adapt their existing business skills to e-commerce. The goal is to provide companies large and small the talent pool they need to conduct business in today's digital age.

"It's funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same. It still comes back to people issues. No matter what area of business you're in, it's the people who make the difference," Draayer said. "You need people to put it together and make it work for your business."

Jennifer Jergens, vice president of business development for the Grand Rapids online advertising firm Adtegrity.com, welcomes the expansion of e-commerce offerings among business schools. The move will enable companies, both dot-coms and traditional businesses alike, to reach out to colleges to recruit the e-commerce professionals they need, Jergens said.

"There's so much need out there and there's not much talent that really knows a lot about the industry," she said. "This just opens things up to have people come out of college and have experience."

To that end, business schools locally have structured their e-commerce courses differently, with Davenport University and the University of Phoenix offering e-commerce degrees, that latter as part of its MBA program.

Davenport University began offering a 4-year degree in e-commerce last spring at its Grand Rapids campus and plans to extend the program to its Holland campus next year.

Grand Valley's program is an e-commerce certification course that, like Davenport and the University of Phoenix, offers participants a mixture of technology and business principles. Participants also spend a good deal of their time working with companies in the Grand Rapids area to analyze, develop and implement e-commerce strategies.

Grand Valley is planning to bring elements of the course down to its graduate business program next year, Lane said.

Grand Rapids Community College molds e-commerce instruction into its traditional business courses and is working to develop a certification program, spokeswoman Nancy Parramore said.

In developing and offering new courses in e-commerce, educators say flexibility is everything. In an era where the Internet is changing business at lightning speed, a curriculum could become obsolete in as little as a year or two. Educators also need to keep up on the proper format to offer the instruction, whether on a stand-alone basis or as part of a broader business program.

"It's going to be real interesting watching us change," Lane said. "As the speed of business speeds up, then we need to speed up and be nimble."

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