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High tech at business school: how to manage technological innovation

America's high techology firms are leaving a mark on the ivy-covered walls of business schools.

Beginning next September, for instance, Northeastern University's Graduate School of Management here will offer a High Technology Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree--the first such specialized degree in the United States.

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At the same time, other business schools--especially those near high-tech heartlands such as California's Silicon Valley south of San Francisco--are chalking up their own ways for training high-tech managers.

''The functional areas of management are the same whether you're selling shirts, semiconductors, or soap,'' says Philip McDonald, academic-faculty coordinator for the Northeastern program. All companies face similar problems, he says, such as balancing the books and keeping workers productive.

But high-tech insiders agree that their foremost managerial problems tend to be different than those in other businesses.

For example, high-tech companies are notorious for sprouting new products faster than you can say the words ''video game.'' And so, classes in managing technological innovation and bringing new products onto the market are built into the Northeastern degree. In addition, basic business school fare is being revamped to spotlight the high-tech angle.

''In our introductory accounting class, for example, we'll spend time talking about how to handle the measurement of research and development for accounting purposes,'' says Mr. McDonald.

While Northeastern is the first to offer this highly specialized MBA degree, other schools are coming up with their own approaches.

* Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is ditching its general MBA program in September, replacing it with a yet-to-be-named MBA degree which officials say will have a ''high-technology emphasis.'' Several areas of concentration will be possible, including managing new ventures and managing research and development activities.

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* San Jose State University, nestled among the low-slung semiconductor factories in the Silicon Valley, has a task force working on structuring a program ''specifically for technically trained people who either have or are about to pass into the managerial ranks'' of high tech companies.

* The University of Santa Clara, also in the Silicon Valley, has a faculty committee looking at various ways of tailoring a program to be more ''directly targeted'' at training high tech managers.

''Our task at this time is to determine what is most wanted and needed by local industry,'' says Jim Kouzes, director of the Executive Development Center at Santa Clara's Graduate School of Business. ''We're not certain a high-tech MBA is it--maybe a special certificate within the regular MBA is.'' The school is also considering just adding more high-tech electives.

One of the sticky questions for any graduate program that trains high-tech managers is how to offer something prospective students will be able to fit into their schedules. People already working in high-tech often find it tough to squeeze in even a part-time program, says B. J. Rudman, a human resources consultant to the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

So one alternative catching on is ''mini-MBA'' courses, such as the Technology Managers Program offered at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. This nondegree program includes four weeks of class work, spaced over three months.

At least three other schools, including Northeastern, offer different kinds of management development programs pitched toward high-tech professionals.

Other business schools are continuing to add to the number of elective courses useful to budding high tech managers.

Stanford's Graduate School of Business, for instance, has elective courses in such topics as entrepreneurship and managing technological innovation.

And the number of high-tech-oriented courses at Stanford is likely to increase, says Charles Holloway, associate dean for academic affairs. Stanford currently has a faculty seminar focusing on the unique aspects of managing high-technology firms.

''My expectations are that the material they've been studying and developing will find its way into the course work one way or another,'' says Mr. Holloway. ''Either through the creation of a new elective or by its incorporation into existing courses.''

But while some schools are upping their offerings focused on high-tech, not all business schools are sold on the idea of specialized programs aimed at a particular industry.

''We feel an MBA should be an MBA,'' says Michael Radnor, a professor of management at Northwestern's J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

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