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Aligning Undergraduate IS Curricula With Industry Needs

A paradox is becoming obvious to both information systems (IS) academics and executives: U.S. demand for IS graduates is increasing, but graduation numbers from university IS programs are flat or in decline. As a result, many CIOs are devoting increasing proportions of their organizations' resources to recruiting IS graduates, through outreach programs to both students and faculty. In spite of these efforts, however, many CIOs report continuing frustrations in attracting enough newly-minted IS talent.

Complicating the picture is a temporal shift in the nature of entry-level IS jobs. Based on a 2006 study that interviewed 104 senior IS managers, skills associated with business domain knowledge, project management, and client-facing tasks (for example, systems analysis and design) are becoming quite important at the entry level.1 A second study identified a lack of leadership skills and indicated that team work, collaboration, and communication skills need to be enhanced in IS undergraduates.2 Industry also prefers that academic programs impart this higher level business and leadership knowledge using more experiential learning models.1,2 While some level of technical knowledge particularly in the areas of programming, architecture/ standards and security is still desired, firms are attempting to hire entry-level IS personnel who have been trained in areas that go well beyond the technical.

Jobs previously viewed as entry-levellargely technical and programming-relatedare now more likely to be outsourced overseas.5,8,10 An earlier model, in which new hires were expected to spend some time programming while learning the firm's business processes and applications portfolio, is quickly becoming outmoded. Early on, new hires are expected to perform at a higher level of complexity, quickly understanding the business domain and driving projects to completion. Programming and other technical work may well be done in another country.

As the number and nature of IS jobs evolve, the demand and supply curves change. On the demand side, it is expected that the number of IS jobs in non-IS organizations will start growing rapidly due to retirement of the babyboom generation.1 In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that growth in occupations such as database administrators, computer software engineers, and systems administrators will be much faster than most other jobs between 2004 and 2014.11 As IS enrollments have declined over the last five years at most universities,1 a "looming shortage" of IS professionals is on the horizon (See Figure 1).4

Unfortunately, many students and parents seem to harbor misperceptions sometimes referred to believing in "myths"5 - about the IS discipline, and this may be impacting enrollments. One misperception is related to the state of "off shoring"; perhaps relying on media reports, many students and parents have apparently overestimated the impact on U.S.-based IS jobs and salaries. Another misperception appears to be that the IS profession is not an exciting one, and many students and parents seem to equate IS jobs with "coding." Of course, few MIS graduates are actually assigned programming duties, with most focusing instead on tasks such as design and project management.

The supply-demand gap, troubling on its face, may be even more problematic if the IS graduates do not possess the skills that are being demanded by industry. Simply attracting more students will not adequately address all of the looming workforce issues. Thus, IS programs must simultaneously increase their throughput and ensure that they are inculcating a skills set that is of value to employers.

To that end, we have attempted to answer these two questions:

  • How are IS programs evolving to address the changing nature of IS entry level positions?
  • What are IS programs doing to attract more students into the discipline?

To address these two questions, we studied the IS curricula of undergraduate business programs ranked in the Top 50 by the U.S. News and World Report in 2006 or 2007. 57 schools appeared in that ranking in either 2006 or 2007; of those 57, 47 offer an undergraduate degree in IS. We contacted all 47 schools with IS programs. At least one senior faculty member or administrator at 32 of these schools participated in a 30 minute, telephone-based structured interview. Interview questions addressed curricular changes within the past five years, curricular changes currently in process, involvement of an advisory board, and marketing.

We now turn to a discussion of the findings from our study.

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A Little Progress

Universities' IS programs are making some progress on both fronts: the knowledge and skills gap is narrowing, and declines in graduation numbers appear to have leveled off.

Knowledge and Skills Gap. Industry executives now seek IS graduates with higher level skills. Business knowledge, leadership and communication skills acquired via experiential, business context centered learning are the most desired changes from industry executives' perspectives.1,4,9

To establish how IS academics view their programs, we asked each interviewee to estimate the percentages of their 2007 IS curriculum that were technical and managerial. Eight of the curricula were more managerial, twelve were more technical, and twelve were best viewed as a balanced blend. Since CIOs' recent comments suggest a desire for a more managerial perspective, it appears that a substantial proportion of the curricula may still be somewhat out of balance as of 2007.

On the other hand, viewed in a temporal perspective, the vast majority of the schools (69%) have made some curricular changes consistent with the changing industry demands in the last three years, and other changes are in process at half of the schools (see Table 1). Nearly a third of the universities have not changed their programs in the last three years, and sixty percent of these schools are planning to stay that course.

The changes vary greatly across the universities studied and affect both programs (adding and removing courses or changing program requirements) and courses (changing content or number of contact hours). Table 2 details the actual courses added and dropped. Although somewhat mixed, more managerial than technical courses are being added. Similarly, more technical than managerial courses are being dropped. Thus, there is some evidence that IS curricula although modestly mismatched with CIOs' expectations as of 2007 are being revised in a direction more consistent with CIOs' desires.

This is particularly the case at a limited number of schools in which IS students are given more hands-on, context-based experience. For example, one private university has instigated a hands-on design and management course in which U.S. students design an application and then send functional requirements to students in India, who do the development.2 IT projects or practicum courses have also been added by four schools, and two universities are adding courses involving experiential trips. One takes students to the Silicon Valley over spring break, and the other is proposing a course to visit and study outsourcing companies in India. These initiatives apparently have as their objective the inculcation of a real-world, managerial perspective, thereby producing IS graduates who possess the higher-level skills being desired by industry executives.

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Increasing Demand and Shrinking Graduation Numbers

Relative to the news on the knowledge and skills gap, the news on the number of IS graduates is not as positive. Figure 1 indicates that the collective number of IS graduates is down 60% compared to the output in 2003 and down 40% compared to the output in 2004 based on data provided from 21 of the 32 schools participating in our study. For most of those schools, the decline started earlier than 2003. However, in 2007 these schools combined have graduated slightly more IS majors than the previous year for the first time since the decline began.

As noted, a number of schools are taking steps to modify their curricula (see Table 1), and there may be evidence that these efforts are being rewarded. As depicted in Table 3, schools with no recent changes continue to decline while those with changes combined to graduate 19% more IS students in 2007 than in 2006.

Nine of the 32 schools added flexibility in their curricula, usually by reducing the number of required hours, providing for more choices among courses, or cross-listing courses from other programs such as Accounting or Finance. These efforts may also be yielding some positive benefits with respect to graduation numbers (see Table 3).

Perhaps the simplest way to address the numbers problem is to market the programs more aggressively. Twenty seven of the 32 schools market their IS programs internally, and five market externally.

In terms of internal marketing, most schools provide explicit marketing messages regarding the attractiveness of IS careers to their school's current students primarily through first-and second-year courses required of all business majors. These messages often attempt to counter misperceptions and to convey a positive message regarding IS career opportunities and starting salaries.

Various vehicles are used for these messages. At one large state university, the IS department is devoting over $9,000 to a marketing initiative; posters have been placed on university buses, an article has been placed in the university's student newspaper, a video clip has been delivered to dorm rooms over the campus television network, and letters have been sent to students.

At another large state university, a campaign titled "Think Outside the Cube" driven by a marketing consultancy that was paid by their IS advisory board - shows students that IS careers are no longer relegated to a "cube" (such as a cubicle). Using postcardsized handouts and longer brochures, the marketing program highlights both the exciting (and largely non-programming) nature of current IS careers as well as the high demand for graduates. This IS department also held a "speed dating" event, in which a number of hiring companies each had a table of representatives in a large room; and in small groups students spoke to each company for a few minutes.

Increasingly, marketing is accomplished through direct and personal interchanges with students interchanges that are designed to generate excitement about the prospect of an IS degree. For example, one state university now assigns faculty mentors to prospective IS students so that they receive one-on-one encouragement and guidance. At a mid-sized private university, the IS department is now speaking to all incoming freshmen in a session on "myth-busting" related to IS. At another mid-sized private university, a CIO speaks to all core IS classes (sophomore year), and recent IS graduates return to campus to discuss their jobs. And, at several schools, core IS courses from which many IS majors are drawn are taught by the most engaging faculty members.

Five of the schools engage in external marketing by reaching out to audiences that extend beyond the school's current students. This might include potential students (usually in high school), parents, and high school counselors. Informational letters and brochures are common vehicles for these messages.

Associated with these external marketing efforts, but of a somewhat different nature, are IS advisory boards. Twelve of the 32 schools have such boards, which provide input regarding curriculum, involvement with students, and (in some but not all cases) financial support for IS initiatives.

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It is clear that some progress is being made in addressing IS industry needs. Nonetheless, two important gaps remain: skills and numbers. Neither academics nor industry executives can close these gaps by themselves. A coordinated effort is required.

With respect to the skills gap, a substantial minority (12 of the 32 schools) continue to offer a more technical IS curriculum as of 2007. All observers agree that IS graduates need a solid base of technical understanding, if for no other reason than to maintain their credibility as leaders within an IS community. But caution is warranted, as it is possible to infuse technical proficiency at the expense of valued managerial skills such as project/knowledge management and an understanding of the linkage between IS and strategy, both of which are highly valued by employers.

It is widely accepted that purely technical work (especially including that which is programming-related) is likely to be outsourced even more in the future1,5,8,10,12 meaning that graduates who are prepared for largely technical careers will be at a distinct disadvantage. Graduates will be best prepared for upward career movement if they are able to manage the process of IS portfolio design and project management. Their relative advantage will rely not in their personal ability to deliver code but, rather, in their ability to organize and manage processes so that others deliver the appropriate code.

Thus, we recommend that IS curricula be reformatted so that they provide a functional level of key technical literacy including enough programming experience so that graduates have "felt the pain" of programming. Beyond that point, however, the IS students' time will be best spent on study of organizational and managerial topics, including a deep understanding of organizational process flow. They should be well-versed in strategic implications of IS, and project management knowledge will be crucial.

IS executives can assist in this transition by carefully considering the nature of their forthcoming needs. If they are in need of specific technical skills, they may find that their hiring plans would be better targeted to computer science departments than to IS departments. IS executives can provide great assistance to IS departments by offering their input regarding IS managerial career paths and by assisting in student recruitment.

In a larger initiative, both IS academics and practitioners can address the larger societal issue of reduced student interest in IS. Already, some organizations, such as the Society for Information Management (SIM), are attempting to influence high school students as they begin to make career decisions. A coordinated effort between academics and practitioners could go a long way in helping students and parents understand the IS discipline and the promising U.S.-based job outlook. It must be realized that some families are already forming conclusions about career viability while prospective college students are still in high school. They need to receive a clear message promptly: there are lots of IS jobs available in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, they pay well, and they involve much more than sitting in a "cube" all day. Target audiences for this message include high school students, counselors, and teachers. It may also be helpful to consider the factors that motivate students to choose majors in IS-related fields.3

In summary, although some IS curricula are being updated to conform to industry's emerging needs, there is reason to believe that the gap between supply and demand will widen over the coming decade. The solution is a coupling of curricular changes with marketing efforts. Eventually, these efforts must extend to the high school level, but critical short-term initiatives are needed in U.S. business schools now. Existing and prospective business students must be made aware of the exciting and lucrative jobs in IS.

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1. Abraham, T., Beath, C., Bullen, C., Gallagher, K., Goles, T., Kaiser, K. and Simon, J. IT workforce trends: Implications for IS programs. Communications of the AIS 17, 50 (2006), 11461170.

2. Adya, M., Nash, D., Sridhar, V. and Malik, A. Bringing global sourcing into the classroom: Experiential learning via software development project. In Proceedings of the 2007 Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer Personnel Research Conference (St. Louis, MO, Apr. 1921, 2007), 2027.

3. Akbulut, A.Y. and Looney, C.A. Inspiring students to pursue computing degrees. Comm. ACM 50, 10 (Oct. 2007), 6771.

4. Benamati, J.H. and Mahaney, R., Current and future entry-level IT workforce needs in organizations. In Proceedings of the 2007 Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer Personnel Research Conference, (St. Louis, MO, Apr. 1921, 2007), 101104.

5. Dick, G., Granger, M., Jacobson, C.M. and Van Slyke, C. Where have all the students gone?: Strategies for tackling falling enrollments. Americas' Conference on Information Systems. (Keystone, CO, August 2007).

6. Fagnot, I.J., Guzman, I.R. and Stanton, J.M. Toward recruitment and retention strategies based on the early exposure to the IT occupational culture. Americas' Conference on Information Systems. (Keystone, CO, Aug. 2007).

7. Koch, H. and Kayworth, T. Using information systems theory to increase IS enrollment. Americas' Conference on Information Systems. (Keystone, CO, August 2007).

8. Mann, C.L. What global sourcing means for U.S. IT workers and for the U.S. economy. Comm. ACM 47, 7 (July 2004), 3335.

9. Reich, B.H. and Nelson, K.M. In their own words: CIO visions about the future of in-house IT organizations. DATA BASE 34, 4 (2003), 2844.

10. Shao, B.B.M. and David, J.S. The impact of offshore outsourcing on IT workers in developed countries. Comm. ACM 50, 2 (Feb. 2007), 8994.

11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Washington, DC, 2007.

12. Zweig, P., et al. The information technology workforce: Trends and implications 2005-2008. MIS Quarterly Executive 5, 2 (2006), 4754.

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John H. Benamati ( is an associate professor in the Department of Decision Sciences and Management Information Systems of the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, Oxford, OH.

Zafer D. Ozdemir ( is an assistant professor in the Department of Decision Sciences and Management Information Systems of the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, Oxford, OH.

H. Jeff Smith ( is a professor and chair of the Department of Decision Sciences and Management Information Systems of the Farmer School of Business at Miami University, Oxford, OH.

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F1Figure 1. Annual proportion of total number of IS graduates compared to total IS graduates in 2003

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T1Table 1. Level of Curricular Change

T2Table 2. Courses Added/Dropped

T3Table 3. Percent Change in Total IS Graduates

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