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magazine home > archives > winter 2001 > features
With the number of online businesses and business transactions soaring, companies are finding it more difficult to locate qualified "e-commerce" employees. A new master's program at The U of M though is preparing students to face the challenges in this dynamic world of electronic commerce.

A New Degree of Interest
by Olivia Miller

Dr. Max Garzon compares the creation of a new e-commerce master's degree program at The University of Memphis to that of an elementary mathematics formula.

"The idea was as simple as putting two and two together," says Garzon, a U of M professor of computer science. "In the workforce, there is a visible need for qualified individuals who are familiar with the concepts of electronic commerce. Here at the University, we have a number of professors who are on the cutting edge of e-commerce technology. It only made sense to start this program."

The end product is a unique master's program that addresses the ever-changing face of commerce today, offering students cutting edge knowledge in an exploding field. With the concept of e-commerce so new, few universities have yet to offer degree programs in the field, giving U of M students a marked advantage in the workforce.

E-commerce class
Students taking part in The U of M's new e-commerce degree get classroom instruction and hands-on experience.

After receiving state approval last fall, the program began with 20 students with backgrounds in medicine and law, and even several with master's degrees in other fields.

"It's not a degree in how to build Web sites," explains Dr. Mark Gillenson, professor of management information systems and co-director with Garzon of the program. "We are aiming much higher than that. It's much more of a strategic level of understanding of these technologies so that graduates can truly tap the best of both worlds in their professional practice." Adds Garzon, "Just as today we have chief information officers and chief technology officers, we are decisively evolving towards the concept of chief electronic commerce officers."

An interdisciplinary degree, the program is designed to educate students in a broad range of business and technical aspects of e-commerce. Full-time students can complete the 33-hour master's requirements in three semesters. There is a core of three e-commerce classes and a group project at the end-the capstone course where students apply their knowledge as a team by working with a local company under the direction of faculty. An important component is having guests from e-commerce businesses lecture to classes, giving the program more of a "hands-on" feel. The program is a collaboration between the Fogelman College of Business and Economics and the College of Arts and Sciences.

The U of M program was conceived three years ago by Garzon. He approached Gillenson about the need in the marketplace for e-commerce trained professionals. At the same time, Gillenson and marketing professor Dr. Daniel Sherrell had started teaching an electronic commerce elective at the master's level in the business school.

"We spent a year developing the curriculum and two years pushing it through the University administration and the state processes," Gillenson says. "At the point we started to design the program during the 1997-98 school year, there weren't any other programs. One thing to be noted is that the design team included professors from both computer science and the business school and business people, particularly from FedEx."

Gillenson and Garzon point out that during the Tennessee Board of Regents review in December 1999, students and companies emphasized the importance of hands-on experiences in the program-having guest lecturers attend classes to relate real work experiences.

"At that time we were not as aware as we are today of the shortage of information technology in Memphis," Garzon explains. "E-commerce was being talked about because of the emergence of the Web. The idea resonated very well with people in the business community."

Of about 20 institutions offering e-commerce degree programs, only two others--Carnegie Mellon and DePaul University--are established as interdisciplinary. "Between The U of M's new e-commerce program and Vanderbilt's early MBA concentration in e-commerce, there's been a lot of educational activity in the state of Tennessee concerning electronic commerce," Gillenson says. "I hope somebody's noticing that."

Federal government numbers indicate e-commerce is steadily growing, with no slow-down in sight despite an apparent down-trend in the entire economy. U.S. Department of Commerce figures for the second quarter of 2000 show retail e-commerce totals at $5.5 billion, a 5.3 percent rise over the first quarter. Forrester Research is forecasting that by 2003, yearly business-to-business e-commerce transactions will total $1.3 trillion.

E-commerce companies--businesses that conduct transactions online--accounted for 3,326 new jobs in Memphis in 1999, with $199,218,000 in capital investment.

Cathy Elliott, director of the Memphis Area High Technology Council, says "We have more than 35 companies in Memphis who have identified themselves as e-commerce operations. The list is not inclusive and doesn't count businesses who have an e-commerce segment. With the growth that our city has enjoyed, new and existing businesses are in dire need of qualified people who are at the high end of the education ladder. The master's program at The University of Memphis is just the source to deliver the product."

The U of M's commitment to e-commerce is getting an enthusiastic response from an elated business community. Locally-based national companies including International Paper, BellSouth, AutoZone and FedEx are participating on an advisory board. They will work with The U of M on e-commerce projects designed to give students practical experience as well as the ability to solve business problems requiring a strong research component including cutting-edge technology.

Howard Zimmerman of DotLogix, a provider of business-to-business e-commerce solutions for the manufacturing and distribution industries, is eager to participate. "We benefit by there being a strong environment for e-commerce in Memphis," he says. "Most corporate communities who are strong in this are clustered around a university that is taking a leadership position in this new economy. The best business models are at the university level."

The supportive response by the business community is not surprising. Similar degree programs at New York University and Carnegie Mellon are reporting that companies pay five-figure fees to get degree candidates in projects specified by or for e-commerce programs.

The U of M professors hope that companies will step in to provide scholarships and fellowships for students in exchange for their participation with a company. "We're asking them to help us financially with the program," says Garzon. "We have cultivated business connections and people are contacting us about how to get involved."

Dave Barnwell, general manager for iXL, a global Internet consulting firm, has been one of the companies advising The U of M. "This degree is a huge step towards solidifying Memphis' ever-growing reputation as a technology leader, and one that iXL supports whole-heartedly," Barnwell says. "You also have to consider the far-reaching professional benefits of having a degree of this nature at The University of Memphis. It is one more way to keep the incredibly rich talent base we have in the area as well as attracting some of the nation's foremost thinkers to our region. It is just one more reason for technology leaders to call Memphis home and will ultimately benefit not only iXL and other technology leaders, but also the entire Memphis business community and city as a whole. What better way to give back to the community than to assist in any way we can with the development of a program that is breaking new ground academically for the entire nation?"

Garzon says The U of M program will flourish. "We believe strongly that this e-commerce degree is going to be successful. Because, to see the big picture, you have to understand both sides: business and computing. That's the reason this program should exist. Otherwise, we could just train MBAs and train computer scientists. If a person is really going to be knowledgeable in e-commerce, he must have a perspective from both. Perhaps he cannot develop the computer systems, but he will have a great deal of understanding about what it takes to move a brick and mortar company into e-commerce."

Gillenson points to another aspect of the program that is expected to be a success. "We believe that this kind of cross-college collaboration should be a model for other programs in the University," he says.

For specifics about applying to the program, see the Web site at www.cs.memphis.edu/ec. The professors also invite e-mail inquiries about the program and about a company's involvement. E-mail Garzon at garzonm@msci.memphis.edu and Gillenson at mgillnsn@memphis.edu.

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