Faculty Q&As

Ten Questions: Faculty report from the frontier of management

Erik Brynjolfsson

1. As director of The MIT Center for Digital Business (formerly the Center for eBusiness at MIT), you are always focused on the future. What's ahead for us?
For one thing, a more productive workforce. I’m looking at how information technology is affecting productivity and performance, how business is changing the work place so that people can work more effectively. How can we make information workers more productive? From managers to clerical workers — how can they become more effective and productive in their work? I’m also thinking about what the new world will look like when a lot of content is offered electronically.

2. What do you see as the role of technology in productivity?
There was some debate in the 90s about whether technology was really paying off. My research has found a clear correlation between technology and faster productivity growth. Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve have picked up on this research and are using it to set better policy.

3. How would you advise today's companies to increase productivity through technology?
We’ve come up with a set of practices — the seven main practices of firms that use technology for higher productivity and performance. We surveyed 400 firms, visited companies, and found a remarkably clear division between high tech/IT intensive firms and low-tech firms, even within the same industry. Retail, for example. The practices of those heavily using IT are correlated with greater productivity. We want to speed the dissemination of this research, of how companies can use IT more effectively.

4. How does the Internet figure into this picture?
One of the things I’m looking at these days is how the Internet is changing commerce and where value is created. How at amazon.com there's more value from variety. People have easy access to more than 2 million books. Amazon has changed the distribution of books sold. The more obscure books are being sold as a result. MIT Press has found a big change in the sale of its titles because of amazon. It's happening in other realms, too — CDs and electronics, for example. My research looks at the pricing of information goods, music, news, and any concept that can be delivered over the Internet.

5. You are also involved in digital business strategy.
Yes, I teach a course on digital business strategy with John Little that looks at the way the Internet and related technologies are affecting business. We bring a lot of research into the classroom, which is a terrific learning experience for the students. The gap between research and practice is nonexistent at MIT Sloan, and the students definitely benefit from that.

6. Is that an interdisciplinary course?
It is. Interdisciplinary cooperation is common here-it's one of the most interesting things about being at MIT. In Digital Business Strategy, we have students from the Media Lab and other parts of MIT, and it leads to interesting collaborations. Alex Kleiner and Rob Goodman, who was a Media Lab student, picked up on the themes we were talking about in class — that the Internet would make it easier to personalize your customer interaction. They went and launched Frictionless Commerce, based in Kendall Square, on graduation day three or four years ago. E-commerce, e-business, entrepreneurship, cutting-edge research-they're in the MIT Sloan DNA, and Frictionless Commerce is just one of many products of that gene pool.

7. Is that interdisciplinary culture specific to MIT Sloan do you think?
I have taught at other business schools and universities, and there's no question that at MIT Sloan there's a much greater and more dynamic interaction going on with the rest of the university. MIT Sloan offers a chance to interact with computer scientists and engineers and researchers from across MIT. We can then ground the discussion to real technologies-that's something that's lacking at other schools. What's so interesting here is the research, the entrepreneurship, the unique possibility to interact with students in other areas — in the Media Lab, for example — and to ultimately put into practice ideas that make a significant real-world impact.

8. A goal of yours is to bring your research into the classroom.
That's one of the things I enjoy most in teaching at MIT-the culture of mixing research and teaching much more closely than at other schools. We have faculty who are number one in the world in their research, and they can share that research, as it's unfolding, in the classroom. So many schools consider research and teaching to be separate, but the philosophy here is that they fit together, and that the fit is vital. Some of the best teachers are also the best researchers. I can go into the classroom and tell students about exciting new research that is just unfolding and they feel excited and privileged to be involved. Here, students learn more than the standard cookbook solutions, they learn to think and to create solutions. This kind of learning situation has it all over the “prefabricated” case study.

9. What kinds of research opportunities do the students have?
Well, every MBA student is required to do a field research project with one of the companies that are sponsoring the research. The company suggests a problem-they must describe it in one paragraph. We list these challenges, and the students pick one to pursue. A PhD student helps to match teams with companies. The students then work closely with their assigned company and, finally, present the company with the finished research. In quite a few of those cases, corporate strategy has been changed as a result of these MBA team projects. So the students learn lessons in the classroom and then apply them very literally in a real-world setting. This really helps the company, because it doesn’t otherwise have access to that cutting-edge research.

10. This must be a very popular program?
Incredibly so. MIT Sloan has the largest research program around digital business and e-business in the world, and companies are aware of that. That reputation has generated a lot of corporate interest and corporate satisfaction. The fact is, there's not that much of a gap between research and practice-the problems that are interesting to faculty are also interesting to companies and students. The business model is a triangle with research, education, and industry in the three corners, and those three corners are fitting together very nicely.

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