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Virtual Extension

Reversing the Landslide in Computer-Related Degree Programs


There is growing concern that a technologically educated workforce will not be available to meet the needs of the job market in information technology in the coming years, primarily because students are turning away from academic programs in computer-related disciplines, including computer science (CS), information technology (IT), and management information systems (MIS). We will collectively refer to these academic units as Computer and Information Science/Systems (CIS). Numerous surveys have documented the steep decline: as much as 50% over the last four years of both the number of graduates in these programs as well as the enrollment in courses associated with these degree programs.12 The popularity of computer science as an intended major among incoming freshmen continues the decline that started in 2000. By 2004, it had further declined by over 60%.4 This lack of interest in computer science by incoming students translates to a downward trend in the number of enrolled students and graduates for the foreseeable future.

The most comprehensive source of information on the production of bachelor, masters, and Ph.D. degrees in computer science and computer engineering is the Taulbee Survey, conducted annually by the Computing Research Association.12

The major findings from the 2006 Taulbee Survey are:

  1. Bachelor degree production was down more than 15% in 2006, following a 13% decrease in 2005. Over the last three years, there has been a drop of over 40%.
  2. Master's degree production was down 13% in 2006, this is reasonably consistent with the 17% drop in new Master's students reported two years ago.
  3. The proportion of women receiving bachelor's degrees decreased from 17% in 2003–04 to 14.76% in 2004–05. The percentage was unchanged in 2006. This trend is not likely to change in the near future, as only .3% of incoming freshmen women in 2004 expressed an interest in majoring in computer science.4

It has been suggested that the same trends reported in this survey are occurring in CIS programs in business schools.1 In order to validate this assumption, we conducted a survey of large business schools, those with at least 100 faculty members, that offer bachelor and masters degree programs in computer/management information systems. Out of 61 such AACSB-accredited business schools, 23 responded to our survey for a response rate of 38%. As shown in Figure 1, our findings show similar declines in degree production as those in the Taulbee Survey. The number of undergraduate CIS degrees awarded declined from 2,699 in 03–04 to 1,163 in 06–07 – a drop of 57%. The percentage of women graduates is higher than that reported in the Taulbee survey, although the percentage declined from 31% to 21%. The decline was not as steep for masters degrees awarded. The number of CIS masters degrees awarded declined from 463 in 03–04 to 318 in 06–07, a drop of 32%. The percentage of female graduates held steady at 25%.

One of the best ways to gain insight into the declining interest in CIS is to look at this issue from the students' perspective. First, there are the students who, at one time, would have considered a major in CIS but who no longer perceive there are opportunities to build a career in this field. This lack of job market attractiveness is probably tied to the Internet bubble burst, which accompanied the technology stock market crash. The bubble burst caused a temporary glut of experienced IT professionals in the market, squeezing out the jobs from new graduates. However, there are more positions for new graduates today as compared to 2002.

Furthermore, students who may have an interest in CIS are very aware of the growing trend to offshore many low-end, production-oriented IT jobs, which may result in reluctance to commit to a career in an industry that they perceive in decline. In addition, like many technology-oriented fields, enterprise IT is currently undergoing dramatic changes, and IT organizations are reducing their staff and becoming more specialized.7 Rather than reflecting the new realities of what a CIS career will be, students perceive that the CIS curriculum may be preparing them for jobs which no longer exist, rather than preparing them for emerging IT jobs. As IT becomes more pervasive and central to many disciplines – from biology to art – students are drawn to academic programs in these fields that increasingly provide their own CIS courses, specifically tailored for that profession.

Gender differences in the choice of college majors have been found to be a key contributor to the persistent low number of women CIS enrollments.5,9 Some reports attribute this difference to the fact that IT workplaces (and university classrooms) lack interpersonal orientation resulting in an inhospitable male dominated atmosphere.9 Other reports point out that the influence and attitude towards CIS may be best instilled by a girl's parents and early positive experiences with technology.8 Shaping their early interests may inspire a more diverse work pool in the future, but does not offer immediate relief in dealing with the impending CIS student decline.

It is clear that strong interventions are needed if CIS academic units are to maintain their current faculties, academic and research programs, and dominant position as the knowledge leader in computing-related disciplines within the university. The types of interventions needed are multi-dimensional. Clearly, students' perception about the lack of attractive high-paying careers in CIS needs to be addressed. Major changes in curriculum design need to be undertaken. And, we argue that another important necessary change is for CIS academic units to become providers of computer education for those academic disciplines where IT has become an integral part of their curriculum.

CIS academic units from around the country are looking for ways to respond to the current problem of declining enrollments in different ways. In order to understand how to respond to the declining enrollment phenomena, we turned to the work of Haeckel and its contrast between the "make-and-sell" versus the "sense-and-respond" organization, which we describe in the next section. We describe the interventions taken at Florida International University (FIU) to address the declining student MIS enrollments and degree production in the business school. We then explore the extent to which Haeckel's model of the sense-and-respond organization could be used to define a new way of operating for academic units. We also discuss the major differences between the two models applied to CIS academic units and conclude with a discussion of the implications of this new operating model as universities seek to respond to the markets of the future.

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The Adaptive Organization

Complexity theory describes adaptive systems as those having the ability to sense and interpret what may seem like noise into a meaningful course of action. The sense-and-respond model consists of:

"First, by organizing information in a specific way to represent and support systematic adaptiveness by key roles in the firm (the adaptive loop); second, by organizing assets and capabilities as a system of modules that can be dynamically dispatched into one-off value chains (modular organization); and third, by replacing command and control with a commitment-centric governance system that propagates the purpose, bounds, and essential structure of the business throughout the organization."2

Sense-and-respond refers then to organizational behavior that is designed to first sense and identify changing customer needs as they happen, rather than attempting to predict future customer demand. Changing customer needs require the organization to be able to adapt their product offerings with the required flexibility, agility, and responsiveness. Adaptive organizations come to accept changing customer needs and unpredictable change as the norm, rather than the exception. The old make-and-sell business model made popular in stable organizational environments is not able to cope with the rapid and discontinuous change of pace that is characteristic of many technology-intensive environments. In technology-intensive environments adaptiveness takes precedence over efficiency, and organizations must translate apparent noise into meaning faster than it arrives.2

Businesses that have a structure that supports modular capabilities can achieve low-cost customization without incurring the costs associated with developing customized product offerings. Much like modular products can be reconfigured into new offerings by connecting components in new ways, modular organizations can meet new customer needs by combining their existing modular capabilities in innovative ways.

Finally, sense-and-respond organizations define leadership as being accountable for three outcomes:

  • "Creation and continuous adaptation of a viable organizational context
  • Establishment of a commitment management system to coordinate the
  • behavior of people in accountable roles
  • Population of roles with the right people."2

Creation of a viable organizational context refers to defining the purpose, boundaries, and structure of the adaptive system they are creating, including the organizational purpose, the governing principles or boundaries of the enterprise, and the high-level business design or the relationships among parts of the system.2 Once leaders have established a context, they must enforce it via governance. One way to establish the necessary governance is via a system that manages commitments. The goal is to manage the interactions of empowered and accountable members of the organization.

Winograd and Flores11 define management as "taking care of the articulation and activation of a network of commitments, produced primarily through promises and requests," and commitment as an agreement with someone to do something in the future. The governance in sense-and-respond organizations is modeled much like the commitment process of collaborative supply chains "while managers conducting transactions within the corporate boundary can pretty much tell their employees what to do (except perhaps in academic circles) ... interorganizational transactions are usually managed through requests that, upon mutual agreement, form the basis of commitments."10

In their work, Winograd and Flores11 describe a theoretical basis for interaction between negotiating parties, in which commitment is defined as an agreement between a customer and a performer, based on a set of conditions of satisfaction within a predefined cycle time. In this business interaction model (see Figure 2) the person making the requests takes on the role of the customer, while the person doing the work takes the role of the performer. The model is a "closed-loop" because the customer starts the loop of business interactions that becomes closed when the customer declares satisfaction. The customer role decides and accepts work as being complete, and satisfaction with the work done is evaluated against explicit conditions.

In summary, adaptive organizations are structured as sense-and-respond versus the earlier make-and-sell model. This organizational structure requires that capabilities be modularized, in order to quickly respond to changing market needs. Finally, adaptive organizations empower their employees to manage via a commitment-centric governance.

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Case Study

Beginning in 2003–2004, the FIU College of Business Administration began experiencing the same declines in its undergraduate MIS programs as in other business schools in the country. We discuss interventions taken to address the decline in undergraduate enrollment and degrees awarded.

Compared to national trends, we did not experience the same pattern of declines in our MS MIS program. Here are some thoughts on why this was the case.

Undergraduate MIS program sense-and-response interventions. Undergraduate MIS enrollments began to decline as early as 2003–04. But after a steep decline in enrollment in 2005–06, the Dean called an emergency meeting of the MIS faculty and informed the faculty that, unless the decline in enrollment in MIS courses was turned around, contracts for non-tenured instructors would not be renewed and the MIS major would be eliminated. Needless to say, the MIS faculty was motivated to make changes quickly to positively impact enrollments in MIS courses.

In the past, the customers for MIS courses were MIS majors. Although the number of MIS majors was declining, the importance of integrating IT into the other business disciplines was growing. A new opportunity for the MIS faculty was to provide the IT knowledge required by other business disciplines. To gain a better perspective on what additional IT skill sets were required by non-MIS majors, we surveyed job recruiters, recent graduates, and professional organizations. MIS courses were then redesigned as modules to complement the course work for non-MIS majors.

The MIS concentration for non-MIS majors consists of three course offerings for each business discipline. All course modules use common business software. The modules focus on how technology can be applied across industries and business processes. Figure 3 shows the various MIS modules and their correspondence to each major discipline.

The second intervention was to build awareness of how MIS courses could complement the educational experience for non-MIS majors. A marketing plan targeting each academic unit was created. The supporting campaign material explained the benefits and logistics of the new modules and included "live" discussions with MIS faculty, a student buddy system (pairing MIS and non-MIS students together for support), and a student feedback system. Pre-, mid-, and post-course evaluation were also used. MIS faculty was careful to respond to the student feedback, to demonstrate that it was responding to the needs of the "new" customer.

The new reality of offshoring meant that the existing undergraduate MIS curriculum also had to be redesigned, covering subject areas that were not subject to outsourcing. This effort was coupled with a curriculum standardization effort, aimed at providing a consistent foundation of topics and IT skills. For this purpose, the instructors adopted a "common course" structure and formed course teams coordinated by a course owner. The course team takes on the responsibility of ensuring the majority of the course is taught with a common syllabus, exercises, book, and other support materials. Each team member has the flexibility of adding one additional topic to their course instance. The course team structure has created a small group which, using a commitment management system, can respond to course dynamics much quicker than the traditional management at the department level.

In order to address the perceived lack of marketability of MIS majors, an initiative was launched to reform and restart the then defunct MIS club. With faculty support, the club is now used as a sense-and-respond mechanism, one of the main student feedback mechanisms. All undergraduate faculty members participate in the MIS club electronic discussion board and use the commitment cycle to quickly resolve student issues.

Student feedback from the electronic discussion board has been used to make important curriculum modifications. Two major changes resulted from the suggestions: changing the course time from the traditional 8-to-5 time frame to the evening, and adding a project management course.

Figure 4 shows the impact of these changes. After a steep decline in enrollment in 2005–2006, the enrollment decline has leveled off thanks to an increase in the enrollment of non-MIS majors. Of concern is the drop in the percentage of female students from 51% in 2004–2005 to 24% in 2007–2008.

There has been a corresponding decline in the number of degrees awarded, an overall decline of 52% over the last four years. However, the percent decline has slowed from 33% in 2005–2006 to 12% in 2006–2007. As with enrollment, there was a decline in the percentage of female graduates from 35% in 2003–2004 to 29% in 2006–2007.

Graduate MIS program sense-and-response interventions. The first sense-and-respond intervention introduced at the graduate level was the forming of the Masters of Science in MIS (MS MIS) Advisory Board in June of 2003. The MS MIS Advisory Board convened a group of top IT leaders in South Florida, including CIOs, VPs of technology, and senior executives in global IT companies. As a result of the active involvement of the MS MIS Advisory Board, which served as human sensors to external market trends, enrollment in our MS MIS program did not experience the same pattern of declines as other graduate programs in other business schools. As shown in Figure 4, enrollment actually increased in 2004–2005 and after a small dip in 2006–2007 rebounded in 2007–2008 to an all-time high. 2007–2008 enrollment is 38% above enrollment in 2003–2004. As was seen in undergraduate MIS enrollment, the percentage of females enrolled in the MS MIS program has declined from 35% in 2003–2004 and 19% in 07–08. In line with enrollment growth, the number of MS MIS degrees awarded began to increase in 2005–2006 after a three year decline and has continued to increase ever since.

The MS MIS advisory board meets formally twice a year. Early on, the advisory board recommended redesigning the MS MIS curriculum, from its primarily technical slant to a more balanced emphasis incorporating a technology management focus. Advisory board members pointed to what they considered a market deficiency, that is, individuals that can bridge technology and business for business transformation and change management. In addition to the feedback during official meetings, the advisory board also participated in a formal program curriculum review retreat. The outcome of this activity was the redesigned curriculum outlined in Figure 5, implemented in phases over an 18-month period. MS MIS Advisory Board member, Ben Amaba, Worldwide Executive for IBM Industries, provided this insight on how the new curriculum is bridging the gap between technology and business:

"Your new curriculum provides a foundation for the student to face the realities of what is in demand in the marketplace without being too focused or distracted with the technology. You have designed the curriculum based on a balance of industry feedback and academic requirements. You have provided options for the student to improve on their weaknesses and compliment their skills in order to succeed in higher levels of responsibility as a leader in the business and technical community."

A number of additional innovations also were introduced to the MS MIS. First, advisory board members observed early on the need to improve the students' communication skills; therefore a number of required non-credit professional development seminars (PDS) were developed to improve their writing, critical thinking, and presentation abilities. Secondly, to address students' perceptions about the diminishing IS careers market and the threat of offshoring; we started "Lunch and Learn" sessions, featuring a panel of experts on topics of current interest. Thirdly, in order to create excitement about career options and improve students' understanding of IT environments, we have organized a number of student field trips to interesting data centers in the community. Finally, in order to instill a process for continuous improvement for each course based on the commitment cycle, advisory board members are encouraged to "adopt-a-professor." The "adopt-a-professor" initiative allows for advisory board members to work directly with a faculty member and propose specific improvements to each course, which may include adopting a specific technology platform, guest-speaker appearances, and student-led projects at their respective companies.

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A New Operational Model for Academic Units

With the immediate problem of declining enrollment and degrees awarded addressed, we were interested in creating a new way of operating so that the business school could respond much quicker to future changes in the environment. In Table 1 we contrast how the make-and-sell model differs from the sense-and-respond paradigm in the CIS academic unit according to the set of distinctions that Haeckel2 uses to compare the two types of organizations: mind-set behind strategic intent, process, operational concept and governance mechanism, organizational priority, and market leader criterion.

Given the current state of regulations and traditional university structure, adopting a sense-and-respond structure may present sizable challenges. However, we argue that there are aspects of the sense-and-respond model that all CIS academic units should consider in order to become adaptive organizations:

  • CIS academic units must acquire a systematic ability to sense, capture, and interpret signals about emerging and unarticulated customer needs, desires, and trends. It is also recommended that the CIS faculty actively engage in market intelligence, both passively by reviewing reports from trade groups and actively by surveying intended business majors.
  • CIS academic units must build the capacity to respond to changes in the external environment. CIS academic units must build the capacity to market their programs, as well as become a resource to other academic disciplines, by becoming experts on the leading-edge technologies that they require.
  • CIS academic units must figure out a way to offer more customized courses and degrees. Georgia Tech redesigned its "one-size-fits-all" curriculum into eight specialized threads, each representing a subset of computing, like computational modeling, machine intelligence, and networking.6 Students still learn basic core concepts like programming and IT architecture, but rather than being separate, stand-alone courses, these concepts are blended into threads. Students are responding to this new curriculum, with the freshman class of computer majors up by 33%. With this design, the curriculum becomes very adaptable to external changes, as threads can be added or deleted as appropriate in response to market demands.

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Conclusion

The decline of CIS enrollment and degrees awarded is a wake-up call for CIS academic units to revisit their operation models. The traditional make-and-sell model is no longer a viable management structure for academic units. CIS academic units must develop new capabilities to restructure computing degrees in a modular and customizable structure, in order to effectively respond to new market demands. Advisory boards and student groups can serve as human sensors for adaptive CIS academic units that want to keep a hand on the pulse of the IT professionals market.

Furthermore, additional work remains on how to effectively attract females to CIS careers. Many argue that one of the main reasons for the growing gender gap is the unwelcoming experience at freshman introduction courses, primarily to women who may have less prior experience with computers or a lesser single-minded passion for technology.3,9 In our business school, future efforts include redesign of the introductory MIS course to capture more excitement about the subject, possibly around the incorporation of Web 2.0 and social networking topics. Furthermore, more activities are being designed to expose students to successful women role models that are currently leading practitioners. For example, about one third of our advisory board members are women. Students have frequent opportunities to network with these women at networking events throughout the year. Finally, an annual women's conference featuring a panel of IT leaders was launched this spring.

But, a more important issue remains, that is, how can CIS academic units, who have a mission to produce graduates with computer-related degrees, continue to anticipate significant changes in enrollment (both positive and negative) and take proactive measures? Perhaps this is the right time for all CIS academic units to reflect and to sense ways in which to be more innovative and responsive.

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References

1. Are U.S. Enrollments in IT Shrinking? BizEd May/June 2004, 50–52.

2. Haeckel, S. Adaptive Enterprise, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 1999.

3. Hall, H. and Sandler, B. The classroom climate: A chilly one for women? Project on the status and education of women. Association of American Colleges, Washington, DC, 1982.

4. Higher Education Research Institute/University of California Los Angeles Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey 2006; www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/freshman.html.

5. Margolis, J. and Fisher, A. Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.

6. McGee, M. Innovative curriculum lures students to Georgia Tech. Information Week, Oct. 2, 2006.

7. Orlov, L. and Bright, S. Is there a career future in enterprise IT?" Forrester Research (Aug. 22, 2006).

8. Othman, M. and Latih, R. Women in computer science: No shortage here. Comm. ACM 49, 3, (2006), 111–114.

9. Weinberger, C.J. Just ask! Why surveyed women did not pursue college majors or careers in Information Technology fields. IEEE Technology and Society 23, 2, (2004) 28–35.

10. Welty, B. and Becerra-Fernandez, I. Managing trust and commitment in collaborative supply chain relationships. Comm. ACM 44, 6, (2001), 67–73.

11. Winograd, T. and Flores, F. Understanding Computers and Cognition, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1986.

12. Zweben, S. 2005–06 Taulbee Survey. Computing Research News, May 2007,

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Authors

Irma Becerra-Fernandez (becferi@fiu.edu) is the Knight Ridder Research Professor of Information Systems, the faculty director for the Masters of Science in MIS, and the coordinator for the Ph.D. in MIS at the College of Business Administration, Florida International University.

Joyce Elam (elamj@fiu.edu) is Executive Dean and James L. Knight Eminent Scholar in Management Information Systems in the College of Business Administration at Florida International University, Miami, Florida.

Susan Clemmons (clemmons@fiu.edu) is a visiting professor in Information Systems in the College of Business Administration at Florida International University.

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Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1646353.1646387

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Figures

F1Figure 1. CIS Undergraduate and Graduate Degrees Awarded by Academic Year

F2Figure 2. Managing commitments via the business interaction model

F3Figure 3. MIS modules by major discipline

F4Figure 4. FIU Undergraduate and Graduate MIS Enrollment by Academic Year

F5Figure 5. MS MIS Curriculum Modifications

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Tables

T1Table 1. "Make-and-sell" vs. "Sense-and-response" in the CIS academic unit

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