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Six Days to a Higher I.Q.

Six Days to a Higher I.Q.

At Wharton's weeklong class on e-commerce, count on 12-hour days, plenty of homework and, thank goodness, rack of lamb.

I finally run out of excuses on a wintry Saturday afternoon. After procrastinating for the better part of a month, it's time to tackle the countertop full of case studies, journal articles and academic papers. I have a quick flashback to college: the last-minute cram, the coffee-fueled all-nighter. I'm too old for this stuff, I think. So why am I still reading at midnight the day before I leave? Because it is college once again.

I'm off to an e-commerce strategy course at UPenn's Wharton School of Business's Aresty Institute of Executive Education to see what tempts busy business executives to plunk down US$8,500 for a grueling week of study. Are they hoping to learn, at warp speed, what e-commerce is all about? Do they expect reassurances that their companies' strategies are on the right track? Have they been appointed head of their companies' e-commerce initiatives with minimal experience in IT? Can a five-day program really make a difference? The latter question particularly piques my interest.

2:25pm I arrive at the Philadelphia campus on an atypically warm Sunday afternoon. After checking in, I head to my new digs. The room decor is standard academic issue - desk, bed, thinly upholstered chair. Think Motel 6 but with a networked computer.

3:30pm After registration and some brief mingling around the coffee jugs, my classmates and I make our way to the introductory session. Our classroom looks like most B-school auditoriums: The raised seating provides great sight lines but little room to hide from the professor's gimlet eyes. Awaiting us is a thick binder, which will soon groan with the week's handouts. A glance at the attendee list warms my heart - I had hoped for a good chunk of the 60-some-odd class to be non-IT execs, and indeed it is. There are CEOs, presidents, VPs of marketing and sales, and various heads of e-business. There is also a sizeable international representation, including managers from such far-off points as Saudi Arabia, India and Japan. Genderwise, I count nine women.

Harbir Singh, chair of the management department at Wharton and one of the academic directors of the program, kicks off the day with a two-hour overview. "We know there's a lot of experience in the room. Half of the learning will be classroom, and half will be case studies and networking with classmates," he tells us and then turns the podium over to a self-professed numbers guy: Lorin Hitt, assistant professor of operations and information management. Tall, lanky and looking no older than 35, Hitt presents a quick tour of the Internet economy. My head spins as he goes through a raft of graphs and charts detailing global Internet usage, site visitor rankings and various Net-related revenue numbers.

7:10pm The first two sessions were OK, but I really fall in love with Wharton in the dinner buffet line. We're treated to sea bass, roasted potatoes and mixed greens. I head back to the classroom with my tray, energised by the thought of a week of such fare.

As we shovel the haute cuisine into our travel-weary bodies, G. Anandalingam, national centre professor of resource and technology management, offers a quick lowdown on the alphabet soup of networks (ATM, DWDM, FDDI, LAN), a primer on how the Internet works, a framework for e-business and an intro to Internet distributed services (IDS). According to Anandalingam (and a prereading research paper from Merrill Lynch), IDS - hardware and software that will help businesses integrate their legacy systems with application service provider platforms - may well be the new new thing in the e-infrastructure space.

8:30pm Back to my dorm room to review 63 pages of case studies on Capital One, Dell and VerticalNet. I tiredly jot down answers to the accompanying questions and dread the possibility of being asked to dissect any of the cases' financial statements. Asking a journalist about amortisation is like asking a dog to explain supernovas.

After spending three hours on the case studies and answering e-mail from the office, I collapse in front of a Simpsons rerun.

8:00am I start the day, as I will every day this week, by meeting with my assigned group to review the day's case studies and readings. There's Matt, a Texas banker; Anna, an IS manager from Singapore; Luis, an IT manager from Venezuela; Chip, a VP of business development from North Carolina; Aki, a sales director from Japan; and G.P., a general manager from India. Waiting desperately for the espresso roast from breakfast to kick in, we collectively hammer out our answers to the case study questions. When no one volunteers to be the team spokesperson, we appoint Chip, who appears less than excited.

9:00am Time for the first case study: Dell online. Professor Singh sparks discussion of Dell's magnificent supply chain and top-notch customer service, as well as some of its challenges. (Does the PC powerhouse depend too much on founder Michael Dell?) I slouch down into my chair as Singh asks a couple of people to present their groups' answers.

10:45am The competitive strategy lecture covers what makes this whole e-business thing so tough: tension between speed and vision and the difficulty of managing trade-offs. How do you reconcile a consistent product line with the need for market agility?

2:30pm Following lunch and another small-group meeting, it's case study time again: Cap One and VerticalNet. David Croson, an assistant professor of operations and information management, gets a lively discussion going. Cap One uses IT superbly to pick off profitable customers from its credit card competitors. Can it do the same with other industries? Will VerticalNet's first-mover advantage sustain its 50-odd B2B trade communities? Or will second- and third-movers pick off subsets of its business piece by piece? I sit up straighter in my seat and even raise my hand a few times.

6:20pm I polish off a hefty portion of rack of lamb. No need to head out for a cheese steak if this fare keeps up.

11:15pm As I finish up tomorrow's readings and quaff my last sip of locally brewed ale from the upstairs pub, I realise that I haven't stepped foot outside the building since I arrived.

9:05am After the daily group meeting, we file into class to hear Eric Clemons, professor of operations and information management and one of the program's academic directors. He has the folksy sageness of a college professor with requisite suit, bow tie and salt-and-pepper beard. His lecture touches on channel power and electronic consumer interaction, interspersed with humorous anecdotes about negotiating airline and hotel upgrades from Hawaii to Hong Kong.

10:55am Another Clemons class focuses on scenario analysis - predicting a range of possible future scenarios, then deciding which should have priority when it comes to technology spending for e-commerce. How aggressively should an airline build its IT infrastructure to sell tickets directly to consumers? Will they come in flocks? Will travel agencies undertake punitive actions? My classmates busily scribble notes during this lecture; the topic seems to strike a collective chord.

12:10pm My plans for a walk outside are foiled by a working lunch. It's now been nearly 48 hours since I've smelled diesel fumes.

12:30pm Peter Fader, associate professor of marketing, tells us he doesn't believe half the stuff we've heard in class so far. That may not elicit cheers from the folks who've invested a week of their lives in the class, but his boldness is refreshing. Among other subjects, Fader researches online visiting and purchasing behaviour. His theories are eye-opening: Cross-selling doesn't make sense; viral marketing is garbage. Those aren't the uninformed rantings of an e-commerce contrarian; he happily shows us data to back up his claims.

2:20pm-8:30pm Afternoon and evening classes cover strategic alliances and supply chains. After the day's last class, I finally make it outside. Ah, fresh air! I visit the university bookstore in search of gifts for the kids; a US$20 price tag on a UPenn baby T-shirt nixes that idea.

12:05am After a couple of hours of reading and Web surfing on the room computer, I doze off, my mind awash in fixed costs, creative pricing and returns to scale.

8:00am Our group makes vain attempts to focus on today's assignments, but our conversations turn to the price of online books. Luis whips out his camera and snaps a few digital pictures of us for posterity.

9:00am-12:15pm In two classes, Hitt takes us through Internet valuation and strategies for pricing information goods. We get some basics in finance (P/E ratios, multiplier effects), view lots of statistics and try to figure out when it makes sense to bundle information goods (for example, sell software packages X, Y and Z for price P).

1:35pm-4:30pm Clemons takes over after lunch and delivers three hours of e-marketplaces and e-commerce structures - C2C, B2C, B2B, B2X (business to exchange) and pseudo-B2X (too hard to explain here). We delve into questions such as, When will a company find an exchange valuable? (in an industry with many buyers and sellers who differ in how they value a product); When is a tight channel between buyer and supplier best? (when a buyer needs tightly scheduled deliveries to achieve production efficiencies and the industry has a small number of buyers and sellers).

4:45pm Ravi Aron, assistant professor of operations and information management, explores the Big Brother aspects of the Web: dynamic pricing, search engines and search agents. Bottom line: Companies are getting very, very good at watching your every online move. Example: Even if you disable your PC's cookies (cookies are bits of software that allow websites to gather data about your surfing habits), you can still be tracked by your computer's IP address. Before you know it, websites will know how many teeth you flossed last night.

6:30pm Our hosts serve up Asian-influenced duck with red curry sauce, bok choy and rice for dinner's vittles. The cheese steak is still on hold.

10:10pm After digesting the day's e-mails, my bloodshot eyes attempt to focus on tomorrow's readings: e-commerce scenarios (yet again) and case studies on Charles Schwab and eBay. My class preparation has worsened as the week drags on, mainly because I no longer fear getting called on. But I dutifully slog on.

9:00am Professor Dan Hunter, assistant professor of legal studies, bangs out a lecture on e-commerce regulation. A strapping Australian with a fairly thick lilt, it takes me a few minutes to adjust to his speak. In the first few minutes, I'm writing "Jewish diction" and "Yahu Franz" in my notepad, totally confused, until I realise he's talking about jurisdiction and a recent court battle involving Yahoo France. There's lots of interesting legal stuff going on in the online world. For example, is a content provider responsible if content that's illegal in France is routed from the United States to Spain, through France? Can countries that transactions are routed through tax those transactions? (It hasn't happened yet, but apparently China is exploring the possibility.) Can companies - say, Wal-Mart - stop people from registering URLs like www.walmartsucks.com? (Hunter tends to think not.) 10:50am-6:45pm Lectures by Aron (One nugget: Electronic auctions are a great way to make sure you don't underprice your product when there's varying demand for that product) and Clemons (more on e-commerce scenarios) follow. Mike Useem, professor of management and director of the Centre for Leadership and Change Management, then takes us through our final case studies, involving Meg Whitman at eBay and David Pottruck at Charles Schwab. Thank God. My brain is tapped.

6:50pm A cocktail reception kicks off the evening. There's no homework, so we're all relaxed, introducing ourselves to classmates we haven't yet met and trading business cards like 7-year-olds swap Pokemon cards.

8:10pm Aki, my group member from Japan, and I decide to head downtown for dinner at Susanna Foo's, a well-regarded Chinese restaurant. Over steaming plates of fried rice and Hunan chicken, we chat about the program, share family stories and agree to stay in touch.

9:00am-12:00pm In his good-bye summary, Singh gives us one final thought: If you can control your e-business initiatives, perhaps you're not driving fast enough.

1:00pm I hop a cab to the airport, accompanied by a classmate headed back to Kansas. We wonder if a week in academia will translate into action at the office. Back at their offices, our classmates will try to put their newfound education to work amid the harsh realities of business. They could run afoul of an executive board that can't decide how to measure e-business initiatives; they may face a CEO who wants to cut down on technology spending. The entire group will have to deal with projects amid rapidly changing technologies and business conditions. Scary stuff for these executives, yes, but also a thrill a minute. What could be more fun than that?

Senior Editor Todd Datz would love to hear your e-business war stories. You can reach him at tdatz@darwinmag.com.

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