A Trip Down Memory Lane with Professor Warren McFarlan

On Wednesday, December 8, the students in the EC course Managing in the Information Age (MIA) threw a surprise farewell party for their instructor, Professor F. Warren McFarlan replica watches, the creator of the newest course on campus (MIA in its present form) and one of the most senior and distinguished faculty members at HBS. This term was Professor McFarlan’s final time teaching the MIA course and for next year, he hands over the reins to the next generation, in the form of his current co-instructor, Associate Professor Andrew McAfee.

Professor McFarlan was also teaching FRC this term and is one of the few to have taught such a wide range of subjects including FRC, TOM & MIA. His first love, however, has always been Information Technology and he has had a significant role in introducing materials on Management of Information Systems to all major programs at the Harvard Business School since the first course on the subject was offered in 1962. He has been a long-time teacher in the Advanced Management Program: International Senior Managers Program, Delivering Information Services Program, and several of the Social Sector programs.

Professor McFarlan retired as HBS Professor of Business Administration on June 30th last year but realizing that the MIA course needed a complete overhaul, he rejoined HBS as the Baker Foundation Professor. He then proceeded to create the newest syllabus at HBS, writing almost all new cases and incorporating all the latest challenges from the ever-changing world of Information Technology.

The MIA section of 2004 threw the surprise party because they realized how fortunate they had been to be in Professor McFarlan’s final class //www.replicaforbest.co.uk/replica-breitling-watches-sale-for-uk.html. The event was held at Mellon Lounge and featured cakes and champagne, a skit wherein a case “Warren McFarlan (A)” was taught amidst much hilarity, and finally, a presentation of some gifts to help Professor McFarlan pursue his hobbies of sailing and studying China!

The Harbus caught up with Professor McFarlan after the party for a trip down memory lane.

Harbus: You have had a long association with Harvard University. You earned your AB from Harvard University, your MBA and DBA from Harvard Business School and then spent your career at HBS. What’s so special about Harvard ?

Warren McFarlan: I entered Harvard University as a freshman in 1955 and later came to HBS. It was two different Harvards. The first Harvard was a liberal arts school. HBS was only 400 yards across the river but was thousands of miles away in terms of values, interests and perspectives.
I’ve never forgotten my first class at HBS. Milton Brown was the Professor. He was a great marketing Professor. He had given us a 60 page case on a silverware company for the first class. I couldn’t make anything of it. I and my roommate worked on it till midnight and couldn’t do anything with it. Next morning, I got dressed, picked up a batch of pencils and went to listen to the lecture. I’d come straight from the draft and had had no business experience. I wasn’t even sure of what the word “marketing” meant. So I was looking forward to a lecture which would explain it all.

The professor said – My name is Milton Brown and this is first year marketing.

Milton Brown went to a student two seats away from me and said ‘What are the key strategic issues facing the silverware company and what is your action plan?’ The student said…..(here Professor McFarlan imitates the poor befuddled student who apparently failed to give a satisfactory answer). Then, Milton Brown came to the person sitting next to me who was my roommate and asked him the same question.

I then made a short term forecast and was not disappointed. Milton Brown came next to me.

In ten minutes, I was involved in the education process like I had never been before. As a Harvard college undergraduate, I missed classes and used Christmas vacations to prepare for exams. This notion of preparing for each class and then taking part in each class was new to me. But it’s a combination of this approach, and the extraordinary caliber of the students and the breadth of the research agenda – that makes this place (HBS) so great.

Harbus: You have taught a wide range of courses – FRC, TOM, MIA. How did that come about?

WM: I was one of the first doctoral students in MIS. In those days, MIS used to be part of Control. Control consisted of MIS, financial accounting and management control. We had to pass oral exams in all three and do our doctoral thesis in one. Before I could teach MIS, I had to teach FRC for two years. It turned out to be very useful for my years in AMP. I taught TOM because of unusual staffing needs but I was never part of the TOM department. We used to hire IT people into Control but now we hire them into TOM.

This experience turned out to be tremendously useful for me. Most MIS people never get on to the boards of large companies. MIS is a core function but board members need financial literacy as well. So my background in FRC helped me in this.

Harbus: Which is your favorite area?

WM: Whatever I did, all my 12 or so books – the center of my work has always been IT and the challenges in it. It is very hard to teach IT to executives. I had the skill to relate to them and spent more time in the AMP.

I asked myself when I was about to retire what I wanted to do. It was easy to simply retire but it was fun to start this – the MIA course – do it from scratch. It didn’t really exist before this – everything was about dotcoms.

So everything was developed in the last two and a half years – the frameworks, putting it all together – it was a lot of fun. I had a spectacular Research Assistant. We started in the fall of 2002 in Belgium, started writing and understanding. We got the full set of cases and the ideas made sense. This work is a direct descendent of the original book in 1966.

Harbus: You have also been involved with HBS’s global initiatives. What were your experiences like?

WM: I launched our first international campus, in Switzerland. The first course I taught had 26 classes out of which 22 were entirely new cases in information systems and management control. It was an extraordinary thinking process and I came back with the ability to talk about global business.

I led our first delegation to China, one year after the Chinese economy had opened up to outsiders. There were four of us and we came back stunned, realizing that we needed to pay attention to this part of the world a lot more. The then Dean listened politely to me while I told him about my visit and realization. Then, he got me involved in a lot of other activities, but it wasn’t until Kim Clark became Dean that we focused on an international agenda. I got the opportunity to work on the international front. I went to South Africa and in the middle of apartheid was able to recruit our first South African students and provide funding so that they could come here. That’s what HBS is about – it gives you the resources to do things that you couldn’t otherwise.

Look at this book (Management of Information Systems by John Dearden and Warren McFarlan). It was the first book on MIS, dealing with practical issues of how to manage. These cases have long since gone to the dustbin of history – they deal with punch card equipment and the feasibility of computers. And yet they were on the cutting edge when the book was first published. Now today South Africa has opened up, China has opened up. On my last trip in March, we started the office in Japan. I was in Mumbai to start the process of launching our office there – alumni fundraising, Director’s interviews etc. HBS is an unusual work place to work!

Harbus: So when it was time for you to retire….

WM: Actually in 1992, it became illegal to ask University Professors to retire. I could see myself at the age of 90, tapping with my cane into the classroom, holding a sheaf of punch cards. But I realized that is the quickest way to kill a University. Tenure is designed to protect ac
ademic freedom, not to protect those who have lost their edge.

So when my name came up, I felt a certain moral obligation. I retired on
last June 30th as HBS Professor of Business Administration and was rehired on July 1st as a Baker Foundation Professor. You can have five terms of one year each but the decision is the Dean’s. He has to decide whether it makes sense for the school and thus it puts the onus where it should be.

Kim offered me the Baker Foundation Professorship and we put together this set of activities – the MIA cases and training the next generation of faculty. Andy came from TOM and hasn’t had the chance to interact with CIOs, so it was useful for us to work together – it’s the whole knowledge transfer piece. At the same time, a first year section needed to be covered in FRC and I got a call for that. I knew MIA would be a hard course – six new cases would be released in the fall after the course started. But I remembered that I had enjoyed teaching FRC in the AMP and it also made sense for the school, so I accepted the opportunity.

And now there is this new course on China and a healthcare offering for Executive Education that I will be working on. As well as another book. At each step, I want to be helpful as well as support the next generation of faculty.

Harbus: What advice would you give to your students?

WM: You have to think long term. You have to be curious. What makes
sense today may not make sense tomorrow. That’s what I tried to do with the course – get people to think outside the box. In 1961, it was a time when China was closed to the world, mainframes were the norm, Eastern Europe was hidden behind the Iron Curtain and India was closed off as well. Today, we are dealing with a world that is completely inter-related and interlinked. The hardest thing is for people to be focused and get things to happen. What you take for granted today, may make no sense tomorrow. My 1966 book – it has no relevance today but was a best seller in its day in 1966.

Harbus: Is there anything else you’d like to touch upon?

WM: It comes down to this – perspective. I remember when I was applying for MBA. I interviewed at another school and they told me I’d be taught the tools and techniques of analysis like Present Value. And I’d come out with all the tools to compete in the world.

Four days later, I came here and Gordon Marshall told me – “I don’t think HBS is the right place for you. You’re ambitious. You want to make things happen. We won’t teach much to help you in your first ten years. We teach a way of thinking, a way of putting things together.”

And I know now – tools don’t give you staying power. The way of thinking – being able to interrelate multi-dimensional elements – that’s what helps. One of the hardest questions for students is how to not get lost in analyzing the composition of the bark and end up missing the forest. That’s the magic of HBS, hard-headed analysis plus synthesis and thinking of things in their totality.