July/August 1999 // Commentary
Enhancing Professional Education through Virtual Knowledge Networks
by Charles Morrissey
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Charles Morrissey "Enhancing Professional Education through Virtual Knowledge Networks" The Technology Source, July/August 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

"There is no point in asking which came first, the educational explosion of the last one hundred years or the management that put this knowledge to productive use. Modern management and modern enterprise could not exist without the knowledge base that developed societies have built. But equally, it is management, and management alone, that makes effective all this knowledge and these knowledgeable people. The emergence of management has converted knowledge from social ornament and luxury into the true capital of any economy."

—Peter Drucker (1989, p. 223)

Organizations are in the midst of adapting to enormous changes brought about by technological breakthroughs in computers and communication. Accelerated particularly by continuing developments in collaborative technologies known as "groupware," these breakthroughs are having a profound impact on the management process. They are also stimulating—in this, the "Network Era," as it has been dubbed by leading scholars (Nolan & Croson, 1995)—a transition from a hierarchical to a virtual workplace. In the latter, dispersed team members from multiple disciplines work cooperatively to adapt to competitive situations (Townsend, DeMarie, & Hendrickson, 1998). They communicate via electronic meetings, which have become commonplace in our intensely competitive and global marketplace. At the heart of these new, team-based information systems is the objective of capturing, organizing, and distributing the intellectual capital of the firm for which the team members work. Academicians describe this process as "knowledge management" (Cole, 1998).

The knowledge management movement creates new challenges and opportunities for the field of professional education, which would do well to develop an educational equivalent to the virtual workplace. The rapid expansion of the Internet as a potential course delivery platform, combined with the increasing interest in life-long learning, has created a significant opportunity for graduate programs to adapt to technological advances. Responding to these advances, however, will require a rigorous reexamination of the traditional university's bricks-and-mortar delivery system. This article examines how traditional universities can enrich the student learning experience—and become more responsive to stakeholders—by developing what I call a Virtual Knowledge Network.

Professional Education Programs

Corporations, government, and non-profit agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on formal education programs for management personnel. These programs range from short, single-subject seminars to complete management degree programs. Agency employees take almost all of these courses in some form of "limited residency" so that they still may fulfill their responsibilities in their respective organizations. As part-time students, the managers-in-training move back and forth between the culture of industry and that of the classroom, where they develop new relationships with people from other disciplines and firms. Graduates of these programs often attribute much of their learning to their interactions with classroom peers, and they often attempt to maintain peer relationships throughout their careers.

In many ways, the environment of these management training programs is analogous to that of the virtual workplace. Consider, for example, the fact that many agency-sponsored education programs rely heavily on case method teaching, a form of instruction that requires students to prepare for class in study group meetings. Often the topic at these meetings is a case analysis task, an assignment in which students must examine a given problem and recommend a course of corrective action within a limited time frame. Each student brings his/her own unique expertise to the analysis, which is then critiqued in class by the instructor and often by professional guest speakers. Thus, like the multi-discipline, virtual teams operating in today's professional organizations, these student groups are shaped by the individual members' skills and by input from knowledgeable sources.

The Role of Information Technology

It is important to recognize, however, that professional education classrooms also differ significantly from the virtual workplace. Electronic meetings, for example, are rare; communication between instructors and students remains largely face-to-face in scheduled locations, at scheduled times. Moreover, instructors employ technology tools much less frequently than do members of virtual workteams. Despite a rapidly growing investment in information technology infrastructure in most management schools (Green, 1998), IT is not being aligned with the learning process.

This is a foolish omission, for research shows that collaborative technologies can improve the quality of learning (Morrissey, 1997). In accordance with that fact, higher education libraries are rapidly expanding the availability of online, digital document databases that support student and faculty research and that enhance professional curriculum development. With ProQuest Direct, for example, instructors can execute a periodical search (by subject, journal, or specific article title), use the search results to augment course content materials, then electronically distribute these materials any time, anywhere. Traditional text publishers, such as Harvard Business School Publishing, now provide similar Internet-based delivery systems of their content. Moreover, Internet software developers are introducing inexpensive video and audio transmission tools that enable access to "same time, different place" meetings such as lectures at distant universities and online conferences. When professional programs integrate these tools, they not only provide a richer curriculum, but also create the opportunity to implement a Virtual Knowledge Network.

The Virtual Knowledge Network

In a Virtual Knowledge Network, students and faculty are part of a continuous, online learning spectrum that is marked by unlimited interaction; contact with a vast array of knowledge resources is no longer restricted by place, distance, or format. These knowledge resources include faculty, students, alumni, and community members. Through collaborative technologies like those described above, the Network enables the seamless flow of discussion and documents, enriches the delivery of core curriculum concepts, and, most importantly, meets the specific educational interests of individual students.

Faculty members assume the role of true knowledge managers by facilitating "knowledge groups," a new form of the traditional study group (Brufee, 1993). Knowledge group membership can be extended to students in other classes, alumni, faculty, and university partners. Participants in this new learning environment purchase course materials through electronic commerce. Alumni and community partners provide financial support through annual subscriptions (Head, 1999).

The Virtual Knowledge Network in Practice: A Scenario

Imagine that Cathy, a 35 year-old marketing manager from an early-stage pharmaceutical firm, is a student in Professor M's class. Cathy has worked in marketing for 12 years; she started as a sales representative in a major medical firm after earning a bachelor's degree in economics. She has been with her current firm for the past eight years and has been given increasingly complex responsibilities in product management. Cathy's current job assignment is to coordinate a team that will launch a new product about to be approved by the FDA.

Professor M's fifteen-week course includes ten traditional, face-to-face sessions; the other five sessions are conducted online. Cathy's study group for this course includes three other students, an alumnus of her program, and an associate from her firm. She also is a member of a five-person group working on a collaborative thesis project. Professor M mentions that the university's executive program has had a number of pharmaceutical industry students. Through a search of the alumni database, Cathy finds an alumnus who recently was named CEO of a new venture in the industry. Through a search of the current student database, she identifies a student in another class who is part of a group studying post-FDA approval litigation. Cathy invites both of these individuals to participate in the thesis group's electronic meetings. The alumnus, in turn, provides Cathy's group with access to his firm's monthly "open forum" Web conference, which is designed to keep clients informed about product developments. Finally, Cathy searches the faculty database and finds a faculty member who is a consultant on FDA regulations. Later, Cathy accesses the University Web site, which is hosting a joint law/medical school conference on new pharmaceutical advertising regulations. She electronically "attends" the conference, then archives it for later viewing with her study group and colleagues.


This brief scenario highlights the way in which a university must leverage its increasing investment in IT if it truly is to serve its stakeholders. The university is the heart of rich content, expertise, and knowledge exchanges. It now has the opportunity to enhance this role by employing knowledge management concepts as the basis for its IT investment (Privateer, 1999).

However, this new focus will require changes in organizational structure and processes (Miles, et al, 1997). University executives would do well to follow the example of selected industries that have been through the same transformative process and successfully developed virtual workteams (Weill, 1998). Administrators must be receptive to change and approach curriculum structure and delivery systems with a "clean slate" mentality. They must encourage alumni to remain part of the university "community" long after they have graduated. And they must allow faculty to be at the heart of this transformation, acting as "knowledge managers" in a new structure that transcends time and space in order to serve a broader and more technologically-savvy constituency. Universities that recognize the strategic opportunity to implement Virtual Knowledge Networks will enjoy a significant competitive advantage in the next century.


Brufee, K. P. (1993). Collaborative learning. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

Cole, R. E., Ed. (1998). Knowledge and the firm: Special issue. California Management Review 40(3).

Drucker, P. (1989). The new realities. New York: Harper and Row.

Green, K. C. (1998). Colleges struggle with IT planning. The Campus Computing Project Newsletter. Claremont, CA: Center for Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University.

Head, N. W. (1999, April). Higher education: A key partner in the information system knowledge supply chain. In Jayesh Prasad (Ed.), Proceedings of the Association of Computing Machinery: Special Interest Group Computer Personnel Research (SIGCPR) (pp. 279-82). New York: Association of Computing Machinery.

Miles, R. E., Snow, C. C., Mathews, J. A. & Coleman, H. J., Organizing in the knowledge age: Anticipating the cellular form. Academy of Management Executive 11(4), 7-19.

Morrissey, C. A. (1997). The impact of groupware on the case method in management education. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Claremont Graduate University.

Nolan, R., & Croson, D. C. (1995). Creative destruction. Boston: HBS Press.

Privateer, P. M. (1999, January). Academic technology and the future of higher education: Strategic paths taken and not taken. The Journal of Higher Education 70(1), 60-79.

Townsend, A., DeMarie, S. M., & Hendrickson, A. R. (1998). Virtual teams: Technology and the workplace of the future. Academy of Management Executive 12(3), 17-29.

Weill, P., & Broadbent, M. (1998). Leveraging the new infrastructure: How market leaders capitalize on information technology. Boston: HBS Press.

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