Careers: Interviews
World-Renowned Business and Technology Thought Leader and Educator: F. Warren McFarlan, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School


Warren McFarlanProfessor McFarlan earned his AB from Harvard University in 1959, and his MBA and DBA from the Harvard Business School in 1961 and 1965 respectively. He has had a significant role in introducing materials on Management 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. He teaches currently in the First Year Financial Reporting and Control course as well as in several short Executive Education programs. He is co-chair of the Senior Executives Program for China.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:028: Professor McFarlan profiles how he got to his present position and what his current role entails.
"....I started at the very beginning of the Information Systems field and it was a course I took in computer programming in 1958 at Harvard College...."

:01:09: What important career insights and lessons can you share from your considerable experiences as a world-renowned leader?
"....continual surround yourself in the network of good colleagues, both inside the school and throughout the broader society.....(over time) to be adaptive and flexible...."

:02:21: What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?
" complete the development of the material (of a new course launched last year on Doing Business in China in the early 21st Century).....a book written in Mandarin, on cases in Chinese management practice, (by the end of this year).....the outline for a draft of a book on non-profit management...."

:03:45: As you indicated in a previous answer, you are also involved in Asia. Can you profile your vision, goals, and objectives in more detail for this region?
"....The challenges of Asia will probably be the dominant business challenges that they, (the new generation of students coming out of university at this particular time), will be facing in their professional lifetime..."

:06:05: Warren talks about the top trends in China, their opportunities and implications.
"....they've had 10 to 11% growth for year after year....extraordinary demand on the world's energy and mineral part of this incredible economic growth has come extraordinary environmental problems...."

:09:29: Where do you see China in 5, 10, and 20 years and where/what are the greatest opportunities?
".....This is a very technologically friendly country that have made massive investments in communications, electronics, infrastructure etc. to basically allow them to go forward....I'm looking for them to be able to continue to grow in terms of technology sophistication, going up the chain in terms of ever more sophisticated manufacturing products and along the way, being able to develop enough cash flow that they will be able to turn back and deal with many other of their intense internal problems such as the quality of their healthcare, development of housing and things of that nature....There's a huge change as to how they take these foreign exchange surpluses and find a way to invest it back into the country in a way that is not socially disruptive but helps drive the quality of life up...."

:14:13: What do you see as the top five trends globally, their opportunities and implications? What are the intersection points with China?
"....the largest migration in human history has taken place in the last 20 years in China (from countryside into the cities) and with that have provided the workforce that is producing the incredible amount of manufacturing of goods....they are running an unsustainable trade surplus with the rest of the world....The question is how they are going to take the huge surpluses and drive it back into the quality of life...."

:18:15: What does Asia mean to the world?
"....At the present moment, it's heavy manufacturing skills in China, heavy service skills in India. Japan, with a population of barely 10% of China, continues to dominate (at the present time) on the GNP per capita...but their challenges (Japan) are that they have reached the top of a demographic bubble and the Japanese population is now subsiding at the rate of a million per year. They control immigration in a very intense way and it's becoming a much more rapidly aging society at this point in time. What this means for the United States is that we have to engage in finding ways to do business with and finding joint projects across all three of the countries...."

:21:54:  Warren comments on the popularity of specific languages in secondary educational institutions today.

:22:51: Can you speak more specifically about innovation in Asia?
"....What has changed in the last three or four years is that as both (China and India) economies are growing, a much higher percentage of people who came to be educated here (US), are now going back home to their countries...."

:26:36: How do you see education trending in Asia and then more specifically in China? Can you compare this with the West? What are the implications to this long term?
"....The different countries have very different approaches. All of them have highly competitive screening systems, exams systems beginning at 7th grade as they try to identify the best and the brightest and bringing them into the universities....None of the three countries (Japan, China, India) are particularly good at handling large numbers of immigrants......The competitive advantage of the States is that we've had quite an open set of borders for the intellectually gifted....."

:31:20: Where and how do you see graduate education evolving and why?
"....I've been doing a lot of work with Tsinghua University. What great success they've had in the last few years in getting people who left China in the early to mid 80's, who got their undergraduates and doctorates and went on to become young full professors in American universities now being able to be attracted back to the homeland. My Indian students are looking much more enthusiastically about the opportunities to go back. With that, I think that is going to lead to strengthening of the doctoral programs in India and China but that they are still not of the same caliber as the very best of what we have here. But the countries are investing in these graduate programs...."

:34:15: Can you describe your key initiatives and their impact?
"....In China....We've built up executive educational programs, we've developed research initiatives, we developed field base cases, we have brought in a significant number of students and we have been able to raise money specifically to support the research initiatives and the scholarships for people coming from China...."

:37:42: You have written about IT Governance. Where do you see this going and why?
"....IT is one of the great disruptive technologies and for a number of organizations it really wasn't being seen for the strategic transforming device that it was and its ability to actually hollow out the entire center of the company...."

:42:41: How do you see the technology landscape building globally and why does this matter?
"...You have to ask yourself the hard questions...what are the sustainable value-added that are being produced by your firm...are they able to endure with your staff in your place at this time?......"

:45:15: Warren comments on the hottest technology trends and what this means to us.

:46:49: I see news items such as: aligning IT with business needs, driving business agility, managing risk through improved governance, closing the skills gap and meeting future skill shortages, addressing the productivity gap, improving ICT adoption rates, integrating Gen-Y and more. Can you share your views and insights on what you think are the top challenges facing business, industry, government and education in 2008 and beyond?
"....I think that it starts with the trite but accurate observation that the pace of change has never been faster, that the half-life of knowledge is shorter and all of this is playing out on a global basis. And it puts tremendous pressure on you to first ask ' what is it that I do that is fundamentally value-added and local in nature and what is it that is global'. And if I get efficient enough, then what is local may become global....Example: look at medical and hospital care....."

:50:22: Do you have any closing comments and thoughts - looking into the future?
"....We talked a lot about globalization and technology, but in the end, it's the political climate, the government, the ability to embrace risk-taking and change...."

Though not part of the podcast, I asked this added question:    Q: Can you comment on one or more of the following: the meaning and status of 100 years of MBA education; the main trends in MBA/EMBA education; and with so much focus lately on China, your recommendations for China's MBA/EMBA education stemming from your considerable insights into China?

"Clearly, the biggest challenge for China's MBA/EMBA education is to be able to ramp it up fast enough while growing quality. The biggest challenge is to recruit faculty who understand and are empathetic to the needs of managers and can shape their material in that directions.

A sad reality is that an important part of MBA education is getting inside people's minds and getting them to think in a different way. That takes time. The EMBA is better at teaching tools and techniques and perhaps not as good as getting people to change the way they think about things. That has been the hallmark of the long MBA programs. It is interesting when you think about the future of MBA education, how intense the debate has been, both about where we have been and where we are going.

There was an extraordinary book written this year by Professor Rakesh Khurana entitled, "From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession," (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), which summarizes the last 100 years of MBA education and looks to challenges for the future. It is very thoughtful and provocative. It is a "must" read for anyone thinking about taking an MBA or guiding an MBA program."


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