Enhancing Professional Education through Virtual Knowledge Networks

Link to draft with reviewer U's comments embedded in text and to second draft

"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)

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

Corporate, 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 may still 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 Need for Information Technology Tools

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 work teams. Despite a rapidly growing investment in the Information Technology infrastructure of most management schools (Green, 1998), new IT is not being integrated into the learning process. This is a foolish omission, for research shows that collaborative technologies can improve the quality of learning (Morrissey, 1997).

The new availability of digital content provides an excellent example of how professional management programs could be enhanced by IT. [Can you explain in simple terms what a digital document database is?] Many textbook publishers, academic journals, and university libraries are now utilizing digital document databases, which allow even the individual classroom instructor to custom publish educational materials and circulate them among dispersed students. Similarly, Internet software developers are introducing low cost, video and audio transmission tools which provide access to "same time, different place" meetings—such as lectures at distant universities and on-line conferences.

Digital databases and video transmission tools: these are only two examples of collaborative technologies that enable universities to extend their educational "reach." If management universities take advantage of these tools and establish a "virtual knowledge network" for their client base of current students, alumni, and corporate partners, the traditional classroom will be transformed into a virtual learning space free from the confines of a physical classroom.

The Virtual Knowledge Network [This whole section should be more detailed since it is the focus of your article]

66.jpg (61680 bytes)Figure 1 depicts a scenario for this new virtual knowledge network. As resident class meetings become less frequent and students are recruited from wider geographic areas, faculty will become the primary drivers of the establishment of virtual classrooms. They will assume the role of true knowledge managers and facilitate "knowledge groups," a new form of the traditional study group (Brufee, 1993).

Participants in the network will purchase course materials and related documents through electronic commerce. The cost of student access to the network will be included in tuition; alumni and corporate partners will provide financial support through annual subscriptions.

Online "communities of scholars" will be created from a broad base of university stakeholders. [Needs elaboration.]

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 8 years and has been given increasingly complex responsibilities in product management. Cathy's current job assignment is to coordinate a team that will be responsible for launching a new product about to be approved by the FDA.

Cathy attends school every other Saturday and is a member of a study group comprised of other students as well as an alumnus [of the university organizing her class? or the local university? --they might be different institutions!] and the director of technology planning from a local firm, both of whom participate in the group's online discussions. She is also a member of a five-person group working on a [collaborative] thesis project [they all create one thesis?] that is one of their degree requirements. Professor M mentions that the university's executive program has had a number of pharmaceutical industry students; one of these former students, who was recently named CEO of a new venture in the industry, spoke to his class last year. After searching the university knowledge base [is this base something that already exists in universities? or something that would be created in the new VKNs?  If the latter, please supply some detail about what kind of information it would contain.  Perhaps you could do that in the section titled "Virtual Knowledge Networks."] and identifying this individual, Cathy invites him to participate in the thesis group's electronic meetings. He, in turn, provides Cathy with access to his firm's monthly "open forum" Web conference, which is designed to keep clients informed about product developments.

Through her database search, Cathy's also finds a faculty member who is a consultant on FDA regulations and a student in another class who is writing a paper on the performance of emerging drug companies. She even discovers that the university's law school   provides access to a Web conference on new advertising regulations in the pharmaceutical industry. Cathy shares this last piece of information with her colleagues at work, which leads them to explore a wider use of Internet conferencing.

This brief scenario highlights the way in which, through the use of IT tools, university management programs can offer professional students and instructors access to rich information flows and knowledge sources.


To utilize information technologies to enhance the educational needs of the professional student, universities will have to undertake dramatic transformations in organizational structure and processes. 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). [I edited this sentence; does the Weill citation still apply?] Administrators must be receptive to change and approach curriculum structure and delivery systems with a "clean slate" mentality. They must find a way to enable and 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 which 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. California Management Review 40(3), page #s? He's the editor of an article? No author listed?

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

Green, K.C. (1998). Colleges struggle with IT planning. The Campus Computing Project. Center for Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University. Is this a pamphlet entitled "The Campus Computing Project"?

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.

Townsend, A., DeMarie, S.M., & Hendrickson, A.R. (1998). VirtualTeams: Technology and the workplace of the future. Academy of Management Executive 12(3), pages #s?

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


Critical Reviews


The article is well written and will be useful.  The author does a nice job of presenting a concrete example for faculty and placing it within a broader societal context.

I would recommend that this only be published with extensive revisions. The writing is poor: ungrammatical, and vague and verbose in places where it should, and could, be succinct and specific. The subject matter is a worthy one; I suggest it be extensively rewritten and resubmitted.

A well-written article. I disagree with the veiled assertion that higher education lags significantly behind the private and government sectors in promoting knowledge communities. No segment really uses knowledge communities in an exemplary manner, as everyone is still experimenting with the concept. I'm also not certain how the mini-case about Cathy highlights a situation that differs much from what most graduate students can experience today with the technologies that are employed in most graduate professional programs. What I think is important here is the opportunity to link graduate students to the private sector, to alumni, and to other contacts as part of their education. This is a more a pedagogical issue than a technological one.