This interview

"On average, we do find very high returns on MBA in the US for IT professionals in our studies--some of which I point to in the book "Digital Intelligence" - Dr. Mithas

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Interview with Dr. Sunil Mithas, Professor and Author of the "Digital Intelligence" Book

January 23, 2012

Dr. Sunil Mithas is an associate professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in the Decision, Operations and Information Technologies Department. He earned his PhD at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and an engineering degree from IIT, Roorkee. Before pursuing his PhD, he worked for about ten years in engineering, marketing, and general management positions with the Tata Group. He teaches core and elective courses in MBA and Executive MBA programs and a course in the PhD program in the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He was identified as a 2011 MSI Young Scholar by the Marketing Science Institute. The MSI Young Scholar Program selects about 20 of "the most promising 'younger' (i.e., doctorate received 3-6 years ago) academics" and a "likely leader of the next generation of marketing academics" every two years to enhance their research collaborations and engagement with the Marketing Science Institute.

Sunil's research focuses on strategic management and the impact of information technology resources, such as IT spending, IT applications, and IT human capital. His research has appeared in premier journals, including Management Science, Information Systems Research, MIS Quarterly, Marketing Science, Journal of Marketing, and Production and Operations Management. Some of this work has been featured in business publications such as Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Bloomberg, Computerworld, and InformationWeek. His papers have won the best-paper award and best-paper nominations. Dr. Mithas, Thank you for considering an interview with despite your very busy schedule. Congratulations on the publication of your new book, "Digital Intelligence: What Every Smart Manager Must Have for Success in an Information Age"
Dr. Sunil Mithas: Thank you, It is a pleasure to discuss about the book and other related matters with you.

app2us: In your book, "Digital Intelligence" you have introduced a 4D framework for IT. Which D matters most and why?
Dr. Mithas: The 4D framework for governance of digital resources focuses attention on four salient dimensions: decision rights, dollars, department role and configuration and delivery of IT services. It is important for firms to get the configuration of these four aspects of governance right vis-a-vis a firm's strategy. From a top management perspective, I will first start with determining dollars or overall investment levels in IT consistent with a firm's strategy as I discuss in the book. In my research findings and that of my other colleagues, we consistently find that usually firms with higher levels of IT investments and IT capabilities have higher levels of profits and other measures of firm performance.

app2us: You have written in the book "What should individual knowledge workers do to become less vulnerable to the potentially undesirable effects of globalization? They should consider investing in higher education degrees that have high returns, such as an MBA..." In your opinion, in the US, does an MBA degree from only top 30 or 50 really help, or lower ranked MBA programs do also help improve career prospects significantly?
Dr. Mithas: You ask a very good question. On average, we do find very high returns on MBA in the US for IT professionals in our studies--some of which I point to in the book "Digital Intelligence". It is likely that those graduating from say top 50 programs may have higher earnings (but they also cost more) than those graduating from say lower ranked programs, but I am yet to see any definitive study documenting higher returns for those graduating from the most expensive programs. In general, rankings are very noisy measures of a school's quality.

There are quite a few folks who believe that often the methodology for rankings is not fully transparent and it changes from year to year without any logic, even weights are somewhat arbitrary hence some schools have even decided to not participate in rankings parade. Students should examine the quality and research productivity of faculty and evaluate the fit between their career objectives and what a school offers to make their decision than be solely guided by the rankings.

Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland consistently ranks among top 10 schools in the world in terms of research productivity of its faculty and intellectual capital and our newly designed Smith Experience allows students to tailor the MBA experience to suit their interests and needs.

Also it may not be wise to just look at monetary aspects of benefits from MBA. Business education creates options--for example, it can help one to think more clearly, make better friends, find better life partners, and live a more productive, meaningful and satisfying life and these intangibles are no less important than dollars.

app2us: What motivated you to become a professor at a B-School?
Dr. Mithas: There is no way I can ever directly repay the debt of my teachers who made me what I am today so this was clearly one way to at least indirectly and partially try to do that and make some difference as they did for me. With my business experience and background, becoming a business professor seemed like a natural choice.

app2us: You worked in the industry for about a decade in India before deciding to pursue a PhD at U of Michigan. In what ways the vast work experience helped you?
Dr. Mithas: I think my experience has helped me to choose research problems that relate to the dilemmas and choices that top executives and managers face because I worked with many of them as a colleague or their customer or supplier in my various roles. It also gave me a great network of people to draw upon to test out my research ideas early on and focus on those that are really substantive and matter.

app2us: What did you like the best about your experience as a PhD student at University of Michigan?
Dr. Mithas: University of Michigan and Ross School of Business provided me great freedom and resources to pursue my research and tailor the PhD program to suit my style of work--it has great faculty and I acknowledge the contributions of some of the faculty members who shaped my experiences in my previous work and this book. Also, Ann Arbor is one of the best places on the planet to live--it was the perfect place for me to ease in before moving to a relatively bigger city. I must say that I still try to continue in a student mode at Smith School because I am learning and am working with great colleagues here. In my view there is very little difference in terms of the actual job that a PhD student does and what a faculty member does--yes the title is different and maybe you can afford better coffee and warmer pizzas as a faculty member but you still do research, teaching and service exactly the things that you do as a PhD student.

app2us: Many applicants with computers background keep on wondering whether they should opt for MBA / MS in CS / MS in MIS. While every person is unique, what pointers can you suggest them to help find the best course of action?
Dr. Mithas: This is a very tough question to answer and is subject of some of my ongoing studies so maybe I will come back and answer this question for your audience at a later date. However, as you right point out, the answer will likely vary for each person because it depends not only on where they come from but where they want to be--it is great for some folks to be tech-savvy and likewise for others to be more business-savvy. Let us touch base on this a little later because as I mentioned I am doing some work to generate at least some guidance on this issue.

app2us: For the MS-IS admissions, at the Smith School of Business, to what extent the test scores matter? How can a prospective applicant with not so stellar test scores improve her profile?
Dr. Mithas: We do not look at only test scores--we evaluate the complete application and the overall profile. Students should try to demonstrate strong inclination to put in their best and succeed through their application documents, recommendations and interview performance (if we conduct those) if their scores are low for any reason. They should not give up too soon--they should contact the faculty director responsible for MSIS to argue more forcefully even if they are rejected to argue why they are a strong candidate and if there were some mitigating circumstances to explain low scores.

app2us: Do MBA applicants to US B-Schools from certain countries face a stiffer challenge because there are hundreds from their own country applying?
Dr. Mithas: I think distance is not a factor and I believe that almost all US universities are very global in their outlook and policies. At Smith School, we do not consider distance to be a factor-- we go after the best applicants wherever they are. In fact, Smith School has a large number of students from countries such as China and India which are located farthest away from the US. If there is a will and a desire to succeed, distances should not matter. Isn't the world flat, according to some? I do know that admission officers try to create a diverse class to maximize learning experiences of students but that diversity is good for everyone and candidates who can make a case for how they are different and add value to collective learning experience and opportunities stand a good chance. I feel that we look for the best candidates wherever they are and distance almost never trumps quality.

app2us: What is the most satisfying aspect of your professional life?
Dr. Mithas: The ability to work with enquiring and energetic students year after year and to pursue research questions that can help to generate some answers to improve human condition.

app2us: Your advice to those planning to study at US Universities.
Dr. Mithas: US has perhaps the best higher education system in the world and one of the most hospitable places that I know for someone who is born elsewhere. This is a largely meritocratic system which rewards hardwork and creativity--come here to pursue your dreams even if you don't get your dream school the first time. I know some people who first came to a school and then transferred to another which they liked better after a while, it is easier to transfer to other schools if you are in US already.

app2us: Dr. Mithas, it was a pleasure talking to you and we believe your answers will greatly help prospective B-School applicants worldwide. Thank you very much for your time.
Dr. Mithas: It was a pleasure discussing with you, and thank you for the opportunity. Let me also thank you for creating an extremely useful service and website for students applying to US universities and providing them tips and links to useful resources. I wish you and your audience the best. I also welcome their questions and comments on the book by email at digitalintelligencebook AT or at the book's website.

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