Can you really teach people the skills necessary to become successful ecommerce entrepreneurs? Given the less than spectacular performance of certain high-profile dotcoms of late, you might think there was a strong argument for trying.
City College Manchester and the University of Huddersfield recently announced their intention to give it a go. From September, Manchester will run an HND and Huddersfield a BSc course in ecommerce. But will these qualifications help IT professionals to make a success of it in the internet space?
Mike Hardaker, a media and IT consultant, said: "Defining what ecommerce means is a PhD thesis in itself. Teaching someone to do it at undergraduate level is pretty pointless. Most would agree that, whatever ecommerce is, it's mind-blowingly inter-disciplinary, and therefore requires either excellence or astounding luck in all its constituent disciplines to be successful."
While teaching students about ecommerce may be viable MBA material, he argued, it is totally inappropriate at HND level. "It's like offering a GCSE in quantum mechanics: you really can't because you need to be way above GCSE level in a range of subjects in the first place, before the quantum world even starts to make sense."
Another critic, a network maintenance director who asked not to be named, suggested the courses had been devised to jump on the "get rich quick" ecommerce bandwagon. "If the course organisers and trainers were any good at the subject they were teaching - and had the experience - would they really be stuck in a classroom preaching or out in the field?"
Steve Smethurst, who will run Manchester's ecommerce HND course, disagreed, saying that it offers far more than a conventional business science diploma. "Marketing in the internet wired world requires totally different strategies, and that means a different sort of business teaching. There are lots of different legal frameworks that have to be taken into account," he said.
"Then there's the technical side. What sort of technology do you require in-house to set up servers and design your own website? You can, of course, buy in the relevant expertise, but our course teaches those who are going to be in decision-making positions exactly what they should be buying in and exactly how much they ought to be paying for it," he added.
In Manchester's case, these decision-makers will be a mixture of both undergraduates on a two-year course, and those already in employment taking a one-year 'sandwich' course.
Smethurst predicted that, over time, the structure and nature of the course will inevitably change as theories and best practices in ecommerce evolve.
But is there a danger that the high-profile dotcom failures might scare away potential students? "Not at all," said Smethurst. "You need a proper business and technical grounding. Some techie whizzkid can't just go out there, willy-nilly, and get rich."
"If you look at what happened with boo.com, you'll see that, among other things, it didn't control its outgoings, and it hadn't covered the cost of its startup. Its failure had nothing to do with the fact that it was ecommerce. It was a failure of business strategy. That is exactly the sort of thing our course addresses," he added.
It's unlikely we'll have to brace ourselves for an influx of fully-formed e-millionaires, however, and to their credit, that's not what the course designers are claiming they will produce. "At the end of the day, ecommerce is a business like any other," said Smethurst. "To be successful in business - any business - you have to understand the business environment. By giving students a thorough grounding in all the elements of ecommerce, from managerial through to technical, we're helping to do exactly that."
What you will learn?
- The technology that underlies ecommerce
- Web design requirements
- Business strategy in an online marketing environment
- Law and taxation, both UK and international
- The practicalities of conducting instantaneous transactions across international borders.
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