Retired Harvard Business School Professor James L. McKenney, Authority on Management Information Systems, Dead at 77

BOSTON, March 30, 2007 – Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus James L. McKenney, an expert in management information systems and the use of computer systems for teaching management, died on Wednesday, March 28, at the Belmont Manor Nursing Home in Belmont, Mass., after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77 years old.

In 1960, shortly after earning his doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), McKenney was the first information systems expert appointed to the Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty. He became a full professor with tenure in 1968 and was named the John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration in 1989. He retired from the active faculty in 1996.

“Jim McKenney came to HBS at the cusp of the transition from the industrial age to the information age and brought a deep technical competence to issues,” said F. Warren McFarlan, the School’s T.J. Dermot Dunphy Baker Foundation Professor of Business Administration. “For more than 30 years, he drove the School and the entire IT community to the frontiers of the field and to the study of how information technology could be applied effectively. He had invaluable foresight and was always decades ahead of practice. As early as 1969, for example, he sensed the importance of the initial work on the Internet and worked hard to convince others, including me, how significant it would become.”

McKenney introduced the first computer-based simulation exercise, the Business Game, to the required first-year MBA curriculum in the 1960s and later created the first on-line computing facility at HBS. The Business Game became an annual exercise for generations of MBA students, and it was used for nearly a decade in the School’s Advanced Management Program for senior executives. By playing the game, students learned how to use IT for business planning and management long before personal computers were invented.

McKenney’s research focused on managing the implementation and growth of intelligent terminal communications systems, knowledge-based systems, and the design and management of private communications systems. He was the author or co-author of several books, including Corporate Information Systems Management: Issues Facing Senior Executives, and Corporate Information Systems Management: The Challenges of Managing in an Information Age.

In his last book, Waves of Change: Business Evolution through Information Technology, published in 1995 by the Harvard Business School Press, he examined managerial innovation in companies such as Bank of America, American Airlines, and Frito-Lay that became industry leaders because of their pioneering use of IT.

“All the stories in Waves of Change begin with CEOs who have a problem they think information technology can solve,” McKenney wrote. “First, they enlist a technical person-whom I call a ‘maestro’-to help find the solution. As the CEOs get up to speed on the technology, they suddenly begin to see the opportunities that computer systems provide by integrating across functions that create new competitive means. Then they start to look at their companies in dramatically new ways. Understanding why these companies succeeded can help contemporary managers cope with a rapidly accelerating pace of technological change.”

His articles appeared in numerous publications, including Management Science, Public Administration Review, Annals of the History of Computers, and Harvard Business Review. In a series of articles in Harvard Business Review in 1982 and 1983, McKenney and McFarlan coined the phrase “archipelago of information services.” The phrase is now commonly used to refer to the need to coordinate activities of different information services and the managerial and administrative problems caused by the dispersion of those activities within different administrative units of an organization.

During his almost forty years on the HBS faculty, McKenney wrote numerous case studies, among them the first on airline reservation systems and inventory management across the consumer products supply chain. Active in all the School’s educational programs, he taught many courses, including Information Systems and Control, Management Information Systems, Foundations of Computer Systems, Management of Natural Resources, and Management of Nonprofit Organizations. He also taught in the required MBA courses in Control (now Financial Reporting and Control) and Production and Operations Management (now Technology and Operations Management). While chairman of the Production and Operations Management area from 1968 to 1972, he served as the School’s director of computer services. In 1969, he was one of the founders of the Executive Education program Managing the Information System. The program is still offered under the title Delivering Information Services.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions to field of information systems, McKenney received an Association for Information Systems Fellow Award in 2001.

Born and raised in Chicago, he graduated from Purdue University in 1952 with a BS degree in mechanical engineering before receiving his Ph.D. from UCLA, where he earned the first doctorate granted by that institution in quantitative methods.

McKenney was easily recognizable on the HBS campus. He always wore a bow tie, and the cut of his face and beard reminded passersby of Abraham Lincoln. A wine enthusiast, he owned a vineyard in California. He also had a second home in Wisdom, Montana. “He had spent years working with the U.S. Forest Service, trying to help them improve their natural resource management,” his son William, of Lexington, Mass., remembered. “He loved the outdoors and was an avid fly fisherman. The house in Montana was part of a large working cattle ranch, and at times my father was actively involved in running it. He was as at ease working with cowboys on broken fences and going to rodeos as he was sitting on the boards of major companies like Continental Airlines.”

After his retirement, McKenney continued his research on management information systems, working on a longitudinal study of the grocery industry to trace consumer response and the evolution of the use of information technology in organizational change.

A resident of Lexington for 46 years, in addition to William, he is also survived by his wife, Mary (Keating); two other children, James E. of East Greenwich, RI, and Katherine Wesnousky of Davis, CA; and eight grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on April 7 at the First Parish Church, 7 Harrington Rd., in Lexington.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Memory Disorders Unit, c/o Dr. John Growden, Massachusetts General Hospital, 15 Parkman St., Boston, MA 02114.

April 10, 2007
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