Seeing is believing

Wednesday Sep 1st 1999 by Stephanie Wilkinson
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To enhance the learning experience, Harvard Business School uses streaming video as part of its living IT laboratory.

Four years after Kim Clark took over as dean at Harvard Business School in the fall of 1995, there's been significant reorganization in the IT department around the school's mission: "Training Tomorrow's Leaders." An $11 million IT program, an intranet, and a host of innovative applications--chief among them the extensive use of streaming video--have put HBS at the head of the class.

HBS Dean Kim Clark
"To retain our position, we need to be leaders in using IT in education," says Kim Clark, dean of Harvard Business School

Curiously, prior to Clark's arrival, while HBS consistently ranked in the top echelon of advanced-degree-granting institutions, its investment in advanced technology was in a holding pattern. The school, Clark says, was in danger of doing a disservice to its students. They were paying a cool $25,000 a year for tuition, but they weren't seeing or using the best that technology had to offer. "To retain our position, we need to be leaders in using IT in education," says Clark. "We needed to be a living laboratory showing students how to use it, manage it, and deploy it."

HBS students, who have long had access to the most accomplished teachers and the most distinguished visitors, now have access to thousands of hours of video, streamed on demand to their workstations in one of the campus computer labs or to their PCs at home. And faculty members have a new tool to meet their goal, Clark says--"to bring the world into the classroom."

"Video is absolutely critical" to that goal, he insists.

It may be at the heart of HBS, but streaming video is still fairly rare in large organizations, say industry experts. According to Gary Schultz, president of Multimedia Research Group Inc. (MRG), a market research firm in Sunnyvale, Calif., widespread adoption of streaming video has been held back by concerns about insufficient bandwidth in organizations, poor management interfaces in video products, and the often exorbitant cost of setting up video applications. Schultz says video server software and hardware can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $60,000. The real cost, however, usually lies in upgrading network bandwidth to make such applications look good and function properly.

"All these things can be overcome. However, it takes the vision of a CIO or CEO to make this kind of application happen," says Schultz. "Somebody high up there has to regard it as part of a new enterprise strategy." He predicts that applications like Harvard's, built on corporate intranets as opposed to ones fighting for bandwidth over the public Internet, "will be a major driver of market growth." A recent study by MRG predicted the worldwide market for multimedia server applications next year will have tripled in size from its 1997 level, growing from $354 million in revenue in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2000.



Let there be piece(s)

Larry Bouthillier, head of multimedia services at HBS, notes that the school's vision for IT was, at best, a bit blurry before Clark took over. "I like to say that we exhibited a great commitment to standards--we had them all," he says dryly. Islands of technology and decentralized management of IT led to a proliferation of systems: seven e-mail programs, 77 different desktop configurations, and more applications and operating systems than any one IT department could support successfully.

Clark's mandate to IT--deliver an ambitious end product via smaller, more manageable pieces--was met with success. Six-week delivery cycles replaced six-month ones, and new apps were prototyped, tested, refined, and delivered in a way that demonstrated their value immediately.


"When an intranet reaches critical mass, users start driving innovation in ways no central organization would have thought of," says Larry Bouthillier, head of multimedia services at Harvard Business School

As a result, HBS has had a version of streaming video since the early days of its intranet in 1996. But only with the advent of several key pieces of technology--low-bandwidth video servers and a system for logging and indexing video clips among them--has it become so ubiquitous and robust. In the first iteration of the project, dubbed Videotools, four Sun Microsystems Inc. 1000E quad-processor boxes were equipped with video server software from Starlight Networks Inc., based in Mountain View, Calif. "The application ran a simple flat-file database accessed via Perl CGI to deliver a very simple video-link search capability," Bouthillier says. "You could search the system and get a link to play a video, but that link was essentially hard-coded to point to a specific video server."

The system worked, but it was limited in several ways: It was only accessible on campus; it had rudimentary search capabilities; and the hard-coded links meant that there was no way to work around broken links or downed servers.

In keeping with Clark's directive to break large projects into smaller, more manageable pieces, Videotools was improved gradually. The advent of low-bandwidth video tools such as those from RealNetworks Inc. of Seattle, allowed students to access the system even if they live off campus. That took care of the first limitation. An off-the-shelf product that facilitates the searching of video addressed the second. Made by Virage Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., the Virage VideoLogger uses speech-to-text technology to create a searchable transcription of the voices on a video, along with scene-sensitive frame-capturing technology that allows searching of particular video clips. The VideoLogger, says Bouthillier, has vastly improved the ability of students to find specific or related pieces of video in the archive.

The final obstacle--managing the operation of the video servers themselves--was eliminated at the end of 1998. A six-month development project in Bouthillier's department resulted in a groundbreaking Video Delivery Management Application. The application, written in Java and accessing an Oracle Corp. database, incorporates load balancing among the servers, keeps track of each server's video inventory, runs watchdog on the servers, and tracks more complete data than ever about each video, such as the information generated by the Virage VideoLogger.

Today the system runs on eight Sun E450s and E250s. Five of those machines serve up MPEG video; the other three are dedicated to low-bandwidth video. The system is sophisticated enough now to look up a user's IP address and direct the request to either an MPEG server for on-campus, high-bandwidth connections, or to a RealVideo server for dial-up, low-bandwidth connections, and it determines the best network path for playback.

The online video library consists not only of case study materials but recorded clips of campus events such as executive roundtables and VIP speakers. According to Bouthillier, there is about 400GB of video content today, with over 1,500 unique pieces of video available online. "We're producing new content all the time," he notes, "so there's an endless source of new stuff to put online."

The interface to the system is written in HTML, says Bouthillier. The application is only available to users with a valid HBS login, and different parts of it are available to students, faculty, staff, and alumni.




Return on inspiration

Students have adopted the system enthusiastically. Clark notes that the video servers produce on average 5,000 sessions each day, which translates into roughly two video sessions per day for each student. New applications are being built on the system, says Bouthillier, which allow students to bookmark and share interesting video segments with others. And just down the road is another app that will offer users the ability to post comments and have online discussions tied to video clips.

The faculty's warm embrace of the new system also heartens HBS's IT staff. Bouthillier has been especially impressed with the way some early adopters have molded the system to their own needs. Take, for example, professor Earl Sasser's innovative use of the system in teaching the Southwest Airlines case. Sasser, a professor in the entrepreneurial and service management department, has used the case for years. In it, students are asked to play general manager. Their task is to review several candidates for a new job and then to vote on their choice. Their candidate selection becomes the jumping off point for the class discussion.

Sasser's idea, Bouthillier says, was to combine the streaming video application with the online polling tool that had recently been developed at the school. "He's organized it so that now the students can break from class, go back to their rooms during lunch, review the video clips of the interviews, and fill out the online questionnaire," Bouthillier explains. "By the time class meets back at 2 o'clock, he's got a printout of the student poll. That lets him shape the discussion instantly."

What pleases Bouthillier most about this example is the way it embodies a key truth: "When an intranet reaches critical mass, users start driving innovation in ways no central organization would have thought of. You give them the tools and the rest just snowballs."

As Schultz, the MRG analyst, has noted, "it takes a believer" to overcome the obstacles to implementing cutting-edge technology and to envision its potential. Fortunately, Harvard Business School is one of those places where hard-headed practicality coexists comfortably with blue-sky idealism. And inspiration is in no shortage at the top. The justification process for expensive IT projects is a case in point. While HBS declines to put a dollar figure on its investment in streaming video, Clark will say the school currently spends 10% of its yearly revenues on IT. In a meeting with high-level executives recently, Clark was asked how he could justify investment in applications like streaming video.

"I said, 'Hey, we know all about ROI. We teach ROI. But that's not how we think about this,'" he says. "The issue for us was, 'Are we going to remain at the old level of investment in IT and end up doing a disservice to our students, or are we going to be preeminent in the world and follow our mission to produce great leaders?'"

The answer to that one, as they say at Harvard, was a no-brainer. //

Stephanie Wilkinson is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Va. She can be reached at stephw@cfw.com.





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