Have you ever read a great business book and thought, "Wow, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could put this guy's brain to work on my company's problems?" Well, you'll be happy to know that there are several dozen first-rate brains out there waiting to do your bidding, embedded in programs called M.B.A.-ware.
M.B.A.-ware isn't new: the term was coined by a Wall Street Journal reporter in 1993, and individual applications have been around for more than a decade. What is new is that the software--often made by tiny companies and chiefly sold through direct mail and specialty catalogs--is about to become much more accessible. The catalyst is the Internet: as software sales move on-line, retailers that find themselves with unlimited shelf space can afford to offer products they once considered too "nichey."
M.B.A.-ware--which focuses on business and strategic planning, process modeling, and managing people--fills the holes in a manager's expertise, says Dan Burnstein, founding president of the Management Software Association, which represents 20 vendors in the category. "These are tasks people don't do every day, so it's helpful to have a mentor on a disk, a collaborator," says Burnstein. M.B.A.-ware vendors load their products with business smarts--Burnstein's own Negotiator Pro, for example, draws on his 20 years of experience as a lawyer and more than 200 books and articles on the subject of negotiating.
Many of the programs are interactive: users enter data about their businesses, and the software guides them to what Burnstein calls "meaningful conclusions," using if-then scenarios, risk analysis, or process modeling.
The Management Software Association is pressing on-line retailers to create M.B.A.-ware sections on their virtual sales floors--exposure that could quadruple the category's sales, according to Burnstein. "Before electronic stores it was nearly impossible to find these products," he says. "Now we'll be able to let the world know that there's more to software than spreadsheets and databases."
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan