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James L. McKenney, at 77; high technology visionary


Technological advances never really startled James L. McKenney, who always seemed to see around corners and anticipate change, from the advent of e-mail and the Internet to compact discs replacing vinyl records.

"In 1975, my Dad comes back from visiting Japan and says, 'All your records are going to go away,' " said his son Bill of Lexington. "So, I told my friends what he said, and they looked at me like I was from Mars."

The McKenneys, father and son, were not from another planet, but Dr. McKenney's intellectual orbit curved years ahead of most.

He created the first online computing facility at Harvard Business School and introduced a computer-based simulation exercise, known as the Business Game, to the graduate curriculum in 1961.

Dr. McKenney died March 28 in Belmont Manor Nursing Home in Belmont. He was 77 and had moved there from his longtime home in Lexington to be treated for Alzheimer's disease.

"He had a complete love affair with technology and was just able to see farther into the future," said F. Warren McFarlan, the T.J. Dermot Dunphy Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School. "Throughout his career, he was able to see where the technologies were going."

"It was not a surprise to him when the Internet came along and exploded," his son said, adding with a laugh, "Would that he had been so prescient in his investments."

With his Lincolnesque beard and the bow ties he always wore on campus, Dr. McKenney may have looked the part of a professor who could help Harvard evolve from typewriters to technology, but away from the classroom he wouldn't have been mistaken for a computer nerd. Chicago born, he grew up in a family with roots in Oklahoma, his son said. Dr. McKenney spent many childhood summers in Oklahoma, developing a lifelong taste for the outdoors.

During the years he introduced would-be MBAs at Harvard Business School to the emerging world of information technology, Dr. McKenney took his family on long camping vacations each summer, sometimes crossing the country. He bought a second home in Wisdom, Mont., a high mountain valley community where the 114 residents counted in the 2000 Census could comfortably fit into many a college lecture hall.

Dr. McKenney worked with others to start a cattle ranch in Wisdom, his son said and at times found himself helping run the spread from afar when a ranch manager quit.

"He would be on the phone in Boston, trying to buy and sell cattle," his son said, chuckling. "He was a bit out of his depth, but he had the hat. He would take it with a lot of aplomb. But when he got out there, you could see that he loved it. He had no problem changing gears completely and working with true ranchers and cowboys."

While attending Purdue University, from which he graduated in 1952 with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, Dr. McKenney met Mary Keating, another student. Their son said that once while his parents were dating Dr. McKenney walked Mary home and went inside, where he so impressed the woman who would become his mother-in-law that when he left she told her daughter, "Now, if you don't marry him, it's your fault."

They married in 1953. He served in the Navy and worked in California for Lockheed Aircraft Corp., where he was inspired to pursue doctoral studies, his son said.

Dr. McKenney graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles with the first doctorate the university granted in quantitative mechanics, according to Harvard Business School. Soon after, in 1959, he became the first information systems specialist to join the Harvard Business School staff. He retired in 1996 as the John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration.

The Business Game he created allowed teams of four students to run a virtual company, years before virtual entered the information technology lexicon. Through the game, McFarlan said, students would learn how different components of a business "intersected in an interrelated system," rather than functioning independently.

The coauthor of several books, Dr. McKenney's final volume was "Waves of Change: Business Evolution Through Information Technology," published in 1995. That book, his son said, allowed him to document how different industries evolved and adopted new technologies.

Dr. McKenney wrote: "All the stories in 'Waves of Change' began with CEOs who have a problem they think information technology can solve. 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."

For his contributions to the field, Dr. McKenney received an Association for Information Systems fellow award in 2001.

Writing case studies that focused on business problems ranging from airline reservation systems to computerized inventory management, Dr. McKenney often worked on solutions to business problems a decade or more before technology evolved to successfully implement his approach.

"He was just a tremendously warm person," McFarlan said. "And he was simply a key person in getting us from the industrial age into the information age."

In addition to his wife, Mary, and his son Bill, Dr. McKenney leaves another son, Jim of East Greenwich, R.I.; a daughter, Katy Wesnousky of Davis, Calif.; seven granddaughters; and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in First Parish Church in Lexington.