It’s Not Business As Usual

Donna March, Royal Roads University | BCBusiness
Donna March, MBA program manager at Royal Roads University, is steering the program in a direction that better serves the marketplace.

MBA programs restock and retool in response to the torrent of seismic shifts in the marketplace

The world of business has been transfigured in the past five years, and MBA programs across B.C. have been reviewed and reconfigured to respond to new demands. Today’s MBA students know that textbook examples aren’t likely suited to the challenges faced in the real world and are looking instead to develop their lateral thinking. They’re also increasingly global in outlook, and savvy to the opportunities of emerging economies—where a growing number of MBA students come from.

The process underway at Royal Roads University this winter is a case in point. RRU’s respected MBA program used to offer two specializations: one in management consulting and the other in human resources management. But it dropped the latter specialization due to decreasing demand.

“Rather than try and make it applicable to one or two people who were interested, we decided to suspend the offering and do a little more market research,” explains Donna March, MBA program manager at RRU School of Business. “We aren’t seeing evidence that the marketplace is looking for this specialized approach.”

The realization was the first step in a review of RRU’s entire MBA program, its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Asia-Pacific relations and the need for a stronger emphasis on leadership skills and abilities among new graduates are among the areas the university is considering as part of a new emphasis for the program.

UBC’s Sauder School of Business launched a similar process in 2009, which led to a significant overhaul in its approach to teaching management skills to business leaders. Murali Chandrashekaran, associate dean of graduate programs, said the school engaged in a lot of soul-searching, contemplating the purpose of a business education, and how it should fulfill that purpose.

“Why business education? That examination emerged, I’d say, after some of the global scandals—the severe transgressions of an ethical and moral nature by huge and high-profile organizations,” Chandrashekaran says. “Are we just about sending out investment bankers to Wall Street, or is there a place for management education that is far more profound than just helping some people make money at all costs?”

Broad consultation identified three areas vital in the overhaul that followed: global interconnectedness, substantive integration and the purpose of management education. “We were teaching lots of courses in a very isolated, siloed way, and the events in the world revealed to everyone that we live in an interconnected world where problems don’t announce themselves in siloed ways, just because that’s the way we were teaching them,” Chandrashekaran says.

When UBC’s MBA program relaunched in 2012, specializations were reduced from 16 to four, and ethics instruction was woven throughout the program. “You need more than just one course in ethics, you need leadership, you need a scaffolding,” Chandrashekaran says.

(The scandalous behaviour of Sauder undergrads at frosh week last fall hasn’t prompted the school to tweak its ethics teaching, Chandrashekaran says, but it did “illustrate an important leadership moment” and “reinforced the need for all of us to realize the impact of our behaviour and the ethical dimension of those.”)

A compulsory global immersion program was also introduced. Whereas the previous international exchange program attracted one-third of students, now everyone spends eight to 10 weeks working with international partners, and then two weeks on location.

The changes appealed to Lauren Thomson, who entered the program after five years with Vineyard Networks Inc. (since acquired by Procera Networks Inc.) in Kelowna. “It was fully integrated, and they were adding these kinds of new concepts like design thinking—things companies are just now starting to look into but are becoming more and more popular,” she explains.

The immersion program proved especially useful. While Thomson had worked with companies in India at Vineyard Networks, the program gave her a chance to go to Bangalore and experience their culture first-hand. “Getting some global perspective—I think people can go through a whole career and never have something like that,” she says.

An experience of different business environments is an element many MBA programs are seeking to incorporate. Approximately 60 per cent of MBA students at the University of Victoria opt for a co-op placement, even though it’s not mandatory unless students enter with fewer than three years of work experience.

Melissa McCrae, executive director of graduate programs at SFU’s Beedie School of Business, says the school’s program was originally designed to be accessible to younger students who might have less career experience. The curriculum still reflects this, bringing students up to speed when it comes to the basics of accounting, finance and economics.

But with the proliferation of MBA programs, many seeking to fast-track students into management careers, SFU has become more discriminating. Students now have an average of 5.8 years of experience, rather than the minimum two years. An international study trip is mandatory and an internship follows the 12-month course of studies.

“You’re getting an MBA but it’s a more valuable MBA,” McCrae says. “There was a move to bring a lot of people in who didn’t have work experience or had very little, to do an MBA, but then they came out with MBA expectations but they didn’t come out with that true MBA experience of being able to apply what you’ve learned in the workplace and understand it on a different level.”

The emphasis on work experience also addresses the view that an integrated approach to teaching management is important. The international study trip sees students spend two weeks in Asia or South America—Brazil is on the books for this year—and follows courses on international business and cross-cultural management issues.

“They can apply all that learning on the strategy and the people side while they’re on the trip, then there are assignments that tie it all together when they return,” McCrae says.

Similarly, ethics and corporate social responsibility are concerns that run through each course. Students must take a course in business ethics, but at the same time, the themes are taken up in courses that address quantitative decision-making and corporate strategy. “They’re playing off the ethical issues as well as the ones coming out of the numerical analyses,” McCrae says.