Financial Post: MBA programs take practical route

Mar 27, 2012

The following article was published by the Financial Post on March 27, 2012 as part of their MBA issue.


Jocelyn Ball knew she wanted to get her MBA sooner rather than later in order to give herself more control over her career. She also knew that she wanted to be able to hit the ground running after graduating.

That’s why shortly after earning her undergraduate degree she joined the first cohort of Dalhousie University’s Corporate Residency MBA, the only corporate residency program in Canada and one of only two in North America.

“There aren’t a lot of MBA programs where you get a full eight months to intern with a company and really immerse yourself in the culture and put management, presentation and conflict resolution skills into practice.”

And that’s exactly why Dalhousie University radically changed its MBA program. “About four years ago, we decided that the traditional 17, 18, 19 courses that make up an MBA wasn’t enough,” says Scott Comber, director of Dalhousie’s full-time MBA program.

Focus groups with employers across the country revealed that while MBA graduates were prepared from a technical perspective, they lacked the everyday, practical skills necessary to be effective.

“Conflict resolution, mediation, leading teams, strategic implementation, the ability to deal with and solve complex and ambiguous problems — these were all areas that needed improvement,” says Mr. Comber. “We turned that list into a 22-month curriculum that we call personal and professional effectiveness, providing all the practical skills for the day-to-day workplace.”

In fact, the first six months of the program are spent preparing the students for the eight-month job placement. “Interview skills, professional dress, presentation skills, if you have one minute to pitch yourself, what do you say? These are all things we address in preparation for their corporate residency interviews, which is a competitive process,” says Mr. Comber. “If they don’t pass the interview they don’t get the placement.

“We’re bringing business back into business schools.”

From the perspective of Bruce Smith, manager of staffing and planning at Scotiabank in Halifax, Dalhousie’s timing could not have been better, in part at least because of a recent shift taking hold among MBA candidates.

“In the past, most people entered an MBA program after having built up their resumé for six or seven years. Now more and more students are jumping into an MBA shortly after completing an undergraduate degree,” says Mr. Smith, who took part in the university’s focus groups. “In some cases all they have under their belts is summer job experience.”

At the same time, increasingly complex business structures and a hyper-competitive global marketplace make it that much more important to have MBA graduates who know how to work within and lead teams, build relationships and communicate effectively.

“Scotiabank has brought in 10 interns over the three years of the Corporate Residency program. What we are finding is the team piece and communication skills are huge.

“They are learning how to work as part of a team and work closely with coaches throughout their time with us.” Scotiabank has gone on to hire five people from the first cohort.

Across the country, the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver is in the process of recruiting for the first cohort of its new EMBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership. Interest is high, with half the spots already filled. And for good reason: The world of First Nations across the country is changing rapidly.

“We are seeing new impact benefit agreements being signed between corporations and First Nations,” says Mark Selman, director of the program. “We are seeing new revenue-sharing agreements between government and First Nations. There is approximately $350billion to $400-billion in proposed development projects in B.C. alone. Very few of those projects can go ahead without some consultation and accommodation with First Nations. It’s in the interest of everybody to make sure those decisions are made well.”

To that end, the program will offer a unique course designed to find a good way of working between traditional knowledge and social science knowledge as it’s taught in business schools. First Nations and all indigenous cultures have a different way of understanding the world than has been common in Western universities, says Mr. Selman.

“Traditional knowledge emphasizes balance, the connectedness of everything. It’s our job to find some middle ground that respects the importance of traditional knowledge and social science knowledge and melding the two. I view this EMBA program as addressing one of the most important practical challenges to our economy. While it was designed with B.C. in the forefront of our minds, I’m getting applicants from all across the country who see this is highly relevant.”

Laurier School of Business and Economic’s MBA program gives its students the opportunity to put theory into action in the workplace through its required integrated applied research project.

“In effect, the students are working as professional consultants for businesses, not-for-profits or government organizations and agencies,” says Chris Maziarz, special projects and research coordinator at Laurier.

Business partners pay a consulting fee to the school and students work in teams of five, putting in a combined 1,000 hours of time and effort to resolve a specific challenge for clients.

Those clients have included such organizations as the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee, Nike, the Victorian Order of Nurses, the Royal Ontario Museum, Walmart, Dofasco and RIM, as well as smaller, local businesses.

“Students tackle a variety of issues and work on the project from January to July and are graded largely on the nature and quality of the deliverables to the organization,” says Mr. Maziarz.

“It’s not philanthropic on the part of the partners. Students are meant to give value and solve something – make a difference.”

Eric Humes, an MBA student at Laurier, has just started his project, working with a new startup trying to break into the water-purification business. “We are coming up with strategic marketing plans both for the business-to-business and business-toconsumer market,” says Mr. Humes.

“We’re working directly with the entrepreneur, meeting bi-weekly to make sure we keep moving forward.”

This project was one of the reasons he chose Laurier over other business schools. “I wanted that hands-on, real business world experience.”

That’s exactly what Jocelyn Ball was able to take away from Dalhousie’s Corporate Residency program. She worked as a strategic business advisor for global insurance brokerage AON in its Calgary office during her eight-month paid internship. In that role, she shadowed one of the firm’s leaders and she helped integrate an acquisition that had experienced flagging sales.

“Sometimes you fear as an intern you’ll be sitting in a corner making spreadsheets. I was fortunate enough to have significant work to do and helped dramatically improve sales.”

Her success landed her a full-time job upon graduation last May. “It feels like I started working here two years ago, took a short break for school, and returned. That’s a tremendous advantage.”

Click here to read the article in its entirety at the Financial Post.

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