Not your parents' MBA
How do you make one of Canada’s best business programs even better?
The MBA program at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB) certainly is already thriving. Most recently, the John Molson MBA placed ninth in Canada by Paris’s Eduniversal Business School Ranking, and it consistently appears near the top of other Canadian and world rankings.
Still, evolving trends in both business and education mean that a few tweaks are sometimes necessary — and in 2017 the program is being revamped to keep up with those trends.
The most obvious modification starts in September. John Molson MBA students will need just 45 credits to graduate instead of 57, the equivalent of 15 courses instead of 19. “We needed to make it shorter so students can complete it more quickly — in about two years for full-time students,” explains Anne-Marie Croteau, BSc 86, dean of JMSB.
She welcomes the changes as an opportunity to renew the orientation of the program and stay on par with other major universities. “The trend with other MBA programs around the world is that instead of 53 or 57 credits it’s now at 45. So this was a realignment with what the market needs, and what students need.”
“That’s the one big change everyone focuses on — the fact that it’s shorter,” says Sandra Betton, champion of this new MBA program and an associate professor in the Department of Finance. “While it is basically a shortening by one semester, the changes are actually much more fundamental than that.”
Emphasizing business ethics
Betton cites shifting requirements for modern business leaders as a guiding factor in the planning. “When we looked at our old MBA program, we asked ourselves, if we were designing an MBA today, what would we want it to be?” she recalls. “We came up with the goal of educating managers who can lead innovative and agile organizations — who can adapt and answer to big-picture issues such as sustainability. And the first thing we wanted was to establish a foundation of ethics.”
Betton, who has been teaching at Concordia since 1994, points out that, much like other MBA programs, the John Molson MBA introduced the topic of business ethics in a dedicated course at the end of the program. Now, she says, that teaching begins in the first semester with the mandatory Responsible Manager course. “So right from the start, students will be given the foundation of thinking about the ethics of the decisions they’re making,” she says. “For example, who is a manager answerable to? Is it the shareholders? Is it the employees? Is it society or future generations?”
Croteau agrees that training ethical managers is a major goal of the revamped program. “We’re very proud of our Responsible Manager course, which is all about ethical behaviour — making responsible decisions, how to be a manger who will foresee the long-term sustainability of a business and not just run a business short-term,” she says. “These are also our values at the JMSB; we want our students to be successful, but in a responsible way.” Everything is built on that ethical foundation, Croteau points out. From there, students can go on to study more traditional topics such as business analytics, marketing, economics and finance. “Then the next level is about managing people, and such things as how to improve your business process and how to make proper decisions when it comes to accounting,” she says.
The John Molson MBA has long been noted for its accessibility to part-time students — many of whom are working professionals — by offering several courses at night. Evening courses have now been extended to make life easier for both full- and part-time students. One of the main reasons for shortening the program was to increase accessibility for working students who need to put their careers on hold to study.
“This market is mainly for those who have been working and are coming back to school to do a two-year program, and that can be a real sacrifice,” says Croteau. “If you have a career, it means you have to pause. But how long can you pause?”
Croteau and Betton both hope that this improved access to the MBA program will not only attract more students but also encourage more gender diversity. “One of the characteristics of MBAs in general is that they’re only about 25 to 30 per cent female,” says Betton. “We hope that with this redesign we’ll make it more accessible to people who, for whatever reason, felt that it was too much of a commitment before or had too many other things going on, such as young families. I don’t know if we’ve got that right mix yet, but it’s all part of it.”
Although the MBA is a relatively small program — with some 100 students admitted per year, about 60 per cent on a full-time basis — Betton says there’s plenty of diversity when it comes to their backgrounds. “About 40 per cent are engineers,” she reports. “The rest come from every sort of background you can think of. We have a lot of students from the health care field and bio-med. In the four years I’ve been program director, the most unique backgrounds I’ve seen are an acrobat and a cordon bleu chef!”
Highlighting real-life business experience
While the academic requirements have been reduced by 12 credits, Betton is quick to point out that all the main features of the former MBA program have been retained. Most of these are oriented toward providing students with real-life business experience.
One is the popular Concordia co-op program, which sends students to work with local companies, applying their skills in a real-life environment. This often requires a considerable time commitment, yet Betton expects the new structure to offer more flexible scheduling. “With the redesign of the program, it should be even more interesting to do co-op because students will be able to find a job placement and still graduate in a reasonable length of time,” she says.
“Other opportunities include the Concordia Small Business Consulting Bureau, which we’ve had in the MBA for quite a while,” Betton adds. “It’s run almost like a little consulting company; the students actually act as consultants. They have to go and find clients, they have to price their services, they have to collect on their bills and they have to deal with annoyed clients who might not feel they got value for their money — all the issues associated with actually being a consultant, as opposed to being a student in consulting course where it’s a class project.”
This real-world experience is valuable for the students. “It’s a lot different when you’ve got a customer paying you,” Betton points out. “The students often start out underpricing their services, then realize they just worked for about $4 an hour.” Students can also participate in the Community Service internship, where they work on consulting projects with local schools or non-profit community organizations such as Share the Warmth. “A team of students acts as consultants to develop a business plan or marketing plan, or sometimes even a redesign of their organization,” Betton says. “Basically dealing with the same types of problems that small businesses often face, except now you’re dealing with non-profit.”
This works well for everyone — the students get the experience while the organization benefits from their knowledge. She describes this as a real eye-opener for those students who have only had experience in the business world, as non-profit organizations often work differently.
The John Molson MBA International Case Competition — one of the program’s most popular annual events — will remain in place. “We host it every year and it’s a huge endeavour for our students to organize,” Betton says. The week-long event has been attracting international teams of MBA students from universities the past 37 years — it was the first of its kind when it kicked off in 1981, and it's still the largest.
The competition consists of 36 fourmember teams from MBA programs around the world who pit their presentation skills and problem-solving abilities against each other as they tackle actual business cases. Concordia student volunteers plan and run the event each year, often raising as much as $250,000 to finance it. “It’s a wonderful experience for them,” Betton says.
Three years of planning
Making changes of this scale to an academic program is no easy task; it requires a great deal of discussion, and the logistics are complex. This redesign has been in the works for about three years.
“Last year was our transition,” Betton reports, adding that students already enrolled in the program were given a “very generous” transition plan. “Whether you start the program in September, or already started in January, you still get the advantage of our new curriculum.”
She adds that maintaining the program’s academic integrity was a guiding factor throughout the long planning process. “That was one of our main concerns with reducing the length of the program,” she says. “It’s a rigorous program, and we wanted to keep it so that John Molson MBA students have an excellent education rather than just the three letters. And we’ve kept that.”
Both Betton and Croteau have high expectations for the refurbished program. “Hopefully, the students who come to us and go through our new MBA will get what they were expecting, and even more,” says Croteau. “It’s our goal to provide them with the foundations, not only to make them better at their job now but also to give them something they’ll remember five years from now. It’s not just a matter of getting the degree but what they need to get the career they want.”
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