EMBA takes innovation to the next level

Kulka%2C%20Terry-Director-uOttawa-EMBA-170X248.jpgBy Susan Hickman
From SCAN's Print Edition

Terrence Kulka, uOttawa's EMBA director (left), has noticed a significant increase in the number of women enrolled in the program.

Executive MBA programs in this country are recognizing increasing interest as the world economy stabilizes following 9/11. And program directors say that the high-tech sector needs to look beyond innovation to building strong management skills if it is to compete effectively in the marketplace. Initially designed for companies that want to groom their executives without losing them as employees, EMBA programs surged onto the scene in the 1970s, and by the 1990s were attracting the demographic cohort of baby boomers in their mid-thirties to mid-forties.

The University of Ottawa introduced an EMBA in 1992, offering participants the opportunity to further their management skills, and study in the dynamic business environment of a high-technology region surrounded by government agencies and international organizations at the core of Canada’s national and foreign business and trade. Since its first graduating class of 1994, about 700 have completed the 24-month program.

Queen’s University in Kingston has been offering a traditional classroom executive MBA program in downtown Ottawa since 1994 and counts on its reputation, outstanding faculty and years of experience teaching adults to attract several dozen participants to its program every year. Among the 300 Queen’s graduates of the EMBA program this May, about 50 were part of the Ottawa group.

Many institutions also offer online EMBA programs. The largest in the country is out of Athabasca University’s Centre for Innovation Management. Athabasca actually launched the first online EMBA in the world in 1994 and has since been ranked one of the top such programs by the Financial Times of London. Over the past 13 years, nearly 2,000 students have graduated from the program, 131 from the Ottawa-Hull region.

John Moore, director of the Queen’s EMBA, expects to see some consolidation of programs in the future but an increase in enrolment at the schools that continue to cater to the market.

“Virtually every business school has an MBA program and most have an executive MBA. Some schools will start graduating fewer people,” he believes. “This product has been on the market for 12 years. Companies have a good sense about what the program does for people ─ it makes them more efficient, provides them with an up-to-date skill set and prepares them to take on new responsibilities.

“Nevertheless, we are producing fewer MBAs per capita than the United States and there is still potential for growth. Also, the decline of the last few years seems to be turning around, and as the economy stabilizes, interest in management education will return.”

Ranked No. 1 in Canada by U.S. magazine BusinessWeek, the Queen’s School of Business’s EMBA offers local employees a chance to study in a state-of-the-art classroom in downtown Ottawa. The average age of a Queen’s EMBA student, according to Moore, is 35, and he or she has 13 years of work experience.

While many come from all levels of government, and the retail, manufacturing, service, consulting and health care sectors, a consistent 25% of the students are from the high tech sector.

“To ensure the long-term viability of a company, every organization needs strong management skills,” says Moore. “The key to a high-tech company is strong engineering, but if you look at the downturn in the high-tech sector, you need strong leadership, sound financing, solid accounting, good marketing. And I think that’s what an EMBA does.”

Moore claims, “The greatest thing is it changes peoples’ lives. It gives them a newfound sense of confidence to go out and do things they didn’t believe they were able to do before. That might be moving up, starting a new business, expanding a business, bringing in new clients, or taking products into the global marketplace.”

Queen’s also offers a video-conferenced EMBA program across the country, with half the classes in residence in Kingston and half interactive video-conferencing. Younger people with an undergraduate degree in business or commerce and, say, five years experience under their belts, can take an accelerated one-year EMBA, also available in Ottawa. And a partnership program with Cornell University in New York offers similar video-conferenced courses, half of which are taught by Cornell faculty and half by professors at Queen’s. Residential time is also split between the two campuses.

uOttawa’s EMBA director Terrence Kulka has noticed a drop in growth since the 1990s, when the program accommodated as many as 80 students, double the average number participating today.
Its program tends to attract more experienced and more senior management. The average participant is 42 years old with 15 to 17 years of managerial experience. Nearly a third are self-employed entrepreneurs, consultants or healthcare workers. Almost as many are in the technology and telecommunications sector, a number that has remained consistent over the past five years, says Kulka.

Another one in five come from government departments and agencies, one in 10 from diplomatic services, banking and industry, and the remainder from crown corporations.

About two-thirds are involved in the private sector, half of those in telecommunications, high-tech or manufacturing.
“Employers get back a more value-added employee when the program is over,” says Kulka. “And we do a lot of work-related problems in the classroom. When I meet with the candidates, I try to understand where they are in their organizations to structure the program to deliver concrete value.”

While all the class work is done in English, 15% to 20% of students in the uOttawa program are francophones, who have the option to submit projects in French and receive supervision by French-speaking faculty members.
Kulka has also noticed the number of women taking the EMBA program has been increasing significantly over the past few years.

“This is the first year we have 50-50 men and women,” he notes, “compared to the industry average of 15%women. Women are really getting the chance to develop themselves and organizations are behind them to accelerate their development.”

Athabasca’s online executive MBA program currently caters to 61 students in the Ottawa, Gatineau, Hull region and, according to Lindsay Redpath, executive director of Athabasca’s Centre for Innovative Management, interest in Ottawa is burgeoning.

“We host information sessions three times per year in Ottawa,” says Redpath, “and they are up by about 16% this year compared to last year. Our targeted marketing strategy has a significant focus on Ottawa. But at least equally important for us are our students and alumni in the Ottawa region.

“In Ottawa specifically, the upswing in interest is also linked to the upswing in the technology sector and the general improvement in the Ottawa economy. People are seeing that there are opportunities opening up and they want to position themselves to capitalize on them. Nothing unlocks your potential like high quality MBA.”

Redpath has also noticed a trend over the past six or seven years of students looking to break out of their current management positions into higher and more diverse roles.

Redpath cites the broad perspective of Athabasca’s student body as a real advantage for EMBA students.
“In any given class, students will be working alongside others with completely different backgrounds and experiences. Someone working in Ottawa's tech sector may find themselves in a classroom with a Toronto-based vice-president of a major Canadian bank, with a president of an Alberta oil company, with a manager of logistics and shipping on either the west or east coast. They might even be learning alongside a publisher in London, England or a director of marketing in Germany.

“All of these people will bring a different perspective to the discussions of best practices in management and will have a different cultural frameset to question, analyze and debate ideas. This broadening of perspective is crucial to innovation and ensuring that growth is well managed and sustainable.”

Building high-tech with business acumen

Most technology people reach a point in their career where they can no longer progress, says a director of a video game developer.

“Tech moves so quickly,” says Derek Sidebottom, director of human resources for BioWare Corp. in Edmonton, “that you really progress based on skill. The opportunity presents itself and you’re promoted. Tech doesn’t always allow for planned career development and people in tech don’t necessarily have the expertise to lead or plan or budget.”

Sidebottom’s perception of the high-tech industry drove him to pursue an executive MBA. After he graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in psychology and from Humber College with a degree in human resources, he followed a very successful career path through the ranks of human resources for such employers as Telesat, the Conference Board of Canada and Newbridge/Alcatel.

But there came a point in the 34-year-old’s career when he found himself interacting with business professionals at senior management levels and noticed a lack in business expertise was holding him back.
And so in January 2005, Sidebottom enroled in Athabasca’s online EMBA program, to get the extra degree of flexibility he needed.

Expecting to complete the degree this summer, Sidebottom is already realizing gains.
“I enjoy being able to think at a much higher level than the trajectory I was on. The critical thinking aspect is accelerated. The concept of applying specific knowledge is accelerated. It’s what I wanted out of my career.

“Plus there is the personal satisfaction I get from being able to contribute and interact with my colleagues and peers.”

Sidebottom credits his move to Edmonton last November to what he has already learned from his EMBA courses at Athabasca.

“Employers are looking for attitude, breadth of experience, unique insights, critical thinking, ability to apply learning. There really is a reward from what you learn and share with other people from other companies. You get a lot of interaction with people from government, hospitals, the military, people I don’t normally interact with. That cross-pollination gives you a broader perspective.”

Thirty-three-year-old Ian Lancelotte, who is also taking the EMBA program at Athabasca, agrees he has been able to fill some holes in his learning after earning an engineering degree from Waterloo.
A director of service delivery for MTS Allstream Professional Services in Ottawa, Lancelotte has broadened his understanding of human resource management, corporate finance and marketing, for example, since he signed up to the program in May 2005.

Expecting to complete the degree in another year, Lancelotte believes, “It will change some of the things I do, which will in turn change my career. It may well have given me the basis I need to do something different.”
Lancelotte was working as a project manager for MTS’s predecessor in Calgary and started studying project management at the University of Calgary. But moving to Winnipeg and then to Ottawa disrupted his studies and he decided to enrol in Athabasca’s EMBA program because of its flexibility.

“I’m trying to build a theoretical understanding behind the decisions I was starting to make on a daily basis. My engineering degree had none of the fundamentals of business, finance or economics.

“I was expecting some help in strategy formulation, understanding markets for next generation products. But I was learning about processes and methods of change for the last implementation of technology – not the next. You still have to figure out how it might apply to the next technology boom.”

While he has no regrets about enrolling in the program, Lancelotte has found a few bumps during his executive MBA studies – the birth of his son several months ago and the move to Ottawa last July. With nine to eleven hours of work a day and two or three hours of school every night, Lancelotte struggles to keep his life in balance.

“It’s a tough haul. But I feel it was a good decision. At some point, you have to transition to the next level. You can’t fly by the seat of your pants forever. An executive MBA helps you get through that transition.”

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