The evolution of business schools: Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University

Written by
Emily Sexton-Brown

29 Jul 2016

29 Jul 2016 • by Emily Sexton-Brown

What was the first business school you worked at? And what were the core components of the MBA? 

I joined the Faculty of Management at McGill University in 1974 as I was completing my PhD studies in Mathematics and Statistics. The school offered a very quantitative MBA program with three of the first year core courses focusing on statistics and operations research. There was little emphasis on “international”, however, that changed by the beginning of the 1980’s.

Have you sensed an attitude shift throughout students and faculty members, if so, how do the attitudes compare now to back in the late 90s?

One has to distinguish between undergraduate and graduate business students. Because MBA students today are paying much more for their degree, often from their own pockets, their career expectations and learning expectations are probably higher today than in the 90s. As a result, I think they are more focused and probably a bit more demanding.  Undergraduate students are more confident today than in the 90s. Technology, the web, mobile apps and social media mean that these students are constantly connected to limitless knowledge and to the rest of the world. That’s very different from the 90s. I also see at both the undergraduate and graduate level more interest in non-traditional business careers, a more entrepreneurial mindset and a desire to merge business with social responsibility.

What was the desired skillset for leadership in 2005 across large organisations? How much had the syllabus changed in a 10 year period in your opinion? 

Organizations today desire leaders who are globally-savvy and globally-experienced—leaders who know how to work across managerial, sectoral and cultural boundaries in order to achieve the mission or goals of the organisation. This is a given today for almost all large companies.

As for the syllabus, one has to distinguish between MBA, other management masters and undergraduates. Specialised masters programs are on the rise, but for MBA graduates, the idea of a two-year degree that builds on their undergraduate studies and work experience still aims to produce those broad-mind leaders that organisations are looking for. On entering managerial level, some jobs do require specific skills. And this is where specialised masters are bridging the gap between an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree and going into a specialised training for a specific type of specialty, like finance, analytics, etc.

 What is the desired skillset now in the present day?

What employers are telling us is the similar to the past. They want super smart, adaptable, hard-working individuals with good communication and interpersonal skills. The major change from the past is probably that data analytics and real experience and skills managing web, social media and technology as a tool for innovation and competitive advantage have become, and continues to become, incredibly important.

How much has the advance in technology change how students are taught?

Course management systems and online sources of information, such as that which is accessed through electronic library searches, have allowed students to gain greater access to data and information. Whereas material available through the library was once limited by the number of hard copies available, technology has removed this restriction. Many instructors now rely heavily on PowerPoint type presentations and while this has some advantages, the negative is that students are often not as attentive in class as they once were. For those instructors who have introduced one of the many available “blended” learning approaches in their courses, technology can be used to provide students with prerequisite material up front and this can be  followed by on line testing to see if the student has mastered the prerequisite material. Appropriate uses of technology in teaching still remains a challenge.

 What do you predict will be a needed skill for the future of human resources? Do these skills even exist yet?

I think we will see a merging of management and technology more so than ever in the coming years – solving not only business problems, but also the world’s most pressing problems such as climate change, poverty, war, etc. We already see this trend in what students want to do as projects. So I think education will be more about how to problem-solve and how to manage and utilise both human and technological resources in order to solve these very big existential problems.

Do you think executive education will evolve? If so, how?

With everything advancing as quickly as it is, executive education will become more and more important. People cannot come out of school and expect not to have to train in new methods, technologies, etc., every couple of years, or even every year. As such, training on a regular basis I think will only increase in value and will be the only way future leaders will advance. Those who are not constantly learning and adapting, will simply fall behind.

What do you think is the ultimate aim of executive education?

To provide a continuous learning environment and learning options for executives. To be able to bring in what you do at work into the classroom, and solve everyday problems at work in the context of education with the help of instructors as well as fellow classmates.