Published on 2015/08/13
The EvoLLLution | Partnerships and Service: Keys to Differentiation in a New Marketplace
Identifying and highlighting points of differentiation is a critical step to take for new market entrants wading into immensely competitive spaces.

Establishing pathways to the workforce is becoming a high priority for today’s higher education institutions, and especially professional schools that prepare graduates for success in specific industries. In the corporate world, a skills gap has emerged in the data analytics space. McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business responded to this challenge by partnering with major corporations in the creation of the Executive MBA (EMBA) in Digital Transformation, its first foray into the EMBA space. In this interview, Michael Hartmann sheds some light into why these partnerships were critical to launching the EMBA program and how he expects the program to evolve over time.

Click here to read key takeaways.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How did you and your colleagues come up with the idea for the EMBA in Digital Transformation?

Michael Hartmann (MH): In late 2013, the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University undertook a strategic review of its programs and positioning within the business education marketplace. An opportunity was identified to undertake a niche strategy and to build upon the strengths and reputation of DeGroote in the digital analytics and healthcare segments.

We were hearing from our alumni and others in the business community that a divide was emerging—a skills gap—between the data analytics experts and the executives developing corporate strategy. With digital analytics, or Big Data, there was a significant market demand for a specialty MBA designation, but no global university business school offering an EMBA with a focus on this area.

Evo: Why was it so important to create this program in collaboration with tech giants?

MH: We see our technology partners as critical to our success for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they bring significant experience to the table and are keenly aware of the need for a program like this one. They will be invaluable in helping us ensure that the content of our program meets a real and growing business need by continuously “stress-testing” our curriculum, challenging our faculty, and co-developing new content areas. Our partners also help us build awareness in global markets where DeGroote may not be a recognized business school. Finally, because our partners are promoting the program within their own networks of employees, customers, and partners, we can be confident that the EMBA program will have a full class of students from the very first cohort in 2016.

Evo: What were some of the most significant challenges in getting the program off the ground, and how did you overcome these obstacles?

MH: DeGroote’s EMBA process has had to overcome a number of challenges. First, the school acknowledged upfront that it was entering into a new marketplace (EMBA) where it had no experience and there were many established, well financed competitors. After careful deliberation, a strategy was chosen of entering the market as a niche player aligned to DeGroote’s reputational strengths in digital analytics.

In order to build a strong brand around this EMBA, the school decided on a partnership model whereby leading ‘big data’ businesses (including IBM, SAS, and CIBC) partnered with the school around the EMBA. Partnership included an advisory role in addition to helping to provide content for the program, participants for the initial cohorts, and marketing support to help build and establish a credible brand for the EMBA.

Evo: What are some of the most significant differences between managing a program designed for traditional-age undergraduates and managing a graduate-level program for working professionals?

MH: The most significant differences are not necessarily in the content itself, but in the manner in which content is delivered. Undergraduate teaching remains a more directive process with the instructor still holding court in the classroom. Faculty who excel in the EMBA classroom have learned to assume the role of an active facilitator equally adept at unlocking the knowledge of their students and presenting and defending their own insights.

An EMBA is a premium-priced program, and this is reflected in the level of service and attention provided to students by both faculty and dedicated administrative staff. EMBAs are taught by the business school’s top teaching faculty and benefit from a lower faculty-to-student teaching ratio. These students also get access to premium classroom facilities and are provided with additional service benefits such as meals and even accommodation. The DeGroote EMBA bundles most meals and full accommodation in its 13-month program.

Evo: Looking to the future, how do you hope the EMBA program will evolve over time?

MH: While we certainly expect the program to evolve over time our expectation is that other EMBAs will follow suit in terms of incorporating some of our digitally focused themes into their own curriculum

I can envision in the next three to five years dropping the term “Digital” from our EMBA title, as all management content from leadership to strategy to marketing will be re-shaped by current digital technologies, innovations, insights and disruptions.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Partnerships with employers on programs that deliver in-demand skill sets are critical to solidifying graduates’ pathways into the workforce and directly addressing the skills gap.

  • When launching a new program, institutions should first identify a strategy that will ensure they can be competitive, especially when that market has a number of established players.
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Readers Comments

Michelle Ball 2015/08/13 at 10:11 am

This is serious commitment to a differentiator, and it sounds like it’s going to pay off, particularly if the 2016 cohort is already full. A wonderful example of listening to both students and employers to see where the university can step up and fill a gap.

    Rebecca Cuthbert 2015/08/13 at 2:57 pm

    This likely speaks to the efficiency of the McMaster admin and to administrators’ commitment to disruption and innovation. It takes guts to launch a whole new program, especially one as in-depth and complex as an EMBA, but that kind of fearlessness is what leads to the greatest successes.

Miguel Gomez 2015/08/14 at 4:27 pm

There must be a lot of resources available to back something like this. This is no small undertaking and it’s a pretty big risk to count on enrollment in a premium-priced program to offset the costs. I’m interested in hearing more about the approach, the partnerships involved and the market research needed to get here.

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