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Worldly ambitions

By Bernard Simon | June 18, 2013
Worldly ambitions

The Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto has long taken the view that it has less to gain by aiming to be Canada’s No. 1 business school than ranking among the top few dozen worldwide.

A strong global reputation creates a virtuous circle for a business school. By standing out in a now enormous crowd, a top school can charge higher fees and attract sponsors and partners, enabling it to expand course offerings, boost revenue and further enhance its reputation.

Furthermore, with master of business administration (MBA) degrees now a plain-vanilla commodity, business schools are being forced to add value with more specialized forms of executive education.

The challenge

Schools are increasingly looking for ways to leverage intellectual capital – their most valuable asset – into new sources of revenue and a higher profile. But they face intensifying competition among themselves, as well as from global consultancies such as major accounting firms and fast-growing private-sector training companies.

The strategy

The Schulich Executive Education Centre (SEEC) in downtown Toronto aims to burnish the Schulich brand through partnerships with three groups: other business schools, private-sector training companies and suppliers.

SEEC provides curricula and instructors to other universities in Canada and abroad, while its partners market the courses and supply venues. Profits are split 50-50. “Other than going pure online, which we have some problems with, there’s no other way of spreading our intellectual capital,” says Alan Middleton, the SEEC’s Executive Director. “We’re a very regional country, so it’s nice having the local brand, too.”

He adds: “We’re basically offering programs that have already been tried, already been developed and already been thought through. We’ve taken the risk.” In some cases, SEEC also trains the local school’s faculty.

The partnerships with private-sector trainers are predicated on a growing demand for courses that enable executives to show employers that they are keeping abreast of developments in their field and broadening their horizons. The partnerships cover training in 15 categories, such as sales and marketing, and supply chain, healthcare and project management. Curricula are devised jointly, and each side typically contributes faculty. SEEC pays the partner a percentage of gross revenue while bringing to the table what Middleton describes as “a credible qualification” in the form of a Schulich master’s certificate (not a degree).

SEEC also puts a high value on less formal but close relationships with suppliers, such as its two advertising agencies. “It’s working with people you cannot tell what to do,” says Middleton, who spent part of his early career in the advertising industry. “You have to work not by line of authority but by influence, persuasion and by creating a positive culture of engagement. People too often think of outsourcing as: We’ll tell the Chinese how cheap to produce it. That was the old model; it isn’t the new model. You don’t just tell them what to do, because you’re losing half the value which is their ideas and their participation.”

SEEC holds monthly meetings with the agencies to generate new ideas, spell out priorities and deal with problems. “If they manage to get the business up, we put more money behind them,” Middleton says. SEEC brings its partners together regularly, not only to meet the faculty, but also each other. It also tries to respond to its partners’ concerns; most recently, it changed the terms of its business-school contracts to give partners incentives to take more of its programs. “It’s trying to find those middle grounds,” Middleton says. “You’re herding kittens.”

The results

The latest Financial Times ranking puts Schulich at No. 52 among the world’s top business schools. (Canadian schools tend to be dragged down by their graduates’ relatively low salaries, compared with U.S., European and even some emerging-economy rivals.) But in customized executive education, Schulich comes in at No. 40, up from an average of No. 45 over the previous three years.

SEEC has set up partnerships with a business school or continuing education faculty in each of Canada’s provinces. Under the deals, each school has exclusivity to SEEC’s materials in its province. (The lone exception is Carleton University in Ottawa.) It has similar arrangements with one university each in China, India and Mexico, and two in Russia. The Russian government funded a recent three-year program with Moscow State University’s business school, under which budding entrepreneurs, mostly from technology startups, spent 10 days in Moscow and 10 days in Toronto.

Private-sector training partners include Toronto-based e-Zsigma, a specialist in Six Sigma process improvement, and Solutions Network, a projectmanagement training group based in Mississauga. SEEC has installed these two companies’ chief executive officers as program directors of their respective master’s certificate courses.

“They’re essentially entrepreneurs working with us,” Middleton says. The arrangement typically dissolves if the partner’s company is swallowed up by one of the big training companies.

Looking forward

One of SEEC’s top priorities is to extend its alliances with business schools outside Canada. “Guess who’s going to be spending the money in future?” Middleton asks, referring to the fast-growing economies of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China). “So we need to be out there.” SEEC hopes to forge partnerships soon with a second school in China and in India, and to expand to Brazil.

It is also eager to develop outsourcing alliances with more suppliers. Tied to university pay scales, Schulich cannot match private-sector salaries. But it can offer juicy commissions to outside suppliers. Collaboration through outsourcing, Middleton observes, “is a harder management job but the ability for innovation, for freshness of ideas, for expansion of your intellectual property, is much greater.”

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