The debate surrounding the relevance of the MBA degree is not a recent phenomenon; it has been an ongoing discourse within the B-school community among business leaders and global stakeholders. Remarkably, the degree remains resilient. Yet, in the ever-evolving landscape of education and industry, questions arise: How is the MBA evolving? What new opportunities and challenges lie ahead? What do industries demand, and how is technology shaping the degree? Above all, how are B-schools navigating these changes? These are questions that still resonate deeply.
As part of our latest interview series, “#GlobalThoughtLeaders – B-School Edition,” we engaged in a candid and insightful conversation with Dean Sharon Hodgson of the Ivey Business School. We explored the relevance of MBA education in the year 2023, delved into her motivations for pursuing an academic path, and unveiled her vision to establish the Ivey Business School at Western University as a household name for students aspiring to equip themselves with the knowledge and experiences necessary to become sustainable business leaders and change-makers. In this article, we present excerpts from this enlightening discussion.
Dean Hodgson brings a wealth of experience, with over 30 years of leading transformative initiatives for global giants like IBM, PwC, and Accenture. Her deep insights into the MBA landscape and visionary leadership approach offer valuable perspectives for aspiring students and seasoned professionals.
Join us as we venture into the ever-changing world of business education and uncover the unique qualities that define the Ivey Business School under the leadership of Dean Sharon Hodgson in this exclusive interview.
1. Transitioning from a successful business career to academia is a one-of-a-kind experience. What motivated you to change, and how did your prior business experience influence your academic pursuits?
I graduated from the University of Manitoba, which is basically where I grew up. After my graduation, I moved to the US, and the foundation of my career was laid there. I ventured into consulting because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. Consulting became my means of gaining insights into different cultures and businesses. Initially, I decided to do this for just a couple of years before transitioning. Still, I ended up spending 30 years in the industry, primarily in the United States but also in Switzerland and Shanghai. I held significant roles, including overseeing major projects like the Nestlé Globe Project. Subsequently, I served as the global head of IBM’s artificial intelligence and advanced analytics division.
Unexpectedly, I transitioned to academia after retiring and taking a break when a connection saw a good fit for me. Despite my reservations, I discovered that it aligned with my values and goals, which focused on social good and technology. This shift in my career has been both unique and rewarding.
I’ve had the privilege of using my extensive business experience to mentor and inspire the next generation of professionals in academia. It has been a fulfilling journey, contributing not only to the academic community but also to the development of future leaders, which I hadn’t envisioned during my consulting career. Being a part of this incredible and uniquely rewarding situation as Dean fills me with a tremendous sense of pride and fulfilment.
2. What are some of the strategies and approaches you have seen Deans use worldwide as they deal with the post-COVID challenge of transitioning their courses to online platforms?
Before COVID-19, our institution had already made the decision to launch an Accelerated MBA programme comprising 40% asynchronous and 60% in-person learning. Fortunately, the programme was already up and running in November before the March wave of the pandemic hit. This early start allowed our faculty to gain some experience with asynchronous learning and digital resources.
When COVID-19 forced all our courses to go online, we were committed to ensuring that our students made the most of the digital resources available to them. We transformed our approach to create a more integrated learning experience, avoiding the traditional online lecture format where students simply watched videos. We have data to demonstrate that this was a wise decision. As we assessed the learning experience and outcomes of our students during the period of online education, we found that their learning outcomes remained consistent. However, the student experience was varied This experience taught us a great deal about the importance of hallway discussions and face-to-face interactions in shaping the student experience. While learning can effectively take place online, the student experience is distinct and vital.
We are currently in a phase of reassessment. Many institutions, including ours, are firmly committed to restoring our previous standards and exploring how to enhance our online offerings. At present, we do not have fully online programmes. This challenging period has sparked creative thinking and substantial investments in online education, with the primary goal of maintaining and improving educational quality as our top priority in the post-pandemic era.
3. Could you provide some insights into your MSc programmes and share your institute’s plans for embracing the emerging opportunities in the field of MSc?
We currently offer an MSc programme in international business, which has been in operation for a considerable period of time.. While we already have M.Sc programmes in digital management and business analytics, there are several others under consideration.
Over the past few years, we’ve observed fluctuations in the demand for MSc programmes. In academia, initiating a new programme is relatively straightforward, but discontinuing one can be quite challenging. Therefore, we are extremely selective in our programme focus.
As a general business and leadership school, our primary emphasis will remain on general management and leadership. Should we decide to offer specialisations, we intend to integrate them into the curriculum of our programmes through the way we deliver case studies. Additionally, we’ll provide opportunities for specialized programming (such as GDips) and extra learning experiences. For instance, if a student is interested in a specialisation like sustainable management, we already offer a programme tailored to meet industry demands.
4. Given your background in business leadership within academia, how did you handle the shift to online learning, specifically regarding faculty engagement and the adjustment of teaching methods?
Managing the transition to online learning was indeed a challenging endeavour, but it wasn’t a solo effort on my part. I closely collaborated with my team of associate deans and senior staff to make critical decisions. Fortunately, we already had a head start due to the launch of the Accelerated MBA programme, which had encouraged faculty to create digital learning materials. This initiative had some faculty members who were already well-versed in online teaching techniques.
Those faculty members with prior experience in online instruction played a pivotal role in guiding their colleagues through the transition. They initiated forums and shared valuable insights and best practices for online education. For instance, they advocated for students to keep their cameras on during classes to enhance participation and overall well-being. Therefore, while I provided guidance, the faculty team’s contribution was instrumental in the project’s success.
5. In the context of today’s world, what is your perspective on the relevance of the MBA degree?
To gauge the significance of an MBA degree, we actively monitor the market by analysing factors such as GMAT taker trends. Additionally, we keep a close eye on the global economy since it is directly intertwined with the demand and opportunities available for MBA graduates. I would like to highlight that the educational landscape is evolving rapidly, offering a wide array of learning opportunities. When considering the traditional MBA, typically designed for individuals with 7-15 years of experience, it faces competition from various lifelong learning options like certificates and executive education courses.
I believe the MBA continues to hold significant value, especially for those aiming to make career transitions or achieve rapid career advancement. It encompasses a well-rounded approach, incorporating general management, leadership development, technical proficiency, and a strong emphasis on essential soft skills such as emotional intelligence, communication, and networking. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that the MBA may not be the ideal choice for everyone and is most beneficial for individuals deeply committed to advancing their careers.
6. How are you meeting the industry demand for specialised skills in AI and blockchain, among others, and how are you integrating these skill sets into your curriculum to ensure your students are well-prepared for the workforce?
Absolutely, we’ve implemented substantial changes within our institution to align with industry demands. This transformation is evident in our revised mission statement, which underscores our commitment to addressing critical business and societal issues. Our mission now centres on “Think globally, act strategically and address the critical issues facing the society.”
We’ve identified three primary areas of emphasis: sustainability, the evolution of work, and Canada’s global role. These themes have been seamlessly integrated into the curriculum of all our general management programmes, including the MBA, HBA, and MSc, through the incorporation of case studies and curriculum updates. Furthermore, we provide specialised skills via electives, GDIPs (Graduate Diplomas), and certificates, ensuring that our graduates are well-equipped to confront the ever-changing challenges of today’s business landscape.
I find it particularly exciting to see how our case competitions and curriculum are evolving to place a strong emphasis on international competitiveness, product innovation, and sustainability, reflecting the dynamic nature of our world.
7. How do you navigate and successfully implement visionary changes within a well-established institution? What drives your motivation to enact these transformative changes, particularly in the face of entrenched systems that may hinder a recognition of the necessity for change?
We’ve established a steering committee comprised of faculty, staff, and alumni advisors. This committee convenes every six months to ensure our curriculum remains aligned with evolving industry requirements. This proactive approach enables us to maintain currency and adapt to changing subject matter. We also allocate resources to support faculty research in these specific domains, fostering a multidisciplinary approach.
To facilitate knowledge dissemination, we actively encourage faculty to share their research with practitioners through various means, such as events, case studies, and networking opportunities. Additionally, we closely monitor the development of new cases, promote the inclusion of crucial topics, and provide metrics to guarantee that our curriculum remains diverse and pertinent.
The core principles of transparency, governance, and faculty engagement play a pivotal role in effectively implementing these foundational changes.
8. How do you view this challenge in light of recent statements by companies such as Tesla and Microsoft expressing reservations about hiring MBAs, particularly in light of economic shifts?
Our MBA placement rates have consistently remained strong, consistently reaching the high ninetieth percentile in terms of our placement records. The reason our graduates are still highly sought after is due to their strong perspectives on critical issues and their well-rounded leadership skills. Although technical skills hold significance, they evolve rapidly. Therefore, our primary emphasis is on instructing our students on how to adapt and make decisions amidst uncertain environments.
In the long term, it’s the leadership capabilities, adaptability, and capacity to evaluate and evolve in response to changing circumstances that genuinely set our graduates apart, ensuring their ability to enter their careers ready to hit the ground running and excel.
9. With many students viewing MBA as a costly degree, what is your view on the perceived value-for-money of top global MBA programmes aligning with their tuition fees?
To elevate the value of our programmes and cater to the needs of our students, we implemented the one-year format, which has generated substantial interest among students, both domestic and international. Our one-year programme is conducted on-campus, and the advantageous location in London, Ontario, ensures accessibility for professionals who would rather not undergo prolonged relocations.
While it remains a substantial investment, it allows students to spend only one year away from the job market, resulting in consistently high post-graduation placement rates.
10. What sets Ivey’s MBA programme apart from other management degrees offered by your competitors?
Our unique distinguishing factor is our strong focus on real-world leadership. When choosing a business school to pursue a degree, the learning approach should be paramount. At our institution, we place a significant emphasis on case-based learning, setting us apart from the majority of schools worldwide.
We prioritise the development of leadership and general management principles, ensuring that each graduate gains a well-rounded perspective on critical business and societal issues. While our approach may not be entirely one-of-a-kind, especially on a global scale, we stand as one of the select institutions in Canada and beyond that wholeheartedly embrace this distinctive methodology.
11. Given your clear vision and approach to education, What qualities or attributes is Ivey Business School seeking in aspiring MBA candidates?
We place a strong emphasis on curiosity and have established four essential qualities that play a pivotal role in our candidate selection process at our school: inclusivity, integrity, community, and courage. In our quest for prospective students, we actively seek those who possess a global perspective, are deeply committed to championing inclusivity, exhibit unwavering integrity and approachability, genuinely care about the community, and aspire to make a substantial positive impact, whether in the corporate realm or in broader society. These attributes seamlessly align with the core values and our vision for shaping our student body.
For all prospective students, it’s essential to resonate with the school’s core values, which encompass inclusivity, integrity, community, and courage. We expect prospective students not only to identify with these values but also to actively put them into practice within our school community. Furthermore, students who thrive in a case-based learning environment and feel comfortable actively participating and engaging in classroom discussions will discover that our programme aligns exceptionally well with their preferred learning style.
12. What are the three achievements that you take the most pride in accomplishing as Dean?
I take great pride in three major achievements during my tenure as Dean, which commenced in 2019. Firstly, we effectively executed a new strategy that brought about a substantial transformation in our curriculum, rendering it more adaptable and closely aligned with real-world leadership principles.
Secondly, we have made remarkable advancements in harnessing technology to enhance programme delivery, leading to more immersive learning experiences for our students.
Lastly, we’ve undertaken a significant overhaul of our alumni engagement post-graduation, placing a strong emphasis on lifelong learning. This endeavour has involved aligning various facets of our organisation, such as Ivey Publishing and executive education, with these efforts.
13. What are the key directions and initiatives you have planned for the coming years to improve the educational experience?
I foresee a substantial surge in our research productivity, where we will produce influential thought leadership and foster deeper engagement with practitioners not only in Toronto but also beyond in the upcoming years. Ivey’s research endeavours will play a pivotal role in addressing pressing matters like achieving Net Zero, ultimately making a tangible impact in the business landscape.
Additionally, our alumni will persist in occupying leadership positions within both Canadian and international corporations, further enhancing Ivey Business School’s professional influence and expanding its global footprint.
14. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers with respect to Ivey Business School?
One point I want to underscore is the importance of nurturing a strong culture within academic institutions. This is a substantial and challenging undertaking. Academics have traditionally been trained to excel as individuals, but fostering a culture of collaboration and shared values that contribute to the broader community is indispensable for ensuring the enduring success of an institution.
It’s essential to acknowledge and celebrate both individual and collective achievements. Transitioning to this cultural paradigm is a journey in itself, but it holds pivotal significance for the future prosperity of academic institutions. Moreover, it aligns seamlessly with our core values and the calibre of students we aspire to attract.
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To learn more about the vibrant business community at Ivey Business School and dive deeper into the details of an MBA, check out this informative video!
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