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Beedie dean Ali Dastmalchian says his school's joint venture with KPMG is a 'glimpse into the future of business education,' showing how business schools can respond to the needs of industry with tailored programs.

greg ehlers/Beedie School of Business

In the global rush to equip auditors with data analytic skills, tax and audit firm KPMG plans this year to offer its employees a new kind of professional development, created with and delivered by a Canadian business school.

Digital University, an undertaking between the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University and KPMG, combines elements of a conventional graduate business program with executive education-style training.

“It is a glimpse into the future of business education,” says Beedie dean Ali Dastmalchian, given the increasingly blurred lines between programs (the classic master of business administration and fast-growing specialty graduate business degrees) and modes of delivery (in-class, online learning or a combination of the two).

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In April, up to 100 Canadian KPMG auditors, each with at least two to three years of professional experience, are scheduled to begin a nine-month graduate certificate in accounting with digital analytics, with classes in Vancouver and Toronto. Of that cohort, about 40 participants then will be enrolled in a second year of studies to earn a master of science in accounting with cognitive analytics that builds on knowledge acquired through the certificate. Both credentials are recognized by British Columbia-based SFU.

“We need to get our people the capability to understand our clients as they digitize and evolution-ize their own businesses,” says Kristen Carscallen, Canadian managing partner, audit, for KPMG. “When you look at what we do – we go in and audit a company – we need to understand the company’s systems and their control environment; and it is getting more and more complex.”

With enhanced analytical skills, she adds, an auditor can examine all of a company’s data instead of relying only on a sample of the information. “There is so much more value in being able to get the data and then interpret it and turn it into audit evidence,” she says. “But we need to understand the systems that our clients use.”

By design, she says KPMG preferred the development of a master of science accreditation to an MBA, since the specialty degree would more clearly differentiate staff expertise to clients.

Those accepted into the certificate and the master degree programs continue to work while they study. About 80 per cent of the course work will be delivered online, according to Andrew Gemino, Beedie’s associate dean of graduate programs. But students also will attend a limited number of face-to-face classes (Thursdays through Sundays) led by Beedie professors.

“These are primo students from our standpoint,” he says, of the KPMG participants. “We are teaching them how to use data analytics inside their practice.”

In theory, KPMG could have developed its own data analytics program as it already offers numerous in-house training opportunities for its auditors, who must complete at least 20 hours a year (and 120 hours in a three-year period ) of work-related learning to retain their professional standing with CPA Canada, the national accounting body.

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But in-house development of a certificate and graduate-level program were seen as time-consuming and costly for KPMG, which also chose not to outsource training to a third-party provider of off-the-shelf courses.

“When we looked at [whether we] should develop it in-house or go external, we thought the highest quality learning would be with someone who does this every day,” says Ms. Carscallen, of the decision to work with Beedie. “We don’t have the skill set to develop this kind of learning.”

In both Beedie programs, KPMG employees work on actual problems, a bonus feature from the firm’s perspective. Participants must complete a work-related project to earn their certificate or degree.

“We wanted to move away from more academic learning,” says Ms. Carscallen. “We wanted our people to learn with real-life problems and data so it was really applicable, and they could take what they had learned and apply it immediately to their jobs.”

Like other business schools, Beedie is expanding efforts to work closely with industry, creating opportunities to redefine where, and with whom, business education is delivered.

“Rather than coming to us and giving up your work for a year or two and listening to us, we are going to them,” says Dr. Dastmalchian at Beedie. “We are developing a program based on their needs and even though we may not have all the answers, we will work on it together.”

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Over the three-year term of its agreement with Beedie, KPMG will assess Digital University for “how our people respond and how our clients respond,” says Ms. Carscallen.

As well, she says, “we will measure impact and success by looking at how we embed technology in the services we deliver.”

Depending on results from Digital University, Ms. Carscallen says future professional development could be undertaken “as long as it is practical and [offers] learning that is applicable for our people to take back to their jobs.”

For his part, Dr. Dastmalchian is already convinced that Digital University is the “wave of the future,” both as an area of growth and development for business schools but as a demonstration of their relevance to industry.

Follow Jennifer Lewington on Twitter @JenLewington or contact her at

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