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mba schools - spring 2010

A bespoke suit at G. Tonino in Montreal.John Morstad/The Globe and Mail

If you ran across 24-year-old Jocelyn Ball going about her daily chores as a budding strategic adviser with AON Canada in Calgary you might think she was on a typical MBA co-op semester.

In fact, she is in the vanguard of a innovative new approach to creating MBAs.

She is among the first students to be accepted to what Dalhousie University in Halifax calls its Corporate Residency MBA program.

Innovative because this is a two-year course designed specifically to meet the need of corporations. Companies like Colgate Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, the Royal Bank of Canada, McCain Foods and Innova and a sprinkling of government agencies and departments like the federal Privy Council and the National Revenue Agency spent more than a year talking with Dal's faculty of management.

They delivered a checklist of what they wanted from MBA graduates, skills they just were not getting from traditional business schools: Not more accounting, not academic subjects, but soft skills such as a real mastery of written and verbal communications, integrative thinking and a holistic approach to problem solving, the ability to both run and participate effectively in meetings and even a facility for introspection.

"We literally whiteboarded the list of what we wanted and what we were just not getting from MBA graduates," says Dan MacDonald, president of Innovacorp, the Halifax-based company charged with commercializing technology developed at Nova Scotia research labs and universities."

Much to their surprise and delight, in 2009, Dalhousie launched the new MBA program with an intake of 40 students parallel to its traditional two-year course in 2008. This past fall that was upped to 55 and within two years the Corporate Residency MBA will be the only kind that Dal offers, says acting dean of the faculty of management Peggy Cunningham.

"The whole idea is to create MBAs who so closely capture all the qualities employers say they need that they will immediately get great jobs and quickly rise to leadership positions," she says.

Surprise and delight are the right words, says Mr. MacDonald. "I can't tell you how many times I have been invited to focus groups and asked my opinion and absolutely nothing ever comes of it. In this case, however, they had us back maybe a dozen times - I am still on the advisory board - and the result is an MBA course that captures almost everything we asked for.

"The second intake students are into their residencies now. We have one here, Nick Ksiezopolski and I can tell you these young people are exceptional."

The Dal program differs from almost all other business school programs from the get-go, says Dr. Cunningham. Where others demand at least two years' work experience, Dal is willing to take them directly after their undergraduate degree. The first four months are spent in class and one of the first courses is that all-important verbal and written communication skills.

To help them understand integrative thinking and develop a holistic approach to problem solving, one first-term course brings together master's-level students from four different graduate schools - business management, business administration, environment and resource management and information management.

The next eight months are spent in that paid corporate residency. Salaries range from $20,000 to $40,000, depending on the corporation, the experience and the negotiating ability of the student.

The idea of an eight-month internship rather than the traditional four-month co-op program was a deciding factor in Ms. Ball's decision to choose Dal over the University of Calgary, where she had been offered a scholarship, or McGill University, where she was also accepted.

"Those extra four months mean you can get much more deeply involved in the company," she says. "You can really prove your value and take on much greater responsibility and bigger projects."

Mark Galbraith, vice-president of human resources, recruitment and learning at Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, agrees with that. He is a Dal MBA graduate and, like Mr. MacDonald, was one of the team of corporate executives called on to help create the program. He currently has one of the Dal students working as an intern in his department.

"They don't come in as the normal co-op student," he says "They come in as part of the team right from the start. The student we have right now already has four major projects on the go and he is proving quite remarkable.

The end of the residency sees them back in Dal classrooms for their elective courses. Dr. Cunningham says that for many students the residency experience will determine what electives they take to round out their skill sets.

Mr. MacDonald hopes that his resident, Mr. Ksiezopolski, will stay with Innovacorp. "If that is what happens, then we will work with him choosing those electives so he can further tailor his skill set to meet our needs," he says.

There is one further major change Dal introduced to its MBA program: It almost tripled fees. While the old standard MBA course cost $14,000 for two years, the new residency one will carry a hefty $38,000 tuition.

Basic requirements are a B+ average in the last two years of an undergraduate degree and a GMAT score of at least 550. Then comes the sieving process - the interview. While about 200 people applied for last fall's intake, only 55 made it through.

"We want to make certain the students we admit are the perfect fit for the course," says Dr. Cunningham. "Even there the questions we are likely to ask are all directed to what employers tell us they want from our graduates."