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Can business schools create a better tech geek?

Ryan Lane/The Globe and Mail

The traditional image of the tech geek is fading as organizations increasingly need people with both technology and business savvy. And Canadian business schools are beginning to offer new programs that marry the two skills.

Ryerson is the only Canadian university currently offering the new BTM undergraduate degree, which was designed by the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow's ICT Skills (CCICT) with the aim of improving the quality and number of business professionals in the understaffed ICT-related workforce.

But, according to coalition executive director David Ticoll, up to a dozen other universities have approved or are in the process of approving the program, with target start dates of fall 2011 or 2012.

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"The nature of demand for ICT-related skills is changing," notes a CCICT consultation paper submitted to the federal government in July, entitled Improving Canada's Digital Advantage. "Numerous ICT professionals are unemployed because their skills do not match the needs of today's labour market. ICT is decreasingly about traditional desk-bound programming and increasingly about 21st-century careers for professionals who display leadership and drive innovation."

In fact, students like Andrew Young, who graduates this spring with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Business Technology Management (BTM) from Toronto's Ryerson University, are already getting job offers from employers hungering for workers with this hybrid skill set.

"I have known since I was in Grade 11 that I wanted to go to Ryerson, and take this program specifically, because I love computers and I love business," says Mr. Young, who is among a total of about 1,500 students enrolled in the five-year program.

A typical BTM degree program includes courses ranging from financial accounting, and system analysis and design, to IT infrastructure and marketing, global management, written communication, and organizational behaviour and interpersonal skills. Students must complete 20 months of work experience in the co-op part of the program, which will prepare them for typical business technology manager roles - such as business analyst, project and program managers, technology consultants, entrepreneurs, and technical sales/marketing.

In Canada, there are about a million workers in ICT-type jobs, which have grown about 10 per cent annually in the past decade, but most post-secondary programs have experienced chronic under-enrolments and employers are struggling to fill positions, Mr. Ticoll says from his Toronto office.

"There's a general perception out there that if you're going to do an information technology-related career, you'll be a geek, spend all your time in technology and doing system maintenance, and having your face in a computer all day, and not relate to people and do other things," he says. "There's a lack of understanding that there's a business-oriented, technology career option. A lot of people aren't aware this even exists or the level of demand for it.

"If you go to one of these business schools offering the BTM, you need the level of math that will get you into a commerce program, but not the advanced level you need to get you into a science or technology program."

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Business technology managers are "the renaissance persons of business. They need to be good communicators, to deal with human needs, as well as business, business strategy and technology - you need to use both sides of your brain," adds Mr. Ticoll. "This is a very different kind of technology career than most people generally think."

Ayse Bener, director of Ryerson's BTM program, which evolved from the university's decade-old Information Technology Management (ITM) program, says that traditionally, "companies have workers who are either business oriented with no clue about technology, or who are technologically oriented who don't understand business.

"Recent developments in technology mean you need a hybrid person more," she adds. "Today, you can't afford to be a business manager saying you don't understand or know technology, and you can't afford to be a pure technical person saying I don't care what marketing people think. There's a shift of resources needed in the IT industries.

"If you want to be a pure technical person, you would most probably find jobs elsewhere, other than North America, so you should be prepared to live overseas. If you plan to stay in North America, you need to understand the business processes and be good in business analysis, while having technology knowledge as well."

While the CCICT designed the BTM program drawing heavily on international standards, Canadian universities are encouraged to tailor their curriculum and areas of specialization.

Ontario's Wilfrid Laurier University, for one, is offering BTM at its Brantford campus beginning in September 2011, driven by interest from warehousing and manufacturing employers in the Six Nations community who need employees "who can talk both the technology and business language - it's hard to find people who could bridge both of them," says campus dean Bruce Arai.

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"We didn't have any program that really addressed that, so we were able to build this [BTM program]from scratch and focus on that integrative aspect, and so far, the reception has been very, very positive - we already have [industry]donors who have stepped up and said they want to provide some scholarships for the program."

At Ryerson, the BTM is on business analysis, project management and outsourcing management. The courses "give a strong base for analytical and critical thinking" and emphasize "information systems, policy issues and research," says Ms. Bener.

For instance, during his co-op work at CIBC, Mr. Young and two other students helped develop a tracking system that simplifies operations, including to help workers log their progress on projects.

Mr. Young, for one, says Ryerson's program provides "a lot of experiential learning" that's crucial to achieving his goals for working for an organization before launching his own company.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harnessing the next generation

The Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow's ICT Skills (CCICT) is launching a Digital Jobs of Tomorrow campaign in 2011, in partnership with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and various provincial governments.

The campaign aims to boost enrolment generally, and of women specifically, in ICT-related post-secondary schools, and help employers find workers qualified in business management technology jobs.

A CCICT paper, "Improving Canada's Digital Advantage," submitted to the federal government recommends that:

•Governments collaborate to fund more ICT-related programs to improve enrolment by at least 20 per cent by 2017.

•Digital literacy skills be made a priority at all levels of education.

•Governments, educators and the private sector provide funding, mentoring and other support in promoting ICT-related careers.

•Canada, in partnership with provinces, devise new programs aimed at doubling female enrolment (now about 25 per cent) in ICT-related post-secondary schools by 2017.

•The federal government partner with the private sector to create and sustain a skills-data mart that provides up-to-date data on supply and demand of ICT-related skill sets.

•The federal government "mandate a cabinet champion" to form and lead a Digital Economy Brainpower Council of stakeholders and leaders to finalize a strategy, funding and set of targets.

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