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Computers and change - research to promote best practices

One way to manage information technology change is to group experts in a series of “war-rooms,” enabling specialists to solve up to 50 technical problems a day.

Jacob Wackerhausen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Globe's weekly Business School news roundup.

Business schools promote "partnerships" with the private sector, with the label loosely applied to a variety of arrangements on fundraising, research and student internships. But what does a two-way relationship look like on the ground?

A recent partnership between HEC Montréal and Desjardins Group, the largest co-operative financial group in Canada, illustrates the potential for unexpected benefits among willing collaborators.

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Under the new agreement, Desjardins is investing $350,000 over five years to promote innovation in information technology management teaching and research at HEC, through a professorship awarded to Line Dubé, a professor in the department of information technologies. The funding will give her more time for research and development of teaching activities that promote best practices in IT management, a key challenge for industry.

"When it comes to computers, the problems are rarely about technology," observes Prof. Dubé. "The problems are the human problems – the personnel issues and managing change."

Robert Ouellette, senior vice-president of technology and shared services for Desjardins, has first-hand experience with the challenges of managing information technology.

In 2010, his company switched technology providers and opened new data centres in Montreal and Toronto, replacing existing operations that run more than $1-billion in online banking transactions a year. The switchover took place over 10 months (remarkably speedy given the complexities) with a team of 450 people and a requirement not to disrupt clients.

"We believe the way we executed the program offers a lot of interesting lessons," says Mr. Ouellette, pleased at the seamless transition. "We are looking at what we can learn from the project that we can reapply or improve – more from an IT management perspective than the technical aspects."

Enter Prof. Dubé, who is writing a research article on the switchover and has interviewed 26 Desjardins officials to identify factors for success. One strategy was to group experts in a series of "war rooms," enabling specialists to solve up to 50 technical problems a day.

"In any organization, especially large ones, you will have a diversity of people with different priorities," she says. "It is difficult to bring everyone on board for one project at one point in time."

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For Desjardins, which works with HEC and several other Quebec-based business schools, the relationships are a way to spot top-quality talent before students hit the job market.

"We are facing a situation where the demand [for information technology and communications] is growing and the supply is declining," Mr. Ouellette says. "It is a matter of making sure I can continue to provide services within my organization by having the human capital I need to support my systems."

Benefits flow to the business school as well, says Prof. Dubé, noting the access granted by Desjardins for her research and her graduate students.

Desjardins has also advised Prof. Dubé on a new HEC certificate in information and systems security analysis, to be offered this fall. She had expected a class of about 20 students, but the demand is such that 75 have applied so far.

She says the high demand illustrates the appetite for professionals who can manage information technology without becoming prisoners of the latest software application.

"We have to bring information technology security into the business school so the next generation of managers will be more educated and trained," she says. "Information security is not a technical matter. It touches the reputation of a firm and will impact everyone."

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Both she and Mr. Ouellette see their academic-industry link as a way to disseminate best practices on managing technology.

In 2009, Prof. Dubé co-wrote an article published by the Harvard Business Review on the evolution of information technology management at Alcan, tracking its progress through Mr. Ouellette when he was vice-president and chief information officer.

Mr. Ouellette hopes Prof. Dubé's current research on Desjardins will make it into the Harvard journal, noting the positive impact of the earlier article on Alcan employees. "It is a good tool to mobilize your work force," he says.

School re-accredited

The Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University has been re-accredited for five years by the European Foundation for Management Development under its European Quality Improvement System, designed to raise standards in management education worldwide. Earlier this year, Beedie was re-accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business for five years.

Director named

A former management consultant has been named executive director of executive programs at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management. Glen Orsak, a former partner at Deloitte Consulting, previously ran his own practice in leadership development coaching and business consulting.

Room named

PricewaterhouseCoopers has donated $25,000 to the University of Winnipeg's Faculty of Business for a student lounge that will bear the name of the consulting company. In a statement, university president Lloyd Axworthy said the gift "is an investment in the university's future and the revitalization of downtown Winnipeg."

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