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business education

Halifax Port Authority employees take a creative break with instructor Gwen Noah, right, at Dalhousie University.Sándor Fizli

The class of Halifax Port Authority employees is concentrating intensely on the issues that affect responsible leadership. Before they wilt, they take a break. But instead of checking e-mail or grabbing a coffee, they start dancing.

The dance break is a component of the program Dalhousie University's faculty of management offers executives and is intended to enhance the students' performance, according to JoAnne Akerboom, executive director for the faculty. This kind of creativity in what business schools offer in corporate training is increasingly what companies are looking for.

Flexibility, brevity and customized training are the new watchwords.

Last year, Dalhousie's advanced management centre introduced a new executive leadership education certificate program, with up to 20 modules on managerial issues such as service quality and enterprise risk management. "Employers, whether in the public sector or business, are being much more strategic in their selection of the kind of continuing education options they choose," centre director Martine Durier-Copp says. "They want more options."

This fall, the Halifax Port Authority sent 11 employees on the program that runs over two years, with online discussions between class sessions. Joan Macleod, director of human resources for the port, says the training is designed to help high-potential employees to move into senior leadership positions.

Training is a retention tool, too. "We feel we hire the right people so when we get them here, we want to keep them," Ms. Macleod says.

Over the course of a decade, Bank of Montreal (BMO) paid for promising employees to earn a master of business administration (MBA) in financial services from Dalhousie University's faculty of management – an executive education relationship that paid dividends all-round.

Since 1996, the first year the specialty MBA was offered through the faculty's Centre for Advanced Management Education in Halifax, 350 bank employees have taken the program and 75 per cent of them have stayed with BMO.

But in 2010, though pleased with the program, BMO switched its strategy for MBA and executive MBA training.

Instead of an exclusive arrangement with Dalhousie, the bank developed multiple relationships with business schools in Canada and the United States to provide flexible arrangements for executive learning that reflected BMO's changing corporate profile and the needs of individual employees.

The bank's decision illustrates an evolution in thinking on how to capture talent in an organization, with the corporate sector and Canadian business schools finding new ways to work together.

Building that relationship is "absolutely critical," says Daniel Muzyka, president and chief executive officer of Conference Board of Canada, which cites a weak corporate commitment to learning and development as slowing innovation.

"Competitiveness in general is something we all need to be concerned about and one of the ways we can improve our competitiveness is to make sure our talent is up to speed."

A former dean of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Mr. Muzyka urges an "intensive dialogue" between corporate leaders and business schools on training and development – often subject to cuts in an economic downturn.

By contrast, BMO has a long-standing corporate commitment to training that includes its in-house learning institute founded in 1994. However, with a growing presence in the United States and deepening ties in Asia, the bank needed to rethink its approach to executive learning.

"BMO is a North American company and we weren't that to the same degree in 1996," says Barbara Dirks, chief learning officer for BMO and head of its learning institute. As well, she notes, the bank is active in China, such as with its private banking relationship with the Agricultural Bank of China.

Another consideration, she adds, is that high-potential employees, many with young families, need flexible learning options. The part-time Dalhousie program, for example, is a mix of online and in-class residency over four years. "When you are taking a program with a week a quarter outside the family and work environment, it is quite a commitment," Ms. Dirks says.

Since adopting the new strategy, 40 employees have been approved to earn their executive MBA at top schools in Canada and the United States.

In 2011, one of the first to benefit from BMO's new strategy was Jeffrey Ellis, then-deputy general counsel for the bank's personal and commercial banking business.

In that role, he was lead counsel on acquisitions and wanted to deepen his understanding of financial issues. With approval from his manager, he pursued an executive MBA through the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. The 15-month program held classes Thursday to Sunday in Toronto at First Canadian Place, the bank tower where he worked at the time.

Part way through the program, he was promoted to BMO's deputy general counsel in Chicago – home of U.S. subsidiary Harris Bank – a change of location that meant he had to fly to London one weekend a month for the residential component of the executive MBA.

He says he already has experienced benefits from his degree. "It opened doors for me to make the leap to a business role," he says.

Meanwhile, companies increasingly need to put a global spin on their training needs, says Alan Middleton, executive director of the Executive Education Centre at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. His centre's focus is on Brazil, India, Russia and China, with programs for managers of Canadian and overseas firms. "More and more organizations have to think globally about how the international environment affects their business," he says.

The company profile of those working with business schools is changing, too. "In open enrolment [courses] you see many more medium-sized Canadian companies that don't have robust learning and development functions," observes Gavin Brown, executive director of executive development at Ivey. "We [business schools] can provide them a lot of value."

As well, professional associations and regulatory bodies are forging new ties with business schools.

The Financial Planning Standards Council, a professional body, works with Dalhousie's advanced management centre so that certified financial planners can earn an MBA in financial services by taking one-third fewer courses.

"We are seeing increased demand from professionals for designations in education," says Lana Thompson, the council's director of industry engagement. "It is a competitive landscape out there and whether at a junior or executive level they need to differentiate themselves; and one of the ways is through certification and designation."

In British Columbia, Certified Management Accountants works with the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria to deliver a two-year, part-time CMA executive program (with year one taught through the school's executive education arm) for those with an undergraduate degree and at least five years of financial management experience.

In the past five years, the demand for the program has grown steadily, says Paul Levie, academic program director of the CMA executive program, with three classes in Victoria and Vancouver.