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report on business education, spring 2012

Jean Kimpton, controller at the PEI Department of Innovation and Advanced Learning, applies the evidence-based management process she learned through her executive MBA at the University of PEI.

Several times throughout her busy workday, certified management accountant Jean Kimpton asks herself the question: So what?

She's not being flippant.

Ms. Kimpton is simply putting into practice the lessons she learned through the University of Prince Edward Island's executive MBA program, which integrates a modern evidence-based management (EBMgt) approach into its business education.

EBMgt practitioners are taught to use multiple sources of data in their decision-making, including scientific evidence and research, in addition to relying on their own experience and the concerns of the people affected by their choices.

"Throughout the entire MBA program we were always challenged with this 'so what?' factor," explains Ms. Kimpton, who was part of the inaugural MBA class in 2008.

Like traditional MBA programs, there are case studies, readings, tests and papers, Ms. Kimpton says. But the professors at UPEI take it one step further and push the students to deepen their analytical skills through team debates and projects designed to encourage a questioning culture.

Mainly utilized in the medical- and law-based professions, evidence-based practice is gaining momentum in business management with articles on its merit appearing in the Harvard Business Review and The New York Times. But the MBA program at UPEI wants to teach its students about EBMgt before they enter managerial roles – and it takes more than a few lectures to accomplish.

"Knowing about it and hearing the term is one thing, but dropping the name doesn't make it possible to do it," says Blake Jelley, a professor at UPEI School of Business.

"Moving beyond that to actually help [business students]develop skills, to help them find published literature, to critically appraise it, that takes more time and more concerted effort and practice, and that's where including it in the formal education program is important."

Dr. Jelley and his colleague, Wendy Carroll, interim vice-president of student affairs, have been weaving the EBMgt approach throughout many of the MBA courses for almost four years and both are confident this is the direction the program will maintain.

"As we began the design we very much talked about our interest in this area and how we could bring it to life in the program," Dr. Carroll says. "It wasn't considered to be the foundational element at first, but it became a sort of platform."

Dr. Carroll highlights the students' signature project and its real-world applicability as one of the main elements that separate the EBMgt education from the more traditional MBA.

Much of the work from these faculty-advised, analytical projects is used in organizations and research groups throughout the province. More than 70 per cent of Ms. Kimpton's research recommendations were implemented into her workplace at the PEI Department of Innovation and Advanced Learning.

There are also those who consider the EBMgt approach trendy and choose, instead, to stick to their traditional methods of business education, such as the University of Alberta's School of Business.

"Yes, there's certainly something to be said for 'if it's not broken, don't fix it'," says Christopher Lynch, director, MBA program and operations, University of Alberta. But he adds the school is always looking at teaching methods and techniques that are going to keep students up-to-date with the latest in business.

"I think there's going to be a place for some more of the evidence-based management to come into play, but I still think there's going to be a focus on the integrated, case-based approach to learning, looking at more real-world situations and what applies there," he says.

"So I think it will continue and maybe grow a little bit more, in terms of its place in a business school, but I don't think it's going to be the answer and I don't think it's going to be the only method that goes forward."

Labelling evidence-based practices as such may be a newer concept, but Markus Biehl at the Schulich School of Business at York University says he has been teaching his students this approach for many years and agrees it can set an MBA program apart.

"You can learn the tools in any management program. The question is, how do you use the tools and how do you make sense of the information that you get?"

And just because your boss says it doesn't make it true, Dr. Biehl says.

"You have to double check and triangulate the data," he says. "You have to evaluate it, you have to put it in the context of the company, of the industry, of the competitors, of the suppliers, of the customers, everyone."

While questioning the decisions of those higher up the business food chain may seem toxic to one's career goals, Dr. Biehl is convinced it makes for more calculated and beneficial leadership.

"You can always find the right answer to a question, but the real question should be, 'Is this the right question to ask?'"

Special to The Globe and Mail