In growing numbers, Canadian business schools are rolling out new specialty graduate degrees tailored to respond to financial, environmental and other global disruptions.
The new programs – from data analytics and artificial intelligence to public safety and environmental sustainability and resource management – illustrate a worldwide strategy by business schools to diversify offerings beyond their long-running workhorse, the master of business administration.
"The phenomenon is the differentiation of degrees," says Patricia Bradshaw, dean of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, which offers specialty master degrees on credit unions and finance, as well as technology, entrepreneurship and innovation. "The MBA has a long product life cycle and it is at the mature end of that life cycle."
She says business schools are "looking for the untapped niches."
Two emerging niche topics are data analytics and artificial intelligence, with specialty masters that cater to applicants with no business experience (in contrast to several years of work required for an MBA) or to working professionals eager to enhance their managerial credentials.
This fall, McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal introduces a 12-month master of management in analytics, priced at $44,000, for those with no work experience but who are keen to tap into employer demand for expertise in this area.
"With all the recent developments in information technology, data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we are seeing more and more in business the necessity for a new layer in the organization to bridge the gap between management and the technical side," says Desautels dean Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou. "There is a huge demand for this kind of graduate."
Employers are eager to hire those who understand the technology underpinning of large flows of data and, importantly, can communicate the implications to senior management.
Last month, the Smith School of Business at Queen's University in Kingston won approval to offer a 12-month master of management in artificial intelligence for working professionals who want to understand machine learning and its impact on business decisions.
"We are just reacting to market demand and trying to stay a bit ahead of it," says Elspeth Murray, associate dean of MBA and master programs at Smith. The new program, which kicks off this September, was developed in a matter of months based on advice from the school's industry advisory board last November. Other Canadian schools are known to be considering programs with a similar theme.
Employer demand is expected to be strong, according to one industry leader.
"One of the biggest challenges within organizations today is the gulf that exists between the leaders who are under pressure to drive the initiatives and the people who are sitting in the trenches doing the work," says Mike Durland, retired chief executive officer and group head of global banking and markets for the Bank of Nova Scotia, an advisor to several AI-oriented companies and a member of several advisory boards at Smith.
Graduates from the new program, he hopes, "will act as conduits who can communicate between those two groups and also lead those change initiatives. … And that will give the executives a significant amount of confidence to aggressively adopt these kinds of technology."
Acknowledging the current hype over AI, Mr. Durland says companies need technology-savvy leaders equipped to "weed the garden" and identify projects with the best chance of driving innovation.
Like Queen's, York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto moved quickly several years ago to introduce a specialty master in data analytics.
In 2012, the program opened with an initial cohort of four students but this year 275 applicants (who submit a GMAT or equivalent score) competed for 48 spots in the current class.
"We have 100-per-cent placement," says Murat Kristal, director of Schulich's master of business analytics program, which attracts qualified students from science, physics and the humanities.
This fall, the school plans to enhance experiential learning for students in a new "cognitive analytics and visualization lab," developed with consultancy Deloitte, to work on real-world applications of big data.
"We are putting students in a situation where they are working like a consultant and they have to deliver," says Dr. Kristal.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a U.S.-based accreditation body, reports that master-level business analytics and data analytics programs account for 194 of 238 analytics-oriented specialties at global business schools in 2017.
That said, specialized graduate programs cut across most sectors of the economy. In some cases, Canadian business schools take advantage of their geographic location to raise their profile.
Last year, Thompson Rivers University's business school introduced its first two specialty business degrees: a course-based master in environmental economics and management and a thesis-based master of science in environmental economics and management.
Given its location in the interior of British Columbia, the Kamloops-based business school decided to tap industry and student demand for a management program that combines natural resource development and sustainable environmental practices.
"Students are looking for a graduate program that will lead them to careers, and they are also looking to be more competitive in the marketplace in terms of differentiating themselves from an MBA," says business school dean Michael Henry.
By design, the classes are small – about a dozen per cohort – but Dr. Henry says the demand is "exceeding expectations," with students choosing the specialty degree even without a tuition subsidy by their employer. "The launch of this degree, with the intersection of management and business courses with environmental economics, is topical given where the world is at with climate change," he says.
In Saskatchewan, the Levene Graduate School of Business at the University of Regina also aims to take advantage of its location to offer a new specialty MBA in public safety this fall. The university is home base for the Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety, which examines financial and other issues related to public safety, Indigenous policing, cybercrime and first responders. A recruit training centre of the RCMP is also located in Regina.
"We have to look at what we have to offer that really takes advantage of our skill sets and resources," says Marci Elliott, associate dean of Levene.
She hopes the proposed two-year MBA specialty, a blend of residential and online program delivery, attracts an initial class of at least 10 working professionals from a cross-section of emergency response and crime fighting agencies.
"We are cautiously optimistic" about recruiting the first class, she says, based on feedback from public safety agencies in search of managers equipped to respond to financial and other challenges tied to the growing trend for environmental and terror threats.
As with the design of many specialty programs, the Levene degree includes a "capstone" project for participants to apply learning to a real problem at their workplace and a 10-day international trip to examine public safety issues outside of North America.