Careers: Interviews
Dr. Lindsay Redpath: Executive Director of the top-ranking Centre for Innovative Management (CIM), Athabasca University (AU)

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Dr. Lindsay Redpath, Executive Director of the Centre for Innovative Management (CIM), Athabasca University (AU).

Dr. Lindsay Redpath joined Athabasca University in 1992 and became one of the first faculty members for the Centre for Innovative Management's newly launched online MBA program. Between 1997 and 2002, Dr. Redpath was Director of the Centre, leading the organization through a rapid phase of growth. In November of 2004, she assumed the position of Executive Director.

Dr. Redpath’s research interests include the changing nature of work and employment, organizational change and learning, and managing across cultures. She is currently researching the growing use of contingent professional workers and the human resource implications for organizations.

In 1996, Dr. Redpath received the Craig Cunningham Memorial Award for teaching excellence. This was a tribute to her dedication to high quality online education, a priority that she continues to promote in her role as Executive Director of the Centre for Innovative Management.

Discussion:

Q: Lindsay, there are tremendous demands on your time so we appreciate that you have taken the time to do this interview. Thank you!

A:  It is always a pleasure to discuss our MBA program.

Q: The Financial Times of London ranks your program as one of the top 75 out of 500+ EMBA programs worldwide. Canadian Business Magazine ranks it within the top 3 and first in major categories. What factors has contributed to these rankings? What are your medium to long-term goals with regards to your Canadian and World standings and how will you achieve them?

A:  Although there are many factors that have led to the international recognition we’ve received . . . I think that our dramatic success in the MBA world can be attributed to several things.

First, we are fortunate to have many academics in Canada and around the world contributing to our dynamic online learning environment which engages students and academic faculty in intense and rich collaborative dialogue and discussion. Every day, and every week . . . our students, with their academic leaders, discuss business issues and then apply them to their own work situations. It’s this direct applicability that has been the one of the hallmarks of our program. 

The diversity of the students . . . they represent every industry, every sector and almost every geographic region—means that the discussion and learning offer a truly global perspective . . . far beyond what is possible within the confines of a more ‘traditional’ MBA classroom held in city or region that draws heavily from surrounding populations. The world is quite literally ‘our classroom’ . . . and that collective force of ideas, learning, and perspectives that are shared and applied on a daily basis . . .  has catapulted the AU MBA into recognition well beyond our borders.

AU launched the world’s first online MBA in 1994, and no online program since has been able to capture or imitate the power of our online learning environment. Business is now so firmly rooted in the Internet that our program really replicates the way business is done today – through a vast electronic network of inter-connectivity and ideas shared across borders and boundaries. We’ve proven that this not only works, but that it is often a superior way to learn.    

Our students and alumni continually affirm the power of their experience, but it is very gratifying to get the external validation that comes from something as prestigious as the Financial Times’ ranking of the World’s Top EMBAs. We benchmark our program with the world’s best . . . because we know ours is the world’s best online EMBA program, and we’re proving it nationally and internationally.  

Our goal is to continue to provide the kind of high quality learning experience that works for managers and executives who need the flexibility and portability that we provide ... online. We’re committed to continuous improvement so we evaluate every aspect of our courses to ensure that they’re not only up-to-date and relevant, but also that they’re of the highest quality and delivered through technology that makes online collaboration and learning a uniquely rewarding exercise.

We’re also submitting a proposal to the Government of Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education to offer Canada’s first online DBA or Doctorate in Business Administration.  This is a natural next step for our business school, and will address the growing demand for a post-MBA doctoral program that will have a rigorous applied research focus. As you may know, there is a growing shortage in Canada and North America of qualified doctoral level business grads, and this new program will build on the online success that we’ve had with the MBA, and will focus on innovative approaches to management practice.  

Q: You have an outreach program for business and technology professionals worldwide. As one example, in Canada, people with a Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS), ISP (Information Systems Professional) designation plus five years of management experience are accepted for entry into your program. [Ed. Note: The ISP is also accepted for entry into the AU Master of Science, Information Systems program.] What prompted this innovative approach in Canada, and what are your plans for professional groups worldwide? What has been the reaction from students?

A:  We recognize that students with enough management experience and a professional designation bring a wealth of practical knowledge and basic theoretical understandings that enable them to do well in our program. We have very successful agreements with associations such as CMA and CGA—Canada, and their members bring rich accounting and financial management backgrounds that add greatly to the online learning environment. 

We accept people into the MBA program on a conditional basis without a bachelor’s degree . . . however; we do require significant management experience.  We have had great success with students who have joined the program through this route.

Requests to assess professional designations come from students, and in some cases, directly from professional associations.  We look at the rigor of the curriculum, evaluation processes, etc. 

The response from students and prospective students has been overwhelmingly positive as they are pleased that our University acknowledges the significant work that they have done to achieve a professional designation.

We also partner with other professional bodies and organizations. In fact, we’ve just signing a formal agreement with the Canadian Police College to offer our MBA with specialized electives that will be developed in collaboration with the CPC. This gives mid to executive level members of police associations and services an excellent opportunity to earn their MBA with a focus on the important strategic, operational and leadership issues that are key to management effectiveness today.  

Q: In the US, regional accreditation is the highest level. Can you comment on this process for the Center of Innovative Management (CIM)? What will be the impact of achieving this accreditation and how will it ultimately benefit your students?

A:  We have worked with Athabasca University as a whole to provide the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) with an understanding of our Centre, how it works as a self-supporting and sustaining unit within the University, and how we operate and deliver our graduate programs. The visiting team, on their final site visit to the University, was able to meet with our faculty members and students who were in Edmonton for our residential electives—it was the perfect opportunity for the accreditation team to get a sense of the impact and reach of our program . . . as we had students from all over Canada and other countries  . . . and they were able to give the team the all-important student perspective. 

We expect to know the final determination of the MSCHE in terms of AU’s accreditation in early July.  If the University receives the MSCHE accreditation, we will be the only university in Canada to have all of its programs accredited by one of the six U. S. accreditation bodies.    

Clearly, we’re very hopeful and optimistic about the MSCHE’s decision, and we know that U. S. accreditation will increase our profile and presence in the United States and internationally. Any student applying to our program, from Canada or elsewhere, will be pleased to know that we’ve undergone the rigorous accreditation process . . . it’s a powerful external validation of the quality, rigor, and standards of Athabasca University and the Centre for Innovative Management.  

Q: You have the largest program in Canada with more than 1000 students, just under a third are woman, 5% are international, an average age of 40,  9 years of management background, and most in middle to executive management. What other demographics can you provide? How will these demographics shift in the future and how will you influence these changes?

A:  Many find it interesting that the largest proportion of our students, about 44%, come from Ontario, and most are from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). This is quite significant for an Alberta-based university and demonstrates the importance that head offices place on supporting employees for the AU MBA. Alberta is next in terms of students, followed by British Columbia.  Close to 56% of our students receive some or all tuition support from their employer, and those employers represent every one of Canada’s top 50 companies, as well as over 300 others in Canada and world-wide. 

As the baby-boom generation moves into the retirement years, we are all forecasting shifts in demands for MBA education, and some new trends in terms of how the workforce will be constituted in the years ahead. For example, immigration is projected to increase to address the anticipated shortage in many industries and professions for highly skilled knowledge workers who can compete in our increasingly globalized world.

Our program is offered online, and increasingly this is the way that business is conducted throughout the world. We think that our program will be particularly appealing in the years ahead to managers and professionals who want to ‘do their education and learning’ in the way they do business . . . with the immediacy, connectedness and high level of application value that comes from learning in a highly collaborative online environment. 

Q: With your strong history of successes, you are in the ideal position to make some predications. How will the landscape for graduate level education change in the future?

A: As many senior managers and professionals retire in the next few years, we’re predicting smaller cohorts with higher levels of educational attainment. There will be pressures for higher level credentials in all professions and across all sectors. In fact, we are experiencing new demands from our MBA grads for doctoral-level studies. Managers are faced with more complex work environments, a faster pace of innovation and change, unstable political conditions, and many moral and ethical dilemmas . . .the  formulaic or ‘best practice’ approach to business decision making is no longer enough.   

Q: Chindia has 2.3 billion people and there’s a demand for graduate-level education. China in particular has surpassed the UK and France in GDP and is now ranked fourth behind the US, Japan, and Germany. Moreover, there’s more than 100 million internet users in China for 2005, second only to the US. What are your plans for these areas?

A:  Our online environment is based on the fact that anyone in the world can take our degree wherever they live – this would make it seem as though China and India would be prime markets. However, there are many socio-economic factors that influence demand for education in these countries. India and China are completely different in so many ways that I think it is unwise to lump them together as if they were a single entity. Our challenge is to find ways to connect with the mid to senior-level managers in these countries who need the kind of management education that our program provides. As the economies of India and China grow at an increasingly rapid rate, their industries will mature requiring more talent at the managerial levels.   

Q: From research …: For 2.5 to 3 years, students spend upwards of 35 hours per week, completing 13 courses, though the average is 20-25 hours per week, 2-4 hours online per day. They are given case studies and problems to solve and analyze individually and as groups on group projects; and they post their daily analysis in a community collaboration forum using Lotus Notes technology. Moreover, students actively must provide analysis and evaluation on the postings of others. All contributions must add to the learning of the community bringing in wisdom from the assigned text, supplemental readings, multitude of AU databases and library resources, external reliable sources, and experience. The emphasis is on application, analysis, synthesis and integration, plus evaluation. An often asked question is: So what? Some students make more than 50 individual contributions or postings to the forum per week. A non-collaborative end-of-course research paper can be on the student’s organization providing an applied element that can yield real benefits in real-time. It’s a rich environment with dynamic learning from the cohort, each feeding off each other and the assigned faculty known as coaches. There is a compulsory one-week residential course from offerings held in major cities including internationally. Students write a comprehensive exam after completing their first and second years and write a thesis in the form of a major applied project in their final year.

Can you comment on how this format came about and how it will evolve into the future? What do you hope to accomplish? What are your findings from the research conducted on graduates?

A:  Our program was developed when the Internet and online learning technologies were in their infancy. The program was built on the promise and premise that learning online in a highly interactive and collaborative way could be as successful, or more so, than traditional classroom learning. We’ve come a long way since the early days, and the international recognition that our program has received points to the power of online learning not only as an alternate method for delivering education, but also as a superior way of providing high quality graduate management education. 

In our program, students work during the day (or night) at times that best suit them, so they can concentrate on their studies without being distracted . . . plus they have time to reflect on what they are writing, what other people are saying – all leading to more well-thought-out, and reflective discussion that isn’t always feasible in a traditional classroom where often more reserved or quiet students are side-lined in favour of their more vocal classmates.

Our graduates are our best ambassadors because they not only continually attest to the value of the learning experience, they apply their learning every day in their workplaces . . . and this is the ROI that is critical to our students, our grads and their employers.  

Graduate surveys have placed our ‘student satisfaction’ ratings at 97% . . .a statistic that few schools can claim.  Over 91% of our graduates rate the value of the investment made in MBA program as “excellent” or “exceptional.” Graduates contribute to the surveys conducted by a number of external bodies, such as the Financial Times of London, and the benefits that they derived from the program contribute to the growing recognition that our program is receiving world-wide.     

Q:  In a crowded market, what differentiates the EMBA program at AU?

A:  We continually focus on what differentiates our programs from the others . . . and we know that our online teaching and delivery model with its learner-centered, highly collaborative, experiential approach  . . . enables students to connect theory to practice in the workplace . . . within a flexible environment where students contribute at times and places that are good for them.  I saw one of our students on an airplane with his laptop in tow . . . working on a course assignment that he would then submit while he was working in another country. 

Q:  The integration of technology and business has impacted the business model. What are your top ten tips for success in the MBA program?

A:

  1. Motivation . . . you have to WANT to do this program, and you have to be willing to make the necessary sacrifices.  This program is not for the faint of heart . . . it requires the support of family, friends and an employer who is committed to supporting your learning. If you have dedication, support and perseverance, as well as the intellectual gifts and personal traits to achieve . . . you will do well. 
  2. Time Management.  You have to establish a disciplined routine for course participation and activities . . . time management skills are definitely enhanced through the duration of the program, and are a ‘must’ for program success. 
  3. Participation is key.  Many students, particularly at the beginning of the program, are reluctant to push the ‘send’ button for the first time.  They’re nervous about sharing their perspectives and ideas in what for many is a new learning environment.  Once involved in the discussions, students learn that they bring so much experience and expertise to the table.  The beauty of our learning environment is that continual and mandatory participation fosters high levels of learning . . . and that is accomplished through both student to student and student to professor interaction.
  4. Learn from others: This may seem obvious, but the program teaches the importance of learning from each other . . .as well as the professors and academics who provide course leadership and facilitation.  
  5. Rely on your extended network.  The flexibility and portability of our program has made it easier for full-time working students to complete programs while maintaining commitments to family and friends.   Although the study demands are high, our students’ families and their extended support networks contribute greatly to their success . . . through patience and understanding at particularly busy times, and through moral and morale support at throughout the program. 
  6. Develop relationships with other students.  We’ve found that students are amazingly inventive in terms of connecting with other students and alumni to discuss course issues, assignments, etc. In fact, informal ‘study buddy’ groups have emerged in many cities across Canada and beyond . . . and these have developed through the efforts of local students and alumni. 
  7. Seize every opportunity to apply what you learn. As I mentioned, one of cornerstones of our program is the high application value and ROI to the organization in which the student is employed. Students continually link projects and assignments to ongoing work . . . and then share the results with their employer. We have great evidence of the many good results!
  8. Know that managing your career requires more than an MBA. The MBA provides students with the skill sets, knowledge and confidence to explore new career options and opportunities, but personal initiative and drive are key to ensuring that your MBA takes your career in the direction you want . . . when you want.
  9. Take advantage of the many opportunities to connect with students and alumni. We offer many events throughout the year to support our students and alumni in major centres and other locations across Canada. Attendance at alumni and student dinners and luncheons, information sessions, and Meet and Greet events, is a sign of the cohesiveness of the growing community of AU MBA students and grads, and an important element of the social and networking aspects of our program.   
  10. Know that discouragement can be part of the experience. In any rigorous and time-intensive program, there are periods when students wonder if they will ever finish. We’re proud of the intensity of the learning experience we provide . . . this is no MBA “lite.” When students cross the stage to receive their hood and parchment at Athabasca University on graduation day, their and our joy bear testament not only to the rigor and quality of our program . . . but also to the tremendous dedication, tenacity and spirit of our students. 

Q: What motivates you? What goals do you still hope to accomplish both professionally and personally? 

A:  I am continually motivated by the trust that our students place in us to help them achieve their goals through a learning journey that is nothing short of remarkable.  The overwhelmingly positive impact that their learning has on their careers and personal lives and their thirst for continued learning . . . inspires me on a daily basis. Nothing could be better. 

We have so many plans to extend the reach and impact of the AU MBA throughout the world. . . we take it one day at a time, but these are exciting times to be leading a business school.  

Final:
Lindsay, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

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