Building a new hub for interdisciplinarity at McGill
By Chris Chipello
After an extensive international search, the Desautels Faculty of Management recently appointed one of its own, Prof. Steve Maguire, as the first director of the Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management (IIM) for a five-year term.
The mandate of the IIM, formed in 2008 with a donation from Faculty benefactor Marcel Desautels, is to break down traditional barriers between disciplines, encouraging professors, students and industry leaders to take a more holistic approach to management. That approach already has helped shape new curriculums in the Desautels MBA and Executive MBA programs.
Maguire joined McGill’s Faculty of Management in 1998 and has also been an associate member of the McGill School of Environment since then.
The Reporter spoke with Maguire this week about the future of the IIM and his role as its first director.
What role do you envision for the Institute?
The Institute is our Faculty’s articulation of interdisciplinarity – of its commitment to management education and research that are relevant to contemporary societal and organizational challenges. It will hopefully be another hub for interdisciplinarity at McGill, based on partnerships (across the University).
How is the integrated curriculum in the MBA’s program different from the traditional approach?
In a traditional MBA program the core courses are typically organized around disciplinary specialties – Marketing, Accounting, Finance, Information Systems, Operations Management, Organizational Behaviour, and Strategy. Our program was redesigned with the core courses organized around cross-cutting themes. So, for example, I teach in a course focused on Markets and Globalization, there’s another course focused on Value Creation and another addressing Managing Resources. Each of these core courses is delivered by a team of up to four different faculty members, each from different areas. In the Markets and Globalization course, I teach with a colleague from Finance, who brings an international economics perspective, and a Marketing professor who brings that perspective. I bring the Strategy perspective.
Any examples used in the Markets and Globalization course to get students thinking across disciplines?
One teaching case we use is that of a large, vertically integrated global agribusiness company that has investments and activities in everything from fertilizers through to the processing of vegetable oils and commercialization of those products. It faces a decision on whether and how to embrace the boom in biofuels: In short, should it get into the business of making ethanol? One perspective, which I bring, relies on traditional corporate strategy analyses to understand the company’s current businesses and the impact on them of a sudden shock – the increased price of petroleum, which has put this question onto the table. Should it diversify into ethanol? If so, where should it invest geographically – a large investment in Brazil, which has a favourable cost structure? Smaller investments in other jurisdictions – the U.S., Europe, etc. ?
It’s a classic case of whether, how and where a firm should grow. But for my Finance colleague, this is an excellent example, empirically grounded, of a supply curve and how it shifts in response to government policies.
How do government policies factor into the case?
Students can see the impact of subsidies and other government policies affecting the supply and demand of ethanol in different regions. Subsidies, or rules on the minimum percentage of ethanol in gasoline, lead to more ethanol being produced. The case also offers both me and my colleague an opportunity to discuss risk management. She brings the Finance perspective, looking at the impact of quantitative correlations between energy and food prices. I bring the strategy perspective, looking at risks that are difficult to quantify, such as regulatory risk. What will happen if there is a shift in energy or food policy in a big market or growing region?
From there, we get into the food vs. fuel debate. We spend some time looking at it from society’s perspective – an ethical analysis. What are the arguments for and against diversion of food crops into energy? How compelling are they? We then spend some time looking at it strategically from the company’s perspective. How is this debate likely to evolve politically, and what are the implications for the company’s decision about whether and where to diversify into ethanol?
So students get an opportunity to recognize and value, as well as to integrate, each of these perspectives, and to understand the limitations of a single perspective. It makes them more sensitive to the problems that can result when one particular tool or perspective is applied in a blinkered manner – and gives them an opportunity to gather and process disparate types of information and to develop some level of comfort in exercising judgment, in making decisions under conditions of ambiguity and uncertainty.
What are some of the research opportunities the Institute might explore?
Ultimately, research agendas develop organically from the bottom up, as individual researchers connect with one another, scope out interdisciplinary projects and obtain funding, etc. Plus, there’s already a notable amount of interdisciplinary research being done: There are lots of researchers at Desautels working on environment and sustainability issues (where my own research program lies); health management is another area where we have a clear strength, led by researchers who have built partnerships with the Faculty of Medicine; technology and innovation management, as well as risk management, are other areas.
So I see an important aspect of my role as encouraging and facilitating more of these interdisciplinary conversations. I hope to create a context where colleagues, both inside Desautels and across McGill, can come together to build off of and leverage our Faculty’s current strengths. The challenges that contemporary society faces and the challenges facing managers of organizations in today’s world, be they private, public or not-for-profit, are closely related, and the most important ones do not respect disciplinary boundaries. They cannot be adequately tackled with knowledge from just one discipline or part of the University, and effecting change in the world requires working within, influencing and harnessing organizations – Desautels is home to a wealth of expertise and ongoing scholarship that address just that. It’s my sense that the richest opportunities for partnerships will develop in those areas that combine our Faculty’s strengths with the strengths of other faculties – whether it’s the Faculty of Medicine, the Faculty of Law, Engineering, Science, Arts, Music, Agriculture, Education, Religious Studies or Dentistry – in other words, research that is distinctive and possible because of what McGill is.