A ‘Transformation’ Is Underway At Queen’s


In a recent article, John Marcante, CIO of Vanguard, summed up the essential importance of digital transformation — defined, in the most general terms, as the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business, triggering core changes in how it operates and delivers. “Just look at the S&P 500,” Marcante says. “In 1958, U.S. corporations remained on that index for an average of 61 years, according to the American Enterprise Foundation. By 2011, it was 18 years. Today, companies are being replaced on the S&P approximately every two weeks.

“Technology has driven this shift, and companies that want to succeed must understand how to merge technology with strategy.”

A few U.S. business schools have taken notice. The Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech has a full-time immersive track in digital transformation; UC-Irvine’s Merage School offers a certificate. In March the University of Virginia Darden School of Business partnered with Boston Consulting Group to launch a highly touted four-week, four-module course in the subject. Harvard has a course, MIT Sloan School of Management offers a three-month course, and a few more courses are popping up in both full-time and executive MBA programs, including through Coursera. But as an official track, concentration, or specialization of an MBA program, few U.S. schools seem to be stepping up to the digital transformation plate. The same can’t be said of Europe, where the subject is an official specialization for the first time this fall at HEC Paris, and where executive offerings are available at INSEAD and IE in Spain, among other, smaller programs.

Now, one of Canada’s premier B-schools is joining them. Recognizing the need for “managers who can understand the interplay between traditional and digital business models,” Queen’s University Smith School of Business MBA program has announced that a new specialization in Digital Transformation will be available to students entering the full-time MBA, beginning with the incoming January 2019 cohort, including a new core course, Introduction to Digital Business, that provides all students with an overview of how their specific interest is being redefined in a digital age.


Kathryn Brohman. Queen’s photo

The International Data Corporation announced in June that worldwide spending on digital transformation efforts will exceed $1.1 trillion, a 16.8% increase in spending over 2017; by 2019 that number is expected to be $2.1 trillion. An IDT survey found that 53% of execs lack personnel with skills to bring a digital transformation, while 90% regard it as important for their business strategy. Despite this, the majority of digital transformation efforts fail. There’s a glaring need, says Kathryn Brohman, associate professor of digital business and strategy execution at Queen’s, for managers who can achieve digital transformation for their companies.

“Companies are struggling to redesign their business models to compete in the digital age. Core management concepts in economics, strategy, marketing, technology, Human Resources are being challenged,” Brohman says. “This new specialization was designed to help students understand these changes and how to integrate them to enable short term productivity and sustain performance long-term.”

She says the new specialization’s curriculum is designed to modernize organizational strategy and innovation through tools, such as customer journey mapping, that leverage best practices, such as design thinking, as a way to encourage students to think systematically about how customers interact with products and services and what they value in the digital age. Taught by both tenured professors in management information systems, management science, strategy, and finance as well as digital specialists working in the industry, the curriculum will teach how to “modernize the organization through tools such as 4DX, portfolio management, hoshin kanri, and agile project management to shift resources, align the organization, break down silos to enhance collaboration and focus work to effectively execute the digital strategy,” Brohman tells Poets&Quants.

Furthermore, she adds, the curriculum will show how to “modernize the digital foundation by learning how to leverage digital technology (e.g., blockchain, IoT) to revolutionize the business as well as use analytical tools to improve decision making in competitive environments.”


Matt Reesor. Queen’s photo

The first digital course at Queen’s was introduced into the MBA program in 2017, Brohman says, taught by a tenured faculty member and industry CIO. The six-week course was taught during on-campus recruiting and cycled through concept development, monitoring, and improvement to “understand what the students and recruiters were looking for,” she says. “In 2018, the course was delivered a second time and although minor improvements were identified, the course resonated with students and their understanding of recruiter expectations.”

Adds Matt Reesor, director of the Queen’s MBA program: “Like all innovations that we implement, the digital transformation specialization came about as a result of direct student input. The MBA Advisory Board consists of alumni from each of the past ten graduating classes. This group played a key role in guiding us in this new direction. Similarly, focus groups with current students, course evaluations, and one-on-one conversations were also telling us that management skills related to digital transformation were in high demand.”

The specialization is designed to develop talent in strategy, consulting, general management, IT, and analytics, Brohman and Reesor say, and as all parts of a business move to a new normal, it will aim to introduce a wide range of MBAs to “the fundamental concepts relevant to thriving in a digital age.”


Ultimately, Brohman says, digital transformation is about evolution: Adapt or fail. Digital is enhancing business value through ”new business models that are changing the nature of competition,” she says, as well as “new capacity that enables organizations be more resilient and do more with less, new leadership and relationship models that are changing the balance of power, and new ways of doing work that are fusing people with machines.” But failure remains an option.

“The most common barrier related to digital transformation is the failure to assign sufficient resources,” Brohman says. “Going digital is expensive and to do it well, most organizations need to stop doing something else. Ford’s recent exit from the car business is a good example of an organization breaking down the resource barrier to appropriately invest in their digital strategy.

“Another common barrier is fear of the unknown — as digital transformation creates a new normal, those most comfortable in the old normal commonly resist the change. When those most resistant sit in the highest ranks of an organization, this barrier becomes extremely problematic. Another barrier is IT’s fear-of-failure mentality — digital transformation occurs through trial-and-error as well as speed-to-market solutions, both foreign concepts to traditional IT organizations. There is a modern view of IT that is needed and necessary for digital transformation that changes the role of the CIO and beyond.

“Finally, organizations fail to align the current organization to new digital opportunities. Transformation is difficult as it requires a capability similar to fixing an airplane while flying it. Being ambidextrous is essential — but extremely difficult to achieve.”


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