Playing in a sandbox used to be just for children. Now it’s a serious business activity.
The opportunity for unstructured, open-ended exploration – as in a playground sandbox – is a central feature of a pilot project run by Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto and industry partner CIBC Mellon. Over a four-month period ending in April, a diverse group of Ryerson undergraduates and CIBC Mellon employees meet daily at the financial services company to imagine its future in a fast-changing technological environment.
The new Business Innovation Hub program goes a step beyond the traditional co-operative education model designed for students to work for an employer for four to eight months, usually on a specific project, as a complement to in-class academic learning.
In this case, five Ryerson students and five CIBC Mellon employees collaborate as equals with no set question to answer at the outset. Instead, they fan out to various business units at CIBC Mellon to learn about opportunities and roadblocks and explore the potential for technology and other tools to achieve company objectives.
“When you give people that free ability to think and allow them to tap into their creative minds and look at other industries and other technologies and push the boundaries, that is when you come up with real innovative solutions,” says Richard Anton, senior vice-president and chief operations officer for CIBC Mellon.
He says the project drew an immediate, positive response from employees. Within three hours of posting a notice about the hub, more than 30 employees applied for the five positions. “It created a buzz across the organization that people are still excited about,” says Mr. Anton.
A 1997 Ryerson business graduate and a member of one of the school’s industry advisory councils, Mr. Anton was intrigued by the opportunity to tap the creativity of students and employees in a controlled environment. “It kind of bridges the best of both worlds,” he says.
Rogers dean Steven Murphy describes the Business Innovation Hub as “the icing on the cake” of school efforts to expand experiential learning opportunities for students.
At present, 412 business undergraduate students in 11 business programs are enrolled in co-op placements. Over the next five years, Dr. Murphy aims to boost enrolment to 1,500 students, rivalling only the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., in size.
By contrast, the Business Innovation Hub is small scale and requires labour-intensive discussions between the school and employers to think through the proposed collaboration. Still, Dr. Murphy expects five to seven companies to take part in the program this fall. “Like many of the employers I deal with in Toronto, they want to get their culture to be more innovative,” he says.
One differentiating feature of the hub program is that Ryerson students are recruited from across campus, not just the business school, on the basis of academic performance, community engagement and career aspirations.
“The more flavour you can have from various disciplines, the better the diversity of thought on the teams,” says Dr. Murphy. “We match them with actual employees of a certain organization and you get them working autonomously on the major issues facing that organization.”
Another unusual feature is the relationship between students and company employees as peers.
Brendan Corney, a third-year environmental biology major at Ryerson, has first-hand experience with both co-op models. Last year, in a conventional placement, he reported to a manager on an assigned task.
But as a student member of the hub at CIBC Mellon, he says, “I get to collaborate with these experienced professionals as a peer rather than as a student-supervisor pairing.”
He adds: “It has been really great to have that level of mutual respect. When we all sit around the table in the morning, it is 10 people working together; it is not five students and five professionals.”
Sarah El-Bahrawi, a senior fund accountant with CIBC Mellon, says she jumped at the chance to take part in what she describes as “a great learning opportunity.” Only a few weeks into the hub’s operation, she says she is impressed by the diversity of ideas brought to the table. Aside from working with students, she says the project provides her with a chance to network with CIBC Mellon employees beyond her own unit.
By April, the team of Ryerson students and CIBC Mellon employees present their findings and recommendations to senior officials of CIBC Mellon and Ryerson.
“My hope is that it will be an incredible business case and that we look at it and say, this is exactly where we want to move this organization, and we then proceed to follow through on that business case,” says Mr. Anton.
Dr. Murphy is equally optimistic.
“They will end up tackling financial technology challenges that are specific to [CIBC Mellon],” he says. “But we are hoping that the lens they bring to that will be much broader because they have started from a place of thinking about the consumer as the end goal rather than the company as the starting point.”
As a student, Mr. Corney is enthusiastic about the hub model to expand experiential learning outside the classroom. “Hopefully, this will set the standard for what a co-op experience can be for a student,” he says.