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What makes a great course?

What makes ISBP at UCC a great course
With almost 100% employment for those who have completed it, the MSc ISBP has won gradireland postgraduate Course of the Year for five straight years. We paid a visit to UCC to talk to the Course Directors, students and graduates to find out why this course continues to deliver.
It’s not just ground breaking, its award-winning, multi-award winning, having been named gradireland course of the year (IT: 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017 and Business: 2015) for four years running.

This summer, Tim Riordan, an IT Advisory Associate with EY, will coordinate a summer research project with the students of the Information Systems for Business Performance (MSc ISBP) Masters course at University College Cork. The project will focus on the sphere of instant payments within financial systems. The fact that a global player like EY has partnered with the course is nothing new, the course has a waiting list of employers seeking to become involved, what’s different is that Tim is himself a graduate of the course. “Knowing the level of confidence that this course provides its students with in delivering great results for employers, it’s a project that we’re really looking forward to,” he says.

The MSc ISBP is headquartered at the Cork University Business School (CUBS), where Doctor Karen Neville and Doctor Audrey Grace, Course Directors, talked gradireland through the development and continuing evolution of this ground-breaking programme. It’s not just ground breaking, its award-winning, multi-award winning, having been named gradireland course of the year (IT: 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017 and Business: 2015) for four years running.

What is MSc ISBP and what are its origins?

“Essentially what the course does is provide students with knowledge of how business operates and how the performance of a business can be enhanced via information systems (IS). Through a blend of class room lectures and practical work, students are taught how to leverage and manage technology for the benefit of business,” says Dr Karen Neville.

Both Karen and Audrey have been working on the course since 2011, with the course having been initiated in 2007. So was there a particular gap identified for this course to fill? “Not in particular, but there’s a constant demand for high-level IT skills, which can be delivered through a practical conversion course. However, ISBP is not purely technology focused but is oriented towards teaching students what can be done with technology in terms of optimising and improving business performance. Everything we teach is directed toward ‘real world’ application,” says Dr Audrey Grace.

The course evolved due to the background of a business environment which had been highlighted by government agency Forfás (2011 report) as lacking in IT skills, but the course wasn’t developed directly in response to this industry demand. “What we did have to do was meet with industry and consult with them about the types of skills that they want, and it’s a constantly changing environment. We also reached out to our graduates to see what sort of skills they are developing in the workplace and how best we could prepare our students for the workplace by equipping them with those skills,” says Karen Neville.

Audrey adds that the key to really growing the course has been the consistent impacts that ISBP students have been able to make for employers when it comes to their research project; “during these research projects, employers can see what the students can add to their business and the appetite amongst industry grew, and continues to grow.”

The list of employers that currently partner with the MSc ISBP is testament to this appetite, with just a snapshot of just some of the larger companies involved providing a virtual namecheck in terms of major industry players: Dell-EMC, PepsiCo, Laya Healthcare, Bank of Ireland, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Fexco, Johnson Controls, Depuy Synthes, Abran and Wisetek. The list goes on.

It was both Audrey and Karen’s intention to construct a course which differs from other business and information technology related courses at UCC, or indeed at any other Irish institution. “Our own backgrounds did have an impact on how the course developed,” says Audrey. “I came to the course after over 12 years in industry, while Karen comes from the academic side, so we both fed that into the direction that the course would take,” explained Audrey.

Structure of the programme

The result is a three-step approach, aimed at providing as close as possible to a seamless transition for students into the business world. The Course is divided over three semesters. The first semester focuses on educating students on what will be involved in dealing with the range of business problems or goals that they may be tasked with addressing in their final research project at the end of the programme. Karen, who teaches ISBP students in the first Semester between September and December, as well as the third semester, explains; “we focus primarily on the basics of information systems, the technology used and the various models and systems used. Industry experts then present directly to students about what is involved currently in the business environment and students get a chance to engage with them then to see what they are looking for in terms of their own business. In terms of challenges for students, I think it’s very important that they commit to the course in the first semester in terms of the lectures and tutorials, as these will provide the grounding that they need. There is a lot of information for the students to process, and I think some of them can find it hard to ask for help initially, so we provide a lot of support for any students who might be in difficulty.” She added that students can also be conflicted about how to apply the knowledge from their undergraduate course to ISBP. There are a host of transferable skills which will help students on this course, who come from such a wide variety of backgrounds, including humanities, finance, psychology and engineering, to name but a few.

The second semester (January-May) involves group work for the students to examine the IT environment in terms of industry, and what best practices exist. Audrey Grace, who coordinates the second semester, explains; “Students will need to analyse problems or objectives identified by businesses in the first semester and offer evidence based recommendations to address them. Each group will then need to develop a proposal for their organisation, in which they explain how they plan to execute their recommendations through research to address the identified problem or objective. They are all real, contemporary problems which are currently being experienced by businesses. This helps inform the students as to what the real-world application of research can be.”

The third and final semester (June-August) sees students put their projects into action through comprehensive and considered research. The soft skills element of the course also comes to the fore here. “It is at this stage that students start to show professional confidence and learn how to excel in a real business environment,” explains Audrey. The students’ projects conclude with a presentation on their findings and recommendations to representatives from all organisations involved with the ISBP programme and the submission of a detailed report to their partner company. “At the end of the day,” explains Audrey, “we’re looking to prepare students with the tools to advise businesses. Their research needs to be rigorous, scientifically based and they need to be able to stand over it unequivocally. The ultimate goal is that employers will make decisions and choose directions based upon the advice of our students.”

The development of the students, from the first semester to the last is one of the most rewarding aspects for the course directors. “To watch them develop and gain in confidence is very rewarding, and the success stories in terms of employment have been instrumental to the continuing development of the course, and calibre of the work that is being done here.” adds Karen.

An industrial perspective on the success of the course is provided by William Hynes, an urban economist and Managing Director of Future Analytics Consulting (FAC) Ltd. This firm connects city planning, research and economics, as well as their reporting and technological platforms in order to help government and businesses to organise, and explore data to make smarter decisions. FAC has been involved in a mentoring capacity with the course for the past few years, and William believes it provides a benchmark when it comes to relevance for the business world. “We work very closely with UCC in terms of European research, so becoming involved with a course like the MSc ISBP was a natural progression. I believe the MSc ISBP is very close to the market in terms of research practices and methodologies. It’s a very practical and very applied programme and has constantly evolved to maintain its cutting edge.”