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MSU launch first CX degree in North America

Can a degree programme add credibility to CX certification?


MyCustomer spoke to Tom DeWitt, director of Michigan State University, who is looking to take customer experience into the next level of academia, with the launch of the first CX university programme in North America.

4th Jul 2022
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Despite being an important issue at c-suite level for decades, customer experience has not made the natural transition to academia that the likes of marketing have. Degree-level offerings in CX have been few and far between - though the CX certificate and accreditation market has been thriving for years. 

Unfortunately, the usefulness and validity of many of these certificates/accreditations are a contentious issue, with battle lines drawn between those that believe they have little value to the profession and those who believe they are a useful tool for professional development

But regardless of which side of the argument you fall, most agree that a combination of the two is the best recipe for creating a successful CX professional. Unfortunately, until recently there were only a couple of master's programmes for customer experience management in Europe, and nonewhatsoever in the US. 

However, this is about to change with the launch of the  M.S. in Customer Experience Management at Michigan State University. MyCustomer caught up with Tom DeWitt, director of Michigan State University’s new Customer Experience Management course to discuss his journey in getting the programme off the ground, the nuts and bolts of what the course will look like, why he believes it’s needed to complement on-the-job experience, and what the future holds for CX degrees. 

MyCustomer: So tell us about the course, Tom. 

Tom DeWitt: The course consists of 15, five-week modules that are delivered over a 20-month period. And that includes a two-hour synchronous class meeting each week, with a real focus on team-based learning.

Those 15 courses are designed to be taken one before the other, and they build on one another. It’s almost like, if you had to start an organisation from scratch with the intention of wanting to have a successful customer experience management function, that would be the order the courses would be taken in.

When students come to class, the whole focus is on taking what they've learned, the foundational knowledge, and then integrating it and applying it during class. Then every course will have a project, whether it's individual or team-based, that builds on what they've learned in class. So it should be really rewarding for everybody involved.

Because what I've learned over the years about where people develop their CX skills and where they learn, is that it's from other people, you know. It's picking up the phone or scheduling the Zoom call and talking to their counterparts, and now they have an opportunity to do that in the class.

Another aspect of the course is that we have 43 corporations that have committed to enrolling at least one student a year, and they're part of our collaborative. They helped to encourage employees to participate in activities with their counterparts in other organisations. So you know, all of this is part of our broader attempt at community building. 

And that's where it really started, when I was attending conferences and bringing people together – that's when I realised there was a need for a master's degree.

And I really wanted to get these 43 companies committed, because then they become employers, right? And they can do career fairs, they can help educate students on roles, they can even offer internships during their undergraduate programme.

MyCustomer: So, are you teaching a specific module? Or will you just be overseeing the course?

TD: Yes, I'm teaching the first module that looks at the customer-centric organisation and what it means to be truly customer-centric, at a very practical and operational level. And how is customer experience management, a natural extension of that.

Because what's really interesting, is if you look at the statistics, you see that an exorbitant percentage of companies worldwide want to make customer experience management a strategic imperative. But they're not equipped with the appropriate mindset. And they're not equipped with the support at the c-suite level.

You often have this leadership dimension where maybe the CEO pays lip service to CX management, they talk about it, but then it drops off considerably when we start talking about collaboration across the organisation and actually implementing changes.

We put the M into CX, which is why we're CXM at MSU. And that's actually our tagline: putting management in the customer experience.

They talk about CX, but they're not talking about CX as a managed process. So we put the M into CX, which is why we're CXM at MSU. And that's actually our tagline: putting 'management' in the customer experience.

MyC: Earlier, you touched on the sort of crystallising moment where you came to the realisation that a customer experience degree was needed, could you go into any more detail on why you believe an actual degree is necessary?

TD: Even for me, it's challenging to explain to undergraduate students what customer experience management is, and why it's a viable career path. I'm not sure undergraduates are prepared for it. 

There may be some day in the near future, where it could be a viable undergraduate degree, but even if you created it, who would teach it? Where would you get these instructors and academics to do it?

You know, the market is flooded with certificate programmes, they're all over the place, and they’re primarily coming from private industries. And the reality is with these programmes, they can provide a certain amount of knowledge and a certain breadth of knowledge, but there are limits.

If you're signing up for a certificate programme, and I'm not gonna name names, but what does that mean, in terms of what does that look like? How are people taking the programme evaluated? How do you actually develop the skills? If it's simply watching videos, or reading things and answering multiple choice questions, that only goes so far, right?

What I was hearing from people is that there were limits to what that certification meant, not only in terms of their skill set development, but also in how it was recognised within the industry.

So what this master's degree does, given that it's team-based and project-based, it means that after 20 months students will walk away with multiple projects they've completed. And I think there'll be a sense of confidence there in their abilities now that they've done that.

But also, having a master's degree, as opposed to another certificate that you've added in your portfolio, it’s going to give your position legitimacy that isn't available right now. 

If you've got your master's in CXM from Michigan State University, it's going to have a high level of credibility.

I really think that our degree is going to end up being like an MBA from Harvard. If you've got your master's in CXM from Michigan State University, it's going to have a high level of credibility – it's going to be very marketable on someone's CV. 

One of the stories that I heard was from someone who was in the c-suite of an organisation in the Chicago area, and his counterparts had MBAs from Harvard or from Duke, but he didn't have that. This degree is going to give that individual that credibility. Having that CXM from Michigan State, that’s going to mean something.

So there's a huge gap in the market today. And I appreciate the work that's been done in the certificate field, but why do you choose to do an MBA? Or why do you choose to do a master's degree in market research as opposed to a certificate? Because you understand the limits of that certificate, right? 

And what it's going to give you on a personal level in terms of what you learn, and then on a professional level because our courses are going to be filled with other working professionals, so there’s also the networking opportunities and the chance to learn from each other, which I don't think is always the case for certificate programmes. 

So I think that's what the degree does – it’s going to provide the breadth, and the depth. And the people are going to be learning through synchronous class sessions where they interact with people from other industries and backgrounds. Every five weeks, they're going to be working with three new people from different parts of the world. We've gotten applications from as far as Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, Egypt, Nigeria, Italy, and Turkey. And that's just a start.

This degree is based on hours and hours, and days and days of interacting with industries to understand what’s needed.

I stood on a stage at our conference three years ago, and I said, we're going to create a master's degree in customer experience management. And I didn’t have a clue. I had an idea, a vision in my mind about what I wanted. And this degree is based on hours and hours, and days and days of interacting with industries to understand what’s needed.

MyC: Why do you think no one in North America has offered a CX degree before? 

TD: So first of all, you need to have a champion inside the university who's going to be reliable. And it just so happened that I was that champion. I'm not trying to pat myself on the back. Maybe, in fact, I think I was naive enough to believe that it was going to be simple.

I had people saying things like, why don't you just take the courses we've already got, throw them together and make a degree? And I'm like, no, you can't do that.

And I think that attitude is partly why, because when you look at other programmes out there, there's so much similarity across universities, because frankly, there hasn't been a lot of innovation and change. 

At most universities, the courses haven't changed much in the past 20 years. Because oftentimes, there's not much of a connection with industry – rarely do you see industry and academia partner together in creating a degree programme, because it requires so much political will. Within the university, you almost need to have a dean of a college that says, we need to do this, and they've got the power to make that happen. We were lucky here at MSU because that’s what we had.

It's hard. It took a year and a half from the day we made the applications at the university – that's after all the course descriptions were created. So, a proposal was put together, which had to go through the marketing department, and it had to go through both the committee level and the faculty level, and then it had to go to the college committee, then the master's degree committee, and then the broader college – and it had to get approval from them all.

I think maybe if I knew how hard it was going to be, I would have said, no.

I think maybe if I knew how hard it was going to be, I would have said, no. But I’ve always been the sort of person that if I get an idea in my head, I just can't let it go. And sometimes it's to my own physical and emotional detriment, because this has been really taxing.

But now the light is at the end of the tunnel – the degree is live. For me, the fun part is going to be watching that first class coming up there, and then delivering that first class. It’s going to be so much fun. 

MyC: Now that you’ve started the ball rolling, do you think other universities will follow suit? Do you think it will be the start of a trend?

TD: I don't know, maybe. But who's going to own it? Who's going to champion it? Because whenever you propose a master's degree, you've got to prove its viability.

Two or three years ago, we did a global survey of not just prospective students, but also employers. And we looked at their willingness to support the degree, to hire people, to promote the programme, to pay graduates more. There was a lot of data, because you have to prove the viability of it. Because it's a financial investment.

But I really don’t know. And I guess I'd take it as a compliment if they did. It would be great, because it would give people choices and different programmes, different price points. But I certainly think we have a first mover advantage from a marketing strategy standpoint, and we're going to leverage that as much as we can.

MyC: Our last question today, if you could just sum up what this course will provide to CX professionals that they won’t be able to get elsewhere?

TD: It's that breadth and depth I discussed earlier. Most people in CX right now have significant gaps in their skill sets. They're struggling in their roles. I’ve had conversations about where it comes from, and it’s a lack of employee engagement, it’s a lack of being able to create alignment in an organisation, or a lack of thinking beyond simple surveys for gathering data.

So if you look at those 15 courses that we’re offering, and the depth of each course in terms of the practical skills it's going to give people, that's it in my mind, that’s what they can't get elsewhere.

It’s not going to be like a 10-week certificate programme where you're just watching videos and answering questions that provide you the same depth of knowledge as everyone else. In our programme you’ll get the opportunity to learn from your classmates, and where do you get that in the certificate programmes?


Replies (1)

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By Ricardo Saltz Gulko
05th Jul 2022 12:40

No university title is the differential here, in my humble opinion, but who knows.... What and how you will learn and how adaptable you are to different cultures will make or not the difference. You have to understand the different cultures and adapt. It is Not one feeds all as the typical American mass market style. Practice is still the best.

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