Sylvain Audette is a professor and Research Chair in the Management of Energy sector at HEC Montréal. At the university, he teaches several classes, including a six-week Research Methods course for the MMIAM program. This class is notoriously challenging. Continue reading to get to know Sylvain and to learn why it’s important to tough it out in his class.
Tell me about your background.
I have taken a strange path to get to this point. I have three main passions, research-wise: the energy sector and everything around sustainable development, sports, and of course, art and culture.
Early in my career, while working on my Ph.D., I taught statistics at the Université de Sherbrooke. At one point, I was offered the opportunity to teach a class at a higher management level. Over the course, I realized that my students didn’t understand how to apply what I was teaching in the real world, to their work as managers. This is how I became invested in applied statistics. I said ‘well, what I need to do to become a better professor is to enter the market. I need to become a consultant in market research.’ So, I worked for a very famous firm here in Quebec called Léger. With Léger, I consulted for many different industries, including the arts and I realized that these skills, the domain I was working in, were applicable to any industry.
Over time, I wanted not simply to provide recommendations as a consultant, but to understand the role of a manager. I wanted to understand how data is applied and used to make decisions. So, I joined the energy sector fully expecting to only work in this role for a few years before taking my acquired knowledge back to a full-time teaching role…well, I stayed there for 13 years. I didn’t stop teaching, however, I taught research and marketing courses at HEC and was lucky enough during that time to teach all around the world…Nigeria, Tunisia, Colombia, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of Congo…I’m actually also currently teaching an online course in Peru. After 13 years time, I had the opportunity to join the Marketing Department at HEC Montréal, which is where I met François Colbert. At one point he said ‘well, with your background, you’re the perfect person to teach market research, you’ve worked in the industry and some of your research is geared to the arts, I think you should teach this course.’ And that’s how I began teaching the MMIAM program. It’s been almost nine years since I’ve been at HEC full-time.
Do you play any sports or make any art?
I play a lot of sports! I love to run, to play hockey, and I love cross-country skiing. I’m not a very good musician, but I do love theater and opera. I’m also an Italophile. I learned to speak Italian, I had a dream to purchase a home in Italy and to discover the country’s history and art. When I left the energy company, I took a five-month sabbatical in Italy. While there, my family and I were able to buy an old farm and slowly begin to refurbish it. Every time I go, I try to find something new, a place where we’ve never been before. Actually, there’s a song by Claude Léveillée, a famous French-Canadian singer, about life, things to do, and time passing. It is called Plus le temps passe, the original version is hard to find these days, but at the very end, he says: et l’Italie que je ne connais pas, well, I decided I could change this last part and say et l’Italie que je connais bien!
You know the program goes to Milan. Perhaps one day, you’ll teach your course at Bocconi!
Haha! My Italian home is actually closer to Rome. Milan is about five hours away, but I do love to travel across Italy, and of course, there are several low-cost airlines in Europe, so you never know!
One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is because your course is known to be very difficult. Can you explain why it’s essential, even though it’s such a challenge?
Stereotypically, artists and people interested in the arts are not known for also being interested in numbers, statistics, or math. But you need to know the basics of business in order to advocate for your work and you need to have the tools and the data to support the decisions you’re making.
So, we start the course with industry research: IBIS reports, SWOT analyses…all of which is qualitative, but then we go a step further and we try to do a survey. To complete a survey, there are some basic statistics you need to understand in order to summarize and understand your results and that becomes more difficult for some students. But every time a student completes their final presentation, I’m amazed at how much they’ve learned, especially given the short timeframe; we only have a handful of sessions. But I’m always hoping the teamwork format of the course will help connect all the dots at the end.
Does that affect how you teach the course?
Of course! You know every year, I’m always asking myself if I should change the course to make it easier. But I don’t. I want the students to learn how to survey and to understand at least at a basic level that there are numerous ways to get your questions answered, different types of scales, but not all of them will produce the same result and reporting possibilities.
As a professor, I am also faced with students coming into the course with different levels of awareness or understanding. We have students who are starting from scratch mixed in with students who have knowledge of all the concepts. Every year we have two or three As, but I do believe that those who finish with a B or so are the ones who learn the most. I also see that there is quite a bit of team bonding; the students have to work together. This is also important and when team bonding is good, results are also better.
Do you have any resources or suggestions for students who want to keep learning? Are there websites or books you routinely return to?
The science and techniques of market research don’t evolve rapidly. So, any market research book will do the job. I recommend the book we use in my course; the book used in François’ class also provides a very good introduction. There are some chapters in that book that explain the basics well. But there is also always YouTube for those that don’t want to read textbooks, you can learn a lot there. Just search “art market research” and the basics will be there. As I said, science isn’t changing rapidly so even a YouTube video should jog your memory.
Is there something you’re currently working on that you’d like to share?
I’m involved with an association called RIDEAU. They are an association of performing arts presenters in Quebec. There are nearly 200 members of this association, managing around 350 halls and festival sites. I recently presented some of the concepts that we cover in the course and they discovered new research and analysis tools to convince investors and improve their decision-making as managers. I’m very excited to work with them; we’re putting theory into practice for experienced managers.
I’m also excited to continue slowly renovating my Italian home every summer, we’re adding a few rooms and there’s a lot of history, art, and culture still to discover!
Is there anything I should have asked you?
Nothing comes to my mind, … Oh, yes, maybe I’ll add though that the grades are not important, especially at the masters level. Grades won’t prevent you from getting a job. What’s important is to make an effort in a class. Even if you’re overwhelmed, you’ll retain some of that content. Don’t panic when you have a difficult class or situation ahead of you. I have three mantras, you could say, in life: Too much nostalgia will paralyze you. What you live today will blind you. Fortunately, the future always provides the right answer or the best ideas for you to follow.