Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience: Educating the Next Generation of Private Sector Leaders

Posted: January 21, 2016 at 11:09 am

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By Mark D. Troutman, PhD, Director
Center for Infrastructure Protection & Homeland Security, George Mason University

In January of 2015, the Business School of George Mason University introduced a specialized Critical Infrastructure track to complement its existing Executive MBA (EMBA) program.  Now in its second year of offering, this innovative program offers some early insight into private sector needs for critical infrastructure education.

The Executive MBA with Critical Infrastructure track came into being as a means of broadening the Business School’s National Security focus of its MBA programs.  The student body consists of mid-career professionals with 15–25 years of work experience who bring a wealth of practical wisdom to the program.  The program likewise benefits from the close proximity of Department of Homeland Security, sector specific agencies, and the corporate headquarters of several firms that operate in critical infrastructure sectors that reside within the DC metro area.  In addition, the location provides access to six state capitals within one day’s drive.  This experienced student body and varied set of resources provides the opportunity to find effective and inventive approaches that will address the needs of leaders in private-sector firms that operate within critical infrastructure sectors.

The program recognizes that leaders within critical infrastructure firms face the unique challenge of operating efficient, profit generating firms while seeing to security and resilience considerations that transcend the boundaries of the corporate enterprise.  The construction is unique to address these needs.  Like other MBA programs, students complete a core program of corporate leadership, marketing, accounting, finance, business economics, and ethics to provide grounding in operations and strategy.  The Critical Infrastructure track provides students with the critical thinking skills necessary to meet the complex challenges of security and resilience encountered by firms.  Students of the Critical Infrastructure track also leave as subject matter experts in the policies and systems that provide for critical infrastructure security and resilience.  The track consists of four distinct elements—three courses and a Capstone Project.

The first course in the sequence is a “foundations” module, which provides students with an overview of issues, policy, law, and regulations of critical infrastructure security and resilience.  The course also provides students with a working knowledge of the system at international, national, and state/local levels, which facilitates planning, information sharing, and response.  Finally, the course familiarizes students with business issues such as cybersecurity, physical and supply chain security, business continuity, and disaster response that private-sector firms in critical infrastructure sectors face.  This foundations course provides students with a solid grounding to go into more depth as the program goes on.

The second course builds on the concepts introduced in the foundations module and offers an in-depth treatment of risk and mitigation.  This course tends to take a sector focus, using case studies as a basis for understanding.  We have found that an emphasis on the “lifeline” sectors of energy, water/wastewater, communications, and transportation is a practical way of providing focus and depth to increase understanding.  Students in this course investigate topics such as cybersecurity and resilience in great detail to provide practical topics around which to build study.

An MBA program is a professional degree, designed to serve the needs of a practitioner community of business leaders.  As such, the third event in the Critical Infrastructure track provides students with an in-residence phase that allows them to see critical infrastructure firms in operation.  The CIP track makes use of guest speakers who are practitioners in critical infrastructure roles throughout the course.  The in-residence portion of the Critical Infrastructure track provides students the opportunity to get out of the classroom and visit firms in the critical infrastructure sectors.  This week-long immersion experience involves visits to firms and government entities at the federal and state/local level to gain a “hands on” understanding of business operations, partnerships, and information sharing relationships necessary to critical infrastructure security and resilience.  Students have visited firms in the energy, telecommunications, and water/wastewater sectors, as well as key federal offices, a state-level fusion center, and key cybersecurity coordination centers.  Students also encounter firms that provide solutions to critical infrastructure firms to gain an understanding of challenges and business opportunities in the critical infrastructure sectors.

The final element of the Critical Infrastructure track is a Capstone Course.  In this approach, students form small consulting teams of 3-4 members and seek out a client firm with an infrastructure security and resilience challenge.  In the course of a 6-9 month engagement, students work collaboratively with firms to study and analyze the problem and formulate a solution.  Students must then create a consulting report with recommendations and present their solution to a combined audience of client and faculty.  This course is the final event of a nearly two-year program and provides students with a practical exercise that applies the concepts of the program and track.  In addition, it provides the client a solved problem and represents a field research opportunity for faculty.  Students point to this event as one in which concepts took on deep meaning and provided practical understanding of principles.

The EMBA with CIP Track just started its second cohort of students, but the early results from the program are encouraging.  Still, there are clear indications for further research and improvement.  First, there are few resources written from a private-sector focus, and case studies are still in early forms of development.  Considerations of security are sensitive areas of firms that have competitive and financial implications, so faculty have to take great care to respect business sensitive information.  There is a great need for materials to facilitate private-sector education in the areas of security and resilience, and many opportunities for research.

Second, our experience informs the need for clear definition of career tracks for those who choose to focus on issues of critical infrastructure security and resilience.  However, the corporate departments in which we find firm-level experts in this subject area vary greatly from firm to firm.  There is no specific area—operations, finance, legal—in which issues of security and resilience firmly reside. Rather, issues of security and resilience in critical infrastructure firms span many corporate departments.  While a challenge, this observation affirms the multi-disciplinary nature of this subject area.  It also affirms the approach of delivering critical infrastructure education within a multidisciplinary degree oriented toward practitioners.

Critical infrastructure education is in its early stages and the opportunities for innovation and development are many.  The EMBA with Critical Infrastructure Track offers one solution that is clearly meeting a need.  You can find more information about this innovative program here: http://business.gmu.edu/emba/infrastructure/.

Write to the Editors at ciprpt@gmu.edu