Researcher's work crosses many boundaries

Finding results for the "real world" is the driving force behind Dr. Ken McKay's research.

The associate professor in management information systems and production management at Memorial's Faculty of Business Administration specializes in making technology useful and developing common sense techniques for production control. Dr. McKay said his background working for NCR as a systems architect and quality analyst for seven years, and for the University of Waterloo as a manufacturing researcher for six years, enhances his research and teaching at Memorial. Most of his time at Waterloo was spent working on industrial projects with large and small firms. He said those real experiences have proved invaluable to him.

"Depending on the research topic, the real world can provide invaluable insights about the underlying problems and possible solutions. My current models and theories have all been driven by field research and, as a result, include real world phenomena and recognize the human factor," Dr. McKay said. "The human component is important for me since information systems and production management techniques are meant to help people in their decision-making and not hinder them. I find an interdisciplinary approach is useful for bridging theory and practice. While some of my research is theoretical and provides nothing more than insight into specific issues, most of my research is very focused on present-day situations."

Dr. McKay's research in production scheduling illustrates this view. Part of his work studies how scheduling - the allocation and sequencing of work in a factory or service situation - can be improved through the appropriate use of technology. To do this, he has developed methods and techniques for studying and working with the actual schedulers and how to use the results in algorithms and computer tools.

While at Waterloo, Dr. McKay and his colleagues had a scheduling system commercialized by a firm in the United States and he is currently pursuing an assortment of practical and theoretical issues with colleagues at universities in Canada, the United States and the Netherlands. He has adjunct positions at Dalhousie University and the University of Waterloo, where he has been part of the Waterloo Management of Integrated Manufacturing Systems Research Group since 1985.

Some of the companies to which he has given manufacturing advice include IBM, Northern Telecom, Aluminum Company of America, General Motors, Ferrari, Allen-Bradley and John Deere.

In addition to his production research, Dr. McKay conducts research on using technology in the classroom to teach quantitative subjects. With colleagues from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he co-developed a piece of software called OMAC, a tool used to author courseware. Operations management modules that he has written using OMAC have been used at MIT, Harvard, Stanford and the London School of Business. Collaborating with local organizations has been an important part of Dr. McKay's strategy. The Canada/ Newfoundland Co-operation Agreement on Human Resource Development has helped him in facilitating these interactions through the funding of three projects since 1994.

The most recent project was a partnership with the Open Learning and Information Network and the Newfoundland School For The Deaf to create over a dozen modules with OMAC for teaching science topics and exploring the development process. Dr. McKay is now exploring the re-development of the OMAC tool using Java and Internet technology. As a result of his experience in interactive teaching technology, he was invited to join representatives from seven other universities and colleges in a European Community-Canada project to develop curriculum for teaching environmental information systems. The project is just finishing the first year of a three-year grant.

In 1994, Dr. McKay also received funding from the agreement to partner with the faculty's P. J. Gardiner Institute and Newfoundland Telephone in developing an MBA course focused on distance technology. The course involved students interacting with people in Stephenville and used two video conferencing kiosks - one in Stephenville and one in the business building. The distance technology hardware continues to be used for research and is now part of a project involving Port aux Basques, Stephenville and Memorial's telemedicine group.

The third project funded by the agreement involved the development of specialized teaching materials. Inspired by workshops he attended on ways to improve the teaching of operations management, Dr. McKay initiated a partnership with the P. J. Gardiner Institute and the Alliance of Manufacturers and Exporters Newfoundland to create a series of videos. With the co-operation of the Brookfield Dairy Group, Hotel Newfoundland and Nortel, three videos that illustrate production management issues and concepts were produced. The Brookfield tape was the first in the series and has been distributed throughout the province and internationally.

Although he is very active in research, Dr. McKay says that teaching is also a high priority. He was initially attracted to Memorial during his interview visit when he had an opportunity to speak with students. He found their interest in learning and approach to education refreshing. In the classroom, Dr. McKay tries to give the students a good dose of the real world as well as theory and enjoys watching students think and do problem-solving. He admits that his students are not always sure where he is coming from, especially when he asks them how they would go about calculating the number of college students a whale could eat! But he has been told by many past students that the lessons "stuck" and proved useful in their careers.

It has been a busy and enjoyable five years for Dr. McKay since he came to the business faculty in 1992. In fall 1998, he plans to take a break from his hectic schedule at Memorial and return to MIT (where he was a visiting scholar in 1991) for a year-long sabbatical.

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