A different path

Elephants inspire unconventional route to General Management and Human Resources academic career for an MRU assistant professor with an undergrad background in STEM.

Words by Jonathan Anderson

Mount Royal University is home to amazing academic individuals. Many of which have interesting journeys prior to arriving on campus.

Katuwawalage Lumbini Uthpala Senarathne Tennakoon, PhD, not only has the longest name amongst faculty, but the Human Resources assistant professor has an abundance of experience working with animals in and out of the classroom.  

Senarathne Tennakoon , as she’s referred to throughout the University, began her studies in Sri Lanka with a pursuit of a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Engineering with a specialization in Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering from the University of Moratuwa. How she ended up at Mount Royal as an assistant professor in Human Resources has to do with her unique relationship with a group of gigantic mammals.

“(Everyone) likes to hear about the elephants,” said Senarathne Tennakoon , who during her undergrad degree began working with a group of researchers on an effort to find solutions to elephant migration through human populated communities.

“In Sri Lanka, there are a lot of elephants,” Senarathne Tennakoon explains. “Lots of man-elephant conflict, people are encroaching into elephant habitat. So I worked with a team to fix the problem.”

Much of Senarathne Tennakoon ’s work was focused on finding low-cost solutions to warn people about, and protect crops from, approaching elephants. She explains that many challenges arose in the area because it was not economical to put in electric fences.

She camped out in the Sri Lankan jungle to study the gigantic mammals in their natural habitat, spending much of 2000 to 2002 on a team trying to find a solution to these local problems using electronics; through research on tracking and reproducing elephant communication signals.

Jeep tracking

This unique experience studying technology was in part what influenced her journey to both an MBA, and PhD.

“Since I liked technology and business management, I decided to do my MBA in in Technology Management,” explains Uthpala, who graduated as the only female out of 51 students in her Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering Specialization.

After finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Moratuwa, she obtained a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a specialization in Management of Technology (2004). Prior to joining the Mount Royal faculty, she obtained a PhD in Management with a specialization in Human Resources & Organizational Dynamics from the University of Calgary (2011). She also holds the distinction of receiving a Management Accounting Designation as part of the Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in the United Kingdom.

“(As a professor) I try and connect students with reality,” she said. “I like them to think about personal life to show them that what I teach is not completely foreign, even if it is HR.”

For the past three years, Senarathne Tennakoon has worked as an assistant professor at the Bissett School of Business. She lectures second and third-year students on the importance of human resources.

“I started as an electronic engineer,” she said. “I’m a fully qualified accountant. I worked in the business. I’m a mom of two and now I’m a HR prof.

“I followed a different path — I went from engineering to management.”

Seeking a doctorate brought Senarathne Tennakoon to Calgary where she chose to focus her studies on the impact of technology on individuals. Focusing on work life balance, Senarathne Tennakoon studied the advantages and disadvantages of being constantly connected to work through cell phones and e-mail.

“I explored if these technological tools are really helping you. Are they empowering you, or are they enslaving you?” she said.

Now, fully immersed in the fabric of the University, Senarathne Tennakoon is part of the research teaching scholarship and service stream. Research is a main priority for her with a few on-going projects. One of them has her looking at the return of investment on life-friendly policies of organizations.

“You can spend a million dollars on a childcare facility but what is the return on investment?” she said. “Are we keeping our employees longer? Are they more productive because they don’t have to worry about their children?

Senarathne Grad Pic

“That’s my current research project, I’m trying to understand how we can measure that. “

The preliminary project has her working with one student, Sally Yip with hopes of adding additional support.

Yip linked up with Senarathne Tennakoon when she took the professor’s Recruitment & Selection class.

“I mainly assist Senarathne Tennakoon in gathering information, research, data entry, survey creation, and transcriptions,” said Yip, who hopes to obtain a MBA following her completion of her undergraduate degree.

“What I find tremendously interesting is the different benefits companies provide for their employees. Before the research, I assumed all companies provided very similar benefit packages to their employees.”

Currently the pair is speaking with senior HR staff from Calgary based organizations. The second phase is to go for larger scale survey to see the impact from the employers, employees and even potential employees.

In the classroom, Senarathne Tennakoon suggests her teaching style is fair, insisting she constantly attempts to have her students engage in classroom discussion. Yip has witnessed and benefited from Senarathne Tennakoon ’s teaching strategies first hand.

“She was a dedicated and committed professor. She genuinely cared whether students learned in her class. If she found that students were struggling to understand her content, she would try to explain the concepts in different ways,” said Yip.

Knowing that human resources might not be the most interesting to subject for all Bissett students, Senarathne Tennakoon quickly reminds them of the importance to having an open, diversified mind.

The Introduction to HR course is a compulsory course for all BBA students.

“Very few students join the class with a genuine interest in HR, most do it because they have to,” said Senarathne Tennakoon.

“I have an advantage of making a connection with non HR students because I can show them I’m an engineer, I’m an account, I was a project manager. Part of my objective is to teach them that HR is part of their everyday life, whether they are an employer or an employee. The knowledge becomes more and more valuable as they climb up the corporate ladder. It’s important in every single situation. It’s certainly been a big advantage for me.”