Different class

An MBA is a valuable part of a career in HR, providing key experience and knowledge. Recognising this, business schools have looked at how they can make it accessible to more professionals, with some positive results

For HR professionals keen to get closer to the strategic heart of organisations an MBA is a valuable tool, providing not just the practical knowledge needed to understand business processes but also credibility at board level.

A major attraction is the higher salaries that MBA graduates can command. The latest survey by the Association of MBAs shows they can expect an average increase of around 25 per cent, while some are reported to be doubling or even tripling their earnings.

On the downside, the cost and effort involved in such a heavyweight undertaking can be daunting, especially for those with family and career commitments. But schools are tailoring their offer to students’ needs and now provide a growing range of options.

The classic MBA is the residential course, which in the UK is for one year in contrast to the US where the original two-year format is still the norm. However, many people prefer to study part-time over two or three years. That enables them to continue in their jobs and often receive sponsorship from their organisation.

Globalisation increasingly makes a choice of school in Europe or even further afield a serious proposition, while distance learning enables study at home or work. “These days many people have a portfolio career and may have different reasons for doing an MBA,” says Mike Jones, director-general of the Association of MBAs. “They won’t just be employed by large organisations, but will be working in smaller businesses or for themselves.”

Schools are switched on the consumers’ needs, he says, particularly the 35 that are accredited by the Association, which are always looking for innovative approaches. Examples of this are the increasing use of e-mail and on-line chat for distance learning. MBAs delivered solely through the Internet have appeared in the US but are not yet available in the UK. However, this is just a matter of time, Jones thinks.

“An advantage of distance learning is that it is much cheaper than the classroom version, and web courses will reduce the cost even further,” he says. “It’s the only route for many people because of their lifestyle.

“The market is so competitive that the schools have got to make it easy for students. They have to look at new technology and new approaches to meet demand for flexibility.”

Internet study will be seen as relevant as the curriculum increasingly focuses on e-business, he adds, a trend led by providers such as City University and Kingston University.


Full-time courses


The staple of MBA programmes, a full-time residential course enables the maximum degree of focus on the subject. The original model, still used in the US, is two years. In the UK and the rest of Europe, one year is the norm, although some schools extend this by a few months.

Since the full-time format involves a career break it is best suited to those who intend either to look for a new job or change to another activity altogether. For example, it would be ideal for someone with a professional background in an area such as engineering, medicine, the military or the arts, who wanted to move into a managerial role. Being in constant contact with a class also has advantages, enabling students to work together continuously and develop the kind of teamwork that is increasingly essential.

But there are some disadvantages. The single year course is already highly intensive, since no concessions are made to the length of the original two-year curriculum. On top of that students will have to look out for a job in the final months, which will become an increasing distraction as the pressure mounts to complete assignments.

Students with families may find it hard to fulfil the conditions of living close to or on the school’s campus for a year. There is also the question of finance. Few employers are willing to let go of staff for that length of time and that means students will be funding themselves.

Another criticism is that full-time courses are carried out in isolation from the business world. That means students have little opportunity to put their learning into practice, and may simply acquire theoretical knowledge on what is ultimately a highly practical activity. Against this, the better schools provide a good deal of role play, simulations and case study material, and students benefit from the experience of a wide range of sectors brought to the group by their peers.

There is also an opportunity for a short secondment to an organisation during the summer to gain relevant experience. Typically this would be an assignment to produce a written report for the company’s use, for which it pays the student directly.

John Mapes, director of the full-time MBA programme at Cranfield School of Management, says, “Some of our students have worked for major consultancies, so this is an excellent deal for the company, which may be happy to pay because of value of what they are getting. Nearly always the recommendations nearly always get implemented.”

The payment can in some cases significantly offset the cost of the course. Students at Ashridge undertake a full strategic consultancy report for a client supervised by a tutor, for which the average fee is £12,000. That figure can be much higher, in some cases covering the entire tuition fee.


Part-time courses


Most schools now also offer a part-time course, usually over two to three years. This enables participants to continue working and, in many cases, to get their employer to carry the cost. The MBA is taught at evenings and weekends, and on day-release, backed up by the occasional residential course. Here students can get at least some of the peer contact and teamwork available to full-time students. Some schools also run full-time “modular” courses, which are broken up into manageable chunks over an extended period.

Because students continue to work, part-time courses are attractive to employers, who may be extensively involved. The “executive” MBA is an increasingly popular option, tailored as much to meet the sponsoring organisation’s needs as that of the individual. The employer is served by ensuring that key competencies are being developed, while the school is kept abreast of managerial trends and changes in the real world.

Part-time study has many advantages for the student too, not the least being the security of having a job. There is a greater involvement with “real-world” issues and students can learn from contact with other professionals in a wide range of sectors. They can also bring current work problems to the group as a basis for study.

Inevitably there are disadvantages, the most obvious being the pressure of having to work in one’s spare time. Exams and assignment deadlines will clash with other commitments, which require tact in dealing with bosses and family. Another drawback is that where the employer has a say in what you learn, the result may not help you transfer to another organisation, if the need or opportunity arises.


Self-planning learning


Experienced HR professionals may wish to consider the less conventional type of executive MBA programme offered by Roffey Park. This offers a high degree of flexibility for students to set their own agenda and assess themselves by their own criteria. They even organise themselves into their own “learning sets”, identifying peers who they think will most contribute to their development.

Kate Bridge, marketing manager at Roffey Park, says, “The course tends to attract senior professionals who are looking for a deeper level of learning on subjects that are going to be most useful to them. It also appeals to people who are up for a challenge and don’t want just to sit at the back taking notes.”

But despite the unusual level of freedom this is no soft option, she warns, and will not suit those who are looking for an MBA primarily as a qualification to brighten their CV. “The course is ideal for people who want to be better managers and be seen by their organisations to be becoming more effective as they work through it,” she says.


Distance learning


Around a third of MBA students are in distance or open learning courses, offered by a score of main providers such as the Open University, Henley, Kingston, Warwick and Strathclyde.

The method greatly extends the reach of MBAs, involving people who might not otherwise be able to do it for family or career commitments. Some 6,000 people study for an Open University MBA every year, compared with the 50 to 200 who are accepted for most residential courses. The curriculum takes three years to complete, at 15 hours a week.

Critics of distance learning say it makes it difficult for individuals to interact. “It is not enough to read about what management is, you need to be with other people practising management skills,” says Cranfield’s Mapes.

Video conferencing could certainly enable high quality virtual links in the future, he concedes, but MBA providers should only go down that route when such tools are routine aspects of management itself.

The Open University, however, stresses that students are not as isolated as it may appear. As well as home study, there are regular face-to-face tutorials and classes and a residential summer school.

The Internet has opened up a support channel, enabling students and tutors to exchange messages and conduct real time conversations.

“The feedback we get is that meeting people in similar situations is what makes the course – people think they are studying on their own but they are not,” says Jessica Magill, marketing communications manager at the Open University. But she concedes that distance learning does require a high level of self-discipline and motivation. “There is support there but when it comes down to it you are doing it for yourself,” she says.


Overseas


Britain is a popular destination for foreign students, but UK professionals can also choose from a number of overseas establishments. British students are to be found at schools such as Nimbus in the Netherlands, Esade in Barcelona and even Harvard in the US. Opportunities are also there for UK students to carry out part of their course abroad.

Having an overseas MBA makes sense for those who wish to follow a career in that country. A Spanish MBA, for instance, could open doors throughout Latin America. Good knowledge of the language will be necessary at the outset, although most continental schools conduct their courses predominantly in English.

A top US MBA brings significantly higher starting salaries and can open up job opportunities in the US.

However, since this is likely to follow the two-year model will be considerably more expensive to undertake.

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