Talking points: masters miss out?

Formal MBA qualifications have recently been criticised as too rigid and based on theory. So does the market need a revamp? Alison Thomas asks providers, employers and graduates their opinions

Rick Woodward

Training director, Kimberly-Clark Europe

We are establishing a partnership with a small number of world-class business schools and are generally pleased with the content, maturity and breadth of their MBA programmes.

Sometimes participants say that there is too much emphasis on theory and any movement towards a more practical approach would be valuable. On the other hand, if this entailed more project work, I would worry about the time implications. The students we send are of a very high calibre and are under pressure from their own workloads.

Although my colleagues in the States are expressing an interest in on-line MBAs, I have reservations. As a supplement to other modes, on-line learning is useful, but it can’t replace classroom discussion.

In any multinational, including our own, people become locked into the corporate way of doing things. An MBA gives managers an opportunity to benchmark against changing global standards. By analysing case studies and discussion with people from different industries, they gain a broad perspective, which they bring back into the business.

Gary Miles

MBA programme director, Roffey Park.

The trouble with the highly-structured curriculum of the traditional MBA is that while it may hit the mark in some areas, it can miss in others. I also think many courses are too academic and do not place enough emphasis on putting theory into practice.

The purpose of an MBA is to make managers more effective as well as to further their careers. They need something flexible, which is tailored to meet their particular needs and equips them to deal with ambiguity and constant change.

On-line learning has potential, particularly for the delivery of hard skills. But interpersonal skills and creativity can only be fostered through face-to-face interaction. To quote John Cleese in a Video Arts film, "Ideas don’t pop out of a laptop".

As competition among providers intensifies, it is up to HR to research the market and measure each qualification against the needs of the individual. This takes time, but when you consider the investment, it is worth it. The right MBA gives the organisation a more versatile asset, someone with a strategic focus and a deeper understanding of themselves and their impact on others.

John Mapes

Full-time MBA programme director, Cranfield School of Management

In the long term, I foresee the MBA evolving into a chartered qualification integrated into continuous professional development. This would require graduates to return to their alma mater at regular intervals to keep up to date.

I also envisage a growth in the number of part-time, modular MBAs facilitated by on-line learning. You can’t learn management skills at the end of a terminal, but content delivered online can be backed up by short, residential courses.

In the shorter term, I expect current changes to gather pace. Today’s students are older and more experienced than their predecessors. They can work more intensively and because their time is precious they need something which delivers results fast. Some American two-year programmes are being accelerated into 18 months and eventually I think 12 months will be the norm. Experienced students are exerting pressure for more practical work and this too is influencing the market.

As applicants become more discerning, schools that fail to provide a quality product will fall by the wayside. A good MBA is expensive, but graduates from the major schools recoup their investment through increased salaries.

Mike Jones

Director general, Association of MBAs

An MBA is strategically focused and allows graduates to achieve things they would never be able to contemplate otherwise.

I do not believe the market needs a shake up, certainly not among our accredited schools. They are fully aware of what the market is demanding and deliver a curriculum relevant to the world of work, both in terms of specific skills required by corporate organisations and new issues, such as entrepreneurship and e-business.

On-line learning has huge implications, if only because it is cost-effective, but reputable providers will always focus on quality whatever the learning mode.

Where problems could arise is in the realm of what we call "bandit schools", which will see an opportunity to sell programmes of varying quality to unsuspecting consumers. However, an MBA is an investment and most people research the market thoroughly. Only around one-third of UK MBA providers meet the standards we require for accreditation, yet they account for two-thirds of all MBA students. Our web site gets thousands of hits each week and we counsel numerous prospective students on which schools and programmes meet their needs.

Martin Brighty

MBA and joint managing director, Hunters Partnership, master silk tie maker

I always know when I am speaking to a fellow graduate because they can see the full picture and understand how a corporation works from top to bottom. People who do not have an MBA can come across as one-dimensional.

I studied at Kingston where I was taught by industry leaders, real experts in their field. It was also at the cutting edge of new technology. Other schools are more traditional and it is important to find one that you are comfortable with.

The expansion of the MBA market indicates that more British managers are realising the importance of investing in their own future. It should also make for a much better employment environment.

My own MBA has proved its worth. Just before I graduated, I was made redundant and together with a colleague, I used what I had learned to start up one of the first virtual companies in the UK. Today we provide some of the world’s leading stores.

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