Broadening the value of your MBA

by 01 May 2008

All MBA students should graduate with the basic skills and tools necessary for problem solving in the business environment. Most expect to further their careers as a result of their study. Teresa Russell talks with HR professionals about the value of their MBA studies

Full-time or part-time? Face-to-face, distance learning or fully online? Broad-based or specialised? Australian or international? Early or mid-career? Twelve or 16 units? Paying $13,800 or $50,000? There are many questions that need answering before embarking on an MBA.

Motivation to study

Heather Miles, Westpac’s general manager of enterprise, people and performance solutions, completed her MBA full-time at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) in 1992. She had done a science degree at the University of New South Walesas an undergraduate and was running her own training business at the time.

“Training is an outcome of a broader business strategy. I wanted to understand that strategy be in a position to ensure that all the HR systems were in place to make those strategies stick,” she says.

Miles says she decided to do her MBA when she felt her career had plateaued. She had two teenage children at the time and wanted to improve her earning potential for the next 20 years of her career. “I needed to get my brain moving again so I could grow to the next level,” says Miles.

Amanda Hall, HR analyst at Worley Parsons is half way through studying a part-time MBA at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). She studied economics as an undergraduate and worked in business finance analysis and IT. After moving to London, she worked as an HR analyst for ManPower, which at that time was the UK’s largest employer. “Analysing e-HR data was far more interesting than analysing sales figures, and fundamental to enabling the company achieve its strategic goals,” she says.

Hall came to HR via the IT side of HR, improving reporting accuracy, analysing workflows and implementing electronic HR data. “I decided to study an MBA to gain a broader understanding of all facets of HR. I’d love to be an HR director to create better ways of working that benefit companies, their employees and society as a whole,” she says.

Choosing a university

There are more than 40 universities in Australia offering more than 80 different MBA programs. The differences between their offerings need to be understood by prospective students in order to get the best value for their MBA dollar.

Geographical considerations played an important part in both Miles’ and Hall’s choice of universities. “When I did my MBA, I was living on the [NSW] CentralCoast. The AGSM was clearly the best MBA on offer at the time, so I moved to Sydney during the week and went home to my family on the weekends,” says Miles, who shared a two-bedroom flat with her oldest son, who started his first year of university at UNSW at the same time. She chose to do it full-time because she felt the need to immerse herself in study.

Hall chose UTS for several reasons, one of which was its accessibility. She needed to get from her work to university for evening lectures in peak hour. “I did consider doing an MBA by correspondence, but I was influenced by a bit of academic snobbery and felt there was some prestige attached to where you get your qualifications,” she says.

Because she had an economics undergraduate degree, Hall made sure that the MBA she chose included organisational behaviour and development, change management and internal communication subjects. This was another major influence on her decision to choose UTS.

Change of perspective

Miles says she was always very structured in her thinking and problem solving, but the MBA changed the way she saw things. “I became financially literate and gained an understanding of business strategy. Although I see myself as HR, I understand the business space,” she says.

Miles believes that increasingly, HR professionals need to be commercially savvy and understand what drives value for a business and what gives it a competitive advantage. “Marry that with what works in HR and then design programs that make money and serve the customers,” she says.

Even though she is only halfway through her MBA, Hall says her study has given her a broader perspective and brought her up-to-date with current thinking, thanks to the reading and research she has done. “I now draw on a much broader range of resources from around the HR world, such as World at Work, Corporate Leadership Council, European HR Forum and AHRI,” she says.

Her favourite subject to date has been ‘managerial skills’. It has really increased my self-awareness and given me a better understanding of what different personality types have to offer,” says Hall. She says she has become a lot more efficient because she had to when working full-time and studying two subjects part-time.

Change of career

After Miles finished her MBA, she worked for McKinsey as a consultant for more than five years. “My background was a bit soft for them, but they took a risk and hired me because of my MBA results,” she says. She says she got frameworks and the thinking skills from the MBA, then worked in a problem-solving environment with some very smart people all over the world. “It was an enormously valuable job that allowed me to completely reposition myself.”

Her next job was an HR director’s role in New Zealand working for a forest products company with 10,000 employees and from there she moved to Westpac. Miles now manages a team of 180 through nine direct reports and is responsible for a program of work to redesign the HR function.

Advice for HR

Miles delivers many career development presentations and advises people to give themselves the opportunity to do formal education, if possible. “It’s different from learning on-the-job. You need both. Formal education is a powerful way to understand frameworks, access research, challenge your paradigms of thinking and challenge your assumptions. An MBA provides the best opportunity to do a repositioning of your career,” says Miles.

Before starting an MBA, Hall says you should have a clear idea of your future aspirations and your areas of interest so you can take subjects that will enable you to achieve your goals. She believes it more valuable to delay doing an MBA, rather than doing it early in your career when you have had less exposure to business. “The value of knowledge gained is enhanced by the practical experiences you have had in the workplace,” says Hall.

Online MBA

Open UniversitiesAustralia now runs a fully on-line MBA provided by RMIT. It is very popular with people who are looking for maximum flexibility in their MBA study.

Brian Hamilton, business solutions manager at DST International in Sydney started this MBA over a year ago. “There are lots of different MBAs around and it’s important to find the one that is most applicable to you. I wanted a reputable university, great flexibility and to study subjects that were what I needed for my career direction,” says Hamilton, who is more interested in the learning than receiving the qualification at the end of the course. He describes his MBA as very internationally focused.

He has so far greatly enjoyed a leadership management subject and has found he’s applied the learning at work. “The more you learn, the more confident you become in your work environment. From a management perspective, people who undertake formal study are perceived as people who want to go places,” says Hamilton.

Although this MBA will cost him about $30,000, Hamilton sees it as an investment in his future career and doesn’t think about the cost. Part of the MBA fees are subsidised by his employer but Hamilton thinks it important to pay at least a part of the fees yourself, to ensure your commitment to the study.

“An MBA is more about self-learning. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it,” he says. Hamilton“puts in” plenty. He is married with three children, lives on the NSWCentralCoast and commutes by train to work in Sydney. He studies on the train and at night after his children are in bed. “I never study during the days on the weekends. Getting balance with my family life is important.”