Mastering MBAs

by 19 Oct 2009

MBAs have long been seen as both a stepping stone and milestone in professional career progress. Craig Donaldson looks at some of the latest MBA trends and examines the all-important process of how to choose the ideal MBA school and program

Most industries have been affected by the global financial crisis in some way or another. A number of MBA schools have been heav ily impacted by the GFC, because MBAs are seen as a prohibitively expensive train ing option in tough economic times by both organ isations and individuals. Many people are happy just to keep their job, let alone think about career development and progression.

As a result, MBA schools around the world are re-examining their foundations, from the sub jects they are teaching and the way they teach them, to the very philosophical underpinnings of their view of the world, says Roy Green, dean of UTS: Business.

While the crisis is not as acute in Australia and UTS is doing well by all measurable indicators, Green says the school doesn’t have to worry too much about next year, or even the year after. “But we do need to look further ahead – towards 2013, 2014 and beyond,” he says.

Jennifer George, acting dean of Melbourne Business School, says there’s nothing like adver sity to generate innovation, and her advice to MBA students is that they must understand quan titative elements of financial information, such as how to analyse financial statements, manage ment accounting and financial risks. “Not many programs in Australia require this. They tend to concentrate more on soft skills, HR or market ing and leave the more difficult financial sub jects out. If students do not understand the financial risks in the companies they manage, they risk repeating the mistakes that contributed to this credit crisis,” she says.

John Edwards, acting director of executive edu cation for Macquarie Graduate School of Man agement (MGSM), says the school has reviewed the focus of some of its MBA subjects to take into account the more volatile and uncertain economic climate. Outside of this, he says there has been an increase in interest in postgraduate study from potential students (both domestic and interna tional), with more looking to enrol in full-time programs to up-skill and prepare for the upturn in business confidence.

Pause for thought

MBAs require a significant financial investment, so it pays to do your homework in researching the school and course that will provide the most per sonal and professional benefit.

Tony McArthur, national secretary of the Grad uate Management Association of Australia, says to consider first and foremost whether it’s the right time to do an MBA. “Some people in the early stages of their career might be focusing on the tech nical issues of their industry or profession. A bet ter option for them might be to do a Masters in their specific area, such as an accountant doing a Masters in Commerce,” he says.

“Later in their career, an MBA is ideal for getting away from the technical expertise and building on management skills to prepare for a leadership role that requires a broad management perspective.”

In considering where to study, McArthur says the quality and reputation of an MBA school are critical. “You don’t want to spend a lot of time and money getting an MBA from a school that a prospective employer is going to say: ‘Never heard of them. Where are they and what’s it all about?’ If you go to a recognised school your MBA will be more readily accepted as a business credential,” he says.

Julia Connell, associate dean of Postgraduate Programs and the director of the MBA at UTS: Business, says that in addition to the reputation of the MBA school, potential stu dents should also consider the strength of the links between school and industry, and the program itself. “Does the pro gram have a strong core that is applicable to their career aspi rations? Does the program offer the opportunity to study overseas through exchange programs and gain international experience,” she says.

“A person only does one MBA in their lifetime, so stu dents should look to the school that will provide a transfor mational experience – one where they will come into contact with teachers and fellow students who will change their lives for the better.”

There are also a number of practical considerations, and Connell says potential students should research whether the course fits their lifestyle in terms of:

• Location (proximity to work or home or transport)

• Cost (fits the budget in terms of value and quality for money and length of program, ie. One year full-time or up to six years part time depending on the number of units or credits given from either undergraduate or other studies)

• Time (work and/or family commitment will dictate whether full-time or part-time and whether weekly classes or intensive weekend or week day classes are most suitable)

• Work hours and/or travel (work travel commitments will determine whether online or face to face and, possibly, mode of offer, ie weekly or intensive)

Making the most of an MBA

During the actual degree it’s helpful to be involved in activities offered out side the classroom, according to Melbourne Business School’s George. This might include networking with other students and industry groups, doing internships or simply taking advantage of options that allow students to reflect on and apply their learning outside the classroom context.

“For example, an internship, whether it’s for two or ten weeks, enables students to apply what they have learnt in the classroom while offering them opportunities that are radically unlike their previous work experience. It puts them into an environment where they’re applying their learning in a completely new domain. It opens new possibilities, stretches them and helps them to see things in the material that they might otherwise not see,” she says.

A lot of the benefits students get from an MBA are not realised until after they leave, she says, and some students extract more value than others because they more consciously reflect on their course years afterwards.

“I’ve noticed the students who are successful in doing this consciously reflect on the different areas they studied and think about them in the con text of the problems they are solving. They almost go through a checklist in their head when they are faced with a problem and say, ‘How can I think about that from a marketing perspective, from a finance perspective and from an operations management perspective?’” she says.

What to watch out for

One of the most common pitfalls with MBA programs is making a quick decision about which institution to apply to, according to MGSM’s Edwards. “Listening to advice from others who have completed postgrad study is important, but do your own research as well. Visit the various institutions on your list, see what the learning environment is like, attend an information ses sion and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he says.

Managing time is also crucial when combining work and postgradu ate study, and Edwards says juggling work and study is challenging but that learning to be disciplined around time management will make things much easier.

Many programs also require students to work in syndicates to complete both a written report and prepare a verbal presentation. “These are usually positive experiences, but can occasionally be challenging. Approach all syn dicate work in a positive way and embrace the experience as part of the over all learning,” he says.

Lastly, before selecting electives course units, Edwards recommends talk ing to as many fellow students as possible and discussing any doubts about elective selections with lecturers.

Top tips for HR

HR professionals looking to undertake an MBA need to think about what they want to derive from the degree in terms of knowledge, new skills, network or career progression opportunities, says Andrew Heys, senior lecturer in management at MGSM.

“HR professionals, particularly at the more senior level these days, are expected to have the capacity to contribute to strategic discussions, so it's important to understand the other functional specialists, finance people in particular,” he says.

“They can also expand and deepen their own domain knowledge to become better at what they do by a formal appreciation of organisational behaviour, law in management, negotiation, conflict management or even change management.”