MBA's: The word is 'international'

Today's MBA, with its focus on strategic thinking and analysis, and on global markets, offers the manager advantages that a first degree simply cannot provide. By Robert Owen
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Throughout Europe, increasing numbers of graduates with technical degrees, liberal arts degrees or traditional professional qualifications want to move into general management. The relevance of the MBA, for them, is its focus on decision-making and on analysis, which a first degree cannot provide. This growth in the MBA market and in content choice has been paralleled by innovations in modes of delivery, which now include full-time, part-time, modular and distance learning - the last of which is more common in the UK than elsewhere.

Full-time programmes are usually a year in duration, while part-time programmes last on average two to three years, with classes taking place in the evenings, during weekends, or on day-release. Distance learning (DL) is the fastest-growing mode of MBA study, with more than 10,000 students registered in the UK. As with part-time study, DL offers the possibility of integrating studies with employment. It provides a viable alternative for students who are unable to fit in part-time attendance, or who do not have access to a school of suitable standing. The course takes, on average, three to five years to complete. Other courses may be modular, or the consortium MBA and the single-company MBA.

Unlike the US, Europe has no league table of business schools. However, the process of accreditation that has been carried out by the Association of MBAs (Amba) for more than 25 years does offer clear guidance. Courses at 33 British business schools and 15 schools on the Continent carry Amba accreditation.

Besides an indication of the standing of the business school involved, accreditation means that students are eligible for the association's loan scheme, which is designed to help individuals paying their own fees. A recent Amba survey showed that 50 per cent of MBA students have all fees paid by their employers, and only 16 per cent report no financial assistance. This is, surely, the ultimate vote of employer confidence in the value of the degree.

Since most people take an MBA in order to advance their careers in the long term, employer perception is crucial. Attitudes have been become much more positive in the last couple of years. With the pressures of recession over, businesses are taking a more strategic view of the future, and the MBA, with its strong strategy content, is highly relevant.

The global nature of modern business has also sharpened the need for professionalism in management. There has been a realisation, by organisations and individuals, that narrow professional qualifications or functional skills are not enough in a business environment where there is a need to take an integrated, and increasingly global, view of how decisions in one business discipline may affect others - exactly what an MBA teaches. Business schools are offering MBA programmes that reflect the needs and realities of business and industry.

The degree may also say a great deal about the graduate. It may indicate an entrepreneurial spirit, commitment and professionalism. Other generic virtues of the MBA may include evidence of dedication and commitment, training across a broad range of "hard" business skills, development of "soft" management skills, international orientation, and the ability to work under pressure.

A recent Amba survey showed that MBAs are represented in a wide range of industry sectors. However, they are particularly concentrated in the consultancy sector and, to a lesser extent, in finance. Together, these two sectors account for more than 30 per cent of respondents in the survey sample. Within industry, MBAs are concentrated in specific functions. The biggest concentration (31 per cent) is in the area of general management, suggesting that the system of MBA education continues to be successful in equipping its graduates for an effective role in business management. A second concentration (17 per cent) is in sales and marketing, and a further 12 per cent are employed in both corporate strategy and planning.

MBAs are, for most people, about upward mobility. Some MBA graduates remain with their present employer, but others see the qualification as a passport to move between companies, business functions and industries. Studies have repeatedly found that the overwhelming majority of MBA graduates consider the development of broad managerial skills, as opposed to specific technical ones, to be the main benefit of the qualification. MBAs talk of a change in identity that comes in taking the degree, and about the confidence that comes from the intellectual rigour of looking at corporate problems at an advanced level.

The continual changes in the nature of the job market, in the structure of organisations, and in the global economy effect the content of the MBA. There is now a strong demand for relevance, and emphasis is being placed on practice rather than theory; there is more integration between the separate business disciplines, together with a heavy accent on "soft skills" such as teamwork and leadership. There is greater emphasis on group work, replicating what really happens in the commercial world, and on in-company projects in the form of consultancy assignments and internships. Many schools are now offering courses on presentation and communication skills, and are teaching the ethical aspects of management.

Business schools increasingly recognise that the global company of today requires managers with a broader outlook. They have therefore made great efforts to internationalise their MBA programmes - by attracting overseas students, employing faculty members with overseas experience, and forming effective links with business schools throughout Europe. Many schools, particularly on the Continent, offer bilingual MBAs.

Strathclyde Graduate Business School and Groupe ESC Toulouse have introduced the European MBA, a one-year programme that is split between Glasgow and Toulouse. Cranfield offers a double MBA programme with Groupe ESC Lyon in France. These programmes have the added advantage of equipping managers with an understanding of cross-cultural issues, and an enhanced ability to communicate in a second language.