Leading business schools are realising that MBA courses must evolve or die

There was a time when an individual's decision to do an MBA was automatically accepted as a sensible one that would almost certainly lead to prestige and prosperity. Hordes of aspirant high fliers besieged the admissions offices of business schools up and down the land. New courses sprouted everywhere, as the word got round, via successful alumni, that the investment in fees and time quickly paid off in higher earnings in the corporate world, and more influential roles in the public sector.

Just when all that ceased to become a given is difficult to locate precisely in time, but it's clear the atmosphere has changed. Perhaps because of the sheer numbers of MBA graduates now out there, perhaps also because there's a greater demand in business for something a touch more tailored, the question "Is it worth doing an MBA?" is by no means a ridiculous one.

Even if most alumni, and of course business schools, would answer the question with a "Yes", few would deny that there are important qualifications. Put another way, it is probably now dangerous to undertake any MBA at any time of your career with little more than a vague idea of where it'll take you. That approach, according to Paul Dolan, President of The Sainsbury Management Fellows' Society, which sponsors engineers through MBAs at business schools outside the UK, is likely to backfire these days.

"Twenty years ago an MBA differentiated you from the pack and was the thing that got you the top job," he argues. "Today, if you don't have one, you're unlikely to get into senior management, but it will no longer, on its own, guarantee success."

Professor Ian Turner, Director of Graduate Programmes at Henley Management College, has a similar theory. He thinks many people undertake an MBA out of fear, fear that if they don't acquire the qualification, they'll get left behind.

"It's the Microsoft Windows of the business qualifications world, and the likelihood of landing a good job without an MBA from a good school is decreasing."

A supplementary part of Turner's argument is that, since increasing numbers of MBA graduates are occupying high positions, these MBAs are looking to recruit those with the same skill sets to join them. It's a template they know and trust.

All this underlines the importance, for those weighing up a possible MBA venture, of taking time in choosing when, where and how you get the qualification. And in addition, business schools are having to think more carefully about the design of their programmes, to entice what's becoming a much more savvy and discerning pool of potential students. "The top schools are having to re-adjust," explains Dolan. 'They know they can't any longer offer a standard, sausage-machine MBA course. They have to customise to get the best students."

That realisation has driven thinking at Lancaster University Management School for several years. Malcolm Kirkup of the full-time MBA says MBAs are having to change and respond to the needs of employers. "It is an extremely competitive market now. Individuals are looking for a life change and a move up. Business schools have a duty to monitor the employability and career progression of their alumni."

Lancaster's full-time programme has, Kirkup says, changed largely incrementally to keep up to date, with an increasing focus on the soft skills that change individuals, as well as the imparting of knowledge.

One major innovation, though, introduced three years ago, was "Leading in Action" - an ever-present element throughout Lancaster's programme, which, among other things, sends students into companies on real consultancy exercises.

While most schools choose the evolution method to help ensure their MBA programmes stay relevant and sought after, some go for a more revolutionary approach.

At Ashridge, in Hertfordshire, the full-time MBA has just undergone a complete redesign, the first new programme having started this year. The feeling is that the new course will better prepare participants for the business world of 2005 and beyond.

"We felt strongly that most of the problems facing managers today do not come with labels on, such as finance or marketing, but are more complex and cross several business functions," explains Patricia Hind, Director of Ashridge's MBA. Instead of teaching the conventional topics one by one during the year, the new course will start with eight weeks' concentrated teaching in the functional areas, such as finance, marketing and human resources and then, for the rest of the course, integrate all of the themes into practical business situations. The aim throughout will be to move away from theory, which can be dry and detached, and towards situations which are actually happening.

"Rather than a session on mergers and acquisitions," says Hind, "we might ask what leadership is involved in managing what you're selling to your staff as a merger, but which you really know is an acquisition: your company's being acquired."

Ashridge say the new approach won't turn a lousy manager into a good one, but it will give graduates more confidence to deal with real and complex business challenges.

The Sainsbury scheme, set up to increase the number of engineers acquiring the business skills to get them into the higher reaches of companies, confines its funding to students accepted at selected schools outside the UK. This is a deliberate move to try to encourage engineers to hone a second language and internationalise their experience.

This, of course, is a route taken by many students off their own back. ESADE, in Barcelona, takes around 120 students a year, of whom 70 per cent are from outside Spain. The current intake has half a dozen British students, and among them is 32-year-old James Bell, who was attracted to the wider learning experience of studying abroad and the opportunity to pick up Spanish.

So, in 2005 in the MBA world, it's horses for courses. An MBA is clearly still worth doing, but only if you're sure it's the right one in the right place for where you are in your professional and personal life.

'I wanted career progression and a challenge'

Claire Usher, 33, graduated from the Bath University School of Management's one-year full-time MBA with distinction in December. Her previous job had been a director of corporate communications accounts for a London PR firm

Making the decision to do an MBA was something I did when I was 23. But I waited for the right time in my career and life before I actually did it. As well as wanting career progression, I wanted a personal challenge and to be able to learn again.

I looked for a school outside London, with a good reputation, where I knew I'd be working together with good students, and I was really impressed with Bath's open day. I looked at their electives and saw modules in corporate affairs, social responsibility and governance, all of which I was interested in. Bath just felt right.

The first term consisted of six core modules, with a load of dreadful exams in January. But it was good to get that behind you and focus on wider areas. The highlight for me was my reading group of five people. We met every morning to share reading and discuss topics. It was really helpful.

I think I've now become a lot more able to understand and question things, and I notice now when things in business should be changed. Also, my understanding of finance has really improved.

I'm now looking for a full-time post in corporate affairs or change management.

'It's broadened my opportunities'

Kevin Baugham took voluntary redundancy from a senior position with telecommunications firm Nortel Networks in autumn 2002, and started a two-year part-time MBA at Imperial's Tanaka Business School in January 2003. Two years on, he's pocketed the Association of MBAs Student of the Year award

When I left Nortel, I decided to take three steps to secure my future employability: set up a start-up company, pay the immediate bills by doing consultancy work, and undertake a part-time MBA. I chose the programme at Imperial's Tanaka Business School because of its emphasis on entrepreneurship. The course surpassed my expectations. I found it creative, energetic and vibrant, but, particularly, it wasn't prescriptive. People were prepared to explore the edges of every issue.

It was, though, very demanding, taking up at least two days of every week - one in lectures and another doing the associated work at home. The variety of background in the group of around 60 (film producers, cardiac surgeons and civil servants) was a source of inspiration. And I liked the way the course brought theory and expertise together, creating skills I and other Tanaka students applied in launching a start-up business on rechargeable silicon chips.

In October last year, I was taken on as Director of Network Strategy with NTL, and the start-up company is off the ground. Most of all, the MBA has substantially widened my CV and corresponding employment openings.

Key questions before signing up

Are you on the verge of applying for an MBA, drawn either by the lure of higher earnings or the fear that without one you're sunk? Here are the questions you should be asking yourself, and the business schools

Why am I doing this? Is it to enhance my management skills and push me along the business path I'm already on? Is it to enable me to move into the blue-chip, big league from my current, more modest, surroundings? Do I want to become an entrepreneur?

There's no point starting to choose a course until you know you're sure of your own motives. Once that's clear in your mind, your scrutiny of course content can be much more forensic.

Where do I want to be? Happening London, a thrusting provincial city or somewhere more quiet and rat-race free?

For an intense year of hard work and brain stretching, you really need to feel comfortable in your environment, so think carefully.

What sort of an institution am I after? Is the business school part of a major university, giving access to a vast range of resources, but possibly also a large bureaucracy? Or is it free standing, lord of its own manor, offering more intimacy but fewer resources? In which areas am I looking for the best teaching?

If your current skill set is light on finance, say, marketing or entrepreneurship, you'll need to know who's going to be teaching you in these areas. It is quite reasonable to ask a business school who exactly will be doing the teaching, and what are their credentials and experience in business. Many institutions market themselves heavily on their star academics, who don't always spend much time in front of students. "The thing to check is that the stars are doing the teaching," warns Professor Stefan Szymanski, Director of Tanaka Business School's MBA, at Imperial College.

Outside the core components of each programme you're considering, what electives are on offer, and what are the arrangements for the project part of the course? Check with the school that they'll still be in place when you start. Ask yourself if these elements will really significantly enhance your CV at the end of the course.

What extra-curricular activities does the school lay on, and what calibre of person can you expect to appear as guest speakers during the year?

What will be the make up of the cohort I'm joining? Is this the mix of people I can learn from?

Ask to see lists of previous cohorts and where they are now. Have they made the sort of leaps you're aspiring to? Have a look at the school's alumni list. This will be your network for life, and the calibre of the alumni association is intimately linked to a school's reputation. "That's why Harvard is top of the tree," says Professor Szymanski, "because their network is gold dust."