An MBA from Ashridge doesn't come cheaply, so why not try before you buy?

The full-time MBA at Ashridge Management College costs almost £30,000, so an "MBA In A Day", for free, has to be a bargain. Ashridge wants to lure more students - and more of the right kind of students - onto its pricey but prestigious course by flinging open its doors and letting people sample what it has to offer.

About a dozen interested participants gathered recently for the first of these taster days (the next is November 20). Others had signed up, but not made it out of bed and off to Hertfordshire, perhaps unaware that there are many worse places to spend an autumn Saturday than at this elegant neo-gothic country house, set in stunning National Trust parkland.

There was the predictable spread of consultants and managers, as well as others, such as a university administrator who was hoping an MBA might usher in a post-retirement change of direction. Most were in their thirties. Rob Hockel had a degree in computer science and seven years with Shell under his belt and wanted to know more about the business side of things. Alistair Hensman, who worked in the chemical industry told tutors: "I'm here to get a confirmation of the atmosphere of the place. You advertise yourself as being different. I'm here to see if it's like you say."

Ashridge has revamped its MBA to reflect what it sees as the key concerns of modern business. Most of the college's work is in providing tailored courses for executives - about 7,000 a year - and it has used this extensive contact with the world to inform its new course.

The year starts with a look at three fundamentals: people, performance and processes, and moves on to six themes: global environment, leading change, organisational life-style, business in society, and creating value. Students later spend time abroad, work on a project, and choose modules. It was explained that numbers on the course would be small ("there's no hiding place"), faculty members would always be available, and that "the death by PowerPoint'" approach of the bigger business schools would be avoided.

Then it was on to an introduction to the "people" part of the fundamentals, with psychologist Patricia Hind directing people's attention to the high business costs of poor selection and management of people. A quick test of personality types had the room divided into two groups, logical thinkers and intuitive decision-makers, both of which had to come up with ideas for Christmas presents for the other group. Interestingly, the intuitives quickly had an avalanche of suggestions - but their ideas were eclipsed by the other group's few carefully-crafted suggestions. Hind pointed out how important it was, in management, "to understand people's preferred style of dealing with the world and the people in it."

Like other MBA courses, Ashridge has recently struggled to fill places. Last year's recruitment was below target. But Narendra Laljani, director of qualifications programmes, was confident the thematic course would prove attractive. "It might prove frustrating to the kind of MBA student who wants rules about the right way to do strategy, but this is for people who want to figure out situationally how to act. This is a course that is sophisticated and life-changing. It probably isn't for you if you want to be an equity analyst in the City, but it is if you see yourself as the CEO of a medium-sized company."

After the break it was off to tour the resource centre, by which time it was clear many participants were beginning to picture themselves here, browsing in the tranquil library, accessing the vast online resources. Back in the seminar room they were given a snappy presentation on one of the key themes, "Creating Value", by Stephan Schubert, an aerospace expert, who quoted the business author Gary Hamel to them: "In the new economy, those who live by the sword will be shot by those who don't." He got them to look at the success stories of Southwest Airlines and easyJet, and consider what stops the big flag carriers like British Airways going down the same road. "Bringing new answers to questions of who, what and why is not easy," he warned.

A swift break for a South African-themed lunch, reflecting the overseas element of the course, was followed by Steve Seymour presenting "Managing the City", one of the electives offered. The room of self-confessed financial illiterates battled to get their heads round a company's interim results review full of statements like: "For 2004 as a whole, we except CEPS (earnings per share before goodwill amortization and impairment charges) at constant currencies to increase between 7 per cent and 9 per cent...compared with 2003 underlying CEPS of €1.76." When they managed to spot the same issues as those highlighted by the financial analysts talking on video they were as pleased as if they had won the lottery.

But all this is theory. What practical use is an Ashridge MBA? Alumni were on hand to explain their project work, and where their MBA had taken them. Antoine Lever, who runs a local IT consultancy said Ashridge was instrumental to his business - he conducted interviews with potential clients at the college and still uses its learning materials. "It's like having all the resources of a major corporation behind you."

As with most groups of would-be MBA students, this was a mainly male affair, with only three women participants: an IT specialist already studying part-time at the college, an American investment banker looking to get into the non-profit sector, and a Kenyan quantity surveyor keen to acquire the skills needed to return to Nairobi and help new businesses get off the ground. But with tales of former students completing the course while pregnant, or with new babies, the imbalance appeared to be a matter of take-up.

By the end of the day energies were flagging, but a cheer-leading speech from Trevor Bish-Jones, chief executive officer of Woolworths, set people buzzing. It was tough at the top, he made clear, but it was also exhilarating, fun and rewarding.

Many left Ashridge with pens ready to sign large cheques. "When I think of going back to work on Monday," said Rob Hockel, "when I could be here..." He shook his head, speechless.

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