Your employer may have its own tailor-made MBA course, but it may not boost your career in the long run, so find out exactly what you're being offered before signing on the dotted line

Corporate MBAs can sometimes seem like the easiest option: your employer picks up the tab; it is recognition that you are highly valued; and when you're looking to move up the career ladder, having an MBA under your belt can be a real boon.

Corporate MBAs can sometimes seem like the easiest option: your employer picks up the tab; it is recognition that you are highly valued; and when you're looking to move up the career ladder, having an MBA under your belt can be a real boon.

Yet taking the corporate route is not always as straightforward as it seems. While there can certainly be benefits, potential MBA graduates need to think long and hard before taking the plunge and following the company line.

The first difficulty with corporate MBAs is defining what exactly you are being offered. Some companies simply sponsor graduates through a regular MBA programme and in return they may have to stay with the organisation for a set period of time after graduating or have to pay the money back.

For other graduates, the relationship is much closer as organisations agree a tailored programme with the business school and limit the intake to their own chosen group of students.

The difficulty for the business school in these circumstances is treading the fine line between keeping the employer happy while maintaining its own credibility and reputation for academic excellence.

Similarly, one of the main attractions for doing an MBA is getting exposure to high-flyers from other industries, countries and sectors. So, if an MBA is perceived as being too narrow it can be considered less portable and potentially less valuable in the future. Most quality schools therefore go for a mix, tailoring programmes but closely linking them to their standard MBA courses, ensuring there is overlap between students to maximise diversity and networking potential.

Examples of company-specific MBAs include Manchester Business School, that deals with British Telecom and Henley Management College, that runs the largest corporate MBA programme in the world with IT giant IBM, as well as programmes for organisations such as Wates and Vodafone.

In IBM's case the programme is confined solely to IBM employees, although Henley insists this does not put students at a disadvantage. "Undoubtedly, you will lose some diversity with a tailored MBA, but you have to bear in mind IBM has one of the largest workforces in the world, which compensates for the lack of external learners," says director of graduate qualifications programmes Ian Turner.

Before an employee decides to take the company-specific route, they need to ask some serious questions about it, cautions Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs.

For instance, is the organisation using an accredited business school which should mean the degree is still branded as being from that school and therefore more portable?

"Are you going to get the core course? Even if they are only selected from within the company, are the students from a sufficiently diverse range of disciplines, cultures and backgrounds? Does the business school have control over selection?" she adds.

There may also be issues of whether in a company-orientated environment people feel constrained in what they can say and that discussion is therefore less open. If people have one eye on the relationship or dynamic back in the office, that can inevitably act as a break on the depth of debate and criticism.

Accountant Nicole Freeman, 33, joined the MBA programme at Warwick Business School in 2000, through a corporate programme with then employer Arthur Andersen.

"I found the idea of a company-specific MBA very attractive," Freeman says. "It was nice to be funded and to have the support of your employer. Our cohort was able to mix with others too. It was essentially the standard Warwick MBA but with some bits tailored to our needs."

But she adds: "Any school that is too accommodating is probably not worth its salt. It needs to be the same degree for everybody. There have to be certain minimum standards to which it always adheres."

While the Andersen programme stopped when the business collapsed in the wake of the Enron affair, the business school still runs a number of successful corporate programmes for a range of companies, including car manufacturer Ford.

Tailoring a programme allows students to look in depth at the issues and challenges facing their particular industry, says Dr Andy Bailey, director of the executive MBA at Lancaster University Management School, which runs corporate programmes for organisations including Airbus and Royal Sun Alliance.

Students on its company-specific programmes do an initial 18-month organisation-based diploma and then move on to the open executive MBA programme, he adds.

Others, such as Ashridge Business School, have attempted to address this issue of narrowness over the last eight years by running what is called a consortium "European Partnership" executive MBA (see case study, left).

This is a two-year programme developed specifically for four companies: Lufthansa, Deutsche Bank, Merck (the German pharmaceuticals firm rather than its American namesake) and Bosch.

Between six to nine employees from each organisation go through the programme each year, giving a class size of around 25 to 30 and, suggests programme director Anthony Mitchell, the best of both worlds.

"For the employers you get a cadre of students who you know have gone through the same learning experience rather than doing it through different business schools. And for the employees it is not too restricted, but they get a chance to relate it back to their business," he says.

Irrespective of whether you have a corporate or open enrolment MBA under your belt, if an employer is simply looking to lock you in or then fails to rise to the challenge of using your new potential to the full, it deserves to lose you, he adds.

'Going the in-house route certainly saves you a money and can make a lot of sense'

Deutsche Bank vice-president in HR and learning and development Thomas Baumeister graduated from the Ashridge consortium MBA programme last December.

Going the in-house route certainly saves you money and, if your focus is very much on your current employer anyway, can make a lot of sense, suggests Baumeister, 45.

"You get to work with colleagues from the same organisation, so although thee diversity of participants might not be as strong as on an open enrolment programme, the opportunities to learn from colleagues might be even better," he says. Ashridge already has a strong brand within the bank, meaning that simply having its name on your degree can be a passport to success, he adds.

"Potential employers do not care whether it is a consortium or an open enrolment degree. They care about whether it's an executive MBA and the reputation of the business school," he says. The bank also offers people the option of doing an MBA in co-operation with Duke University in the US or with Goethe University in Frankfurt.

Although he is more than happy with his qualification, Baumeister does recognise there were potential weaknesses in going this route. "It can be limited in the scope of its recruits. The school is dependent on the companies and the quality of people that they send."

But he adds: "Studying abroad at Ashridge was a very valuable experience for me and the course has improved its internationality since that time."