Tailor-made MBAs are on the march. These are fully fledged degrees that a business school customises for a single – typically corporate – client or an industry sector such as energy. The idea has been around for a long time, but the growing presence of private providers in the market, increasing interest from clients looking to improve their managers' skills, and the relentless search by schools for extra income, are expanding what until recently has been a relatively small thicket in the MBA forest.
But how tailored is tailored? The courses on offer range from MBAs built around a client's requirements, through existing courses which are adapted in various ways, to those which provide an entry to the full MBA later on.
Last year, BPP, the private provider best known for its legal training, caused ripples in the MBA pond by laying on a degree for a single client, the law firm Simmons & Simmons. About 30 of the firm's employees are taking the degree, and the exercise will be repeated in the next academic year. The course is a standard MBA, four modules of which are tailored to Simmons & Simmons' requirements. Examples of the specialist modules are future trends in legal businesses and professional services management in the legal sector.
"We take the core MBA and leverage it for the legal-services industry," Katie Best, BPP's MBA director, says.
Encouraged by the response to the course, BPP plans to move into other industries. "We've had approaches from companies and industries we've not had contact with before," Best says. The company's aim is to become the preferred provider to companies, pitching itself in direct competition with established, academically-based business schools.
An instance of an MBA designed for a sector rather than a company is the global-energy course launched by Warwick Business School last year. "Our underlying approach to MBAs is to gain critical understanding of the role of business when society faces major challenges," says David Elmes, the academic director of the Warwick global-energy MBA. Energy is one of the biggest such challenges and, fortunately if you want to sell an MBA, a huge industry.
But Warwick has turned its nose up at the bolt-on strategy of just adding a few specially devised modules to an otherwise bog-standard MBA. "If you are trying to equip future leaders of the industry with knowledge for the future, you have to address the whole course," Elmes says. After talking to the industry, Warwick built energy-related issues and case studies into the whole degree, altering most of the standard MBA's modules. There are also modules on subjects such as regulation and the politics of energy.
The school aimed the course at a group which is slightly different from the normal MBA cohort. First, the students tend to be older managers, perhaps in their mid-thirties, who intend to stay in the industry. "It's not a transfer programme," Elmes says. Second, the cohort spans the full range of the energy industry, including gas as well as oil, utilities and renewable-energy technologies. Of the 35 students on the course, 70 per cent are from outside the UK. Warwick hopes to build the course up to between 40 and 50 students.
A third way of answering the question about the degree of tailoring comes from Manchester Business School (MBS). MBS Worldwide has been laying on MBAs for companies for several years. Its client list has included some pretty impressive names, such as British Telecom and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and KPMG is a client. The courses are executive MBAs with various streams such as general management, finance, engineering, construction and major sports-event management.
"Companies which sponsor students prefer to see a programme tailored towards their sector," Nigel Banister, the chief executive of MBS Worldwide, says. Because the degree takes 18 months, there is more scope to tailor electives for a particular sector. About a third of the course consists of such electives. "We can run very useful electives tailored to those who work in the construction and real-estate industries, for example," Banister says.
Companies use these courses as part of their management-development policies. BPP outsourced management development because it wanted engineers to become more general managers. "We develop courses to help them develop skill sets to advance their business strategy," Banister says.
This is also the intention of Bradford University School of Management, which provides corporate clients with very specific courses aimed at honing managers' skills and strengthening the business. Clients include Morrisons, the supermarket chain, Pace, the electronics company which makes set-top boxes, and a local customer, the Skipton Group, which incorporates the well-known building society.
"We teach the general course, but the content is strongly focused on the business and the sector. We see ourselves as partners of those companies. We try to make them more rounded managers and we help them to build internal networks in the company," Julian Rawel, the director of executive education at the school, says.
Bradford has about 80 executives on its courses at the moment. However, the crucial difference with other institutions is that Bradford covers only the first third of an MBA. Of the students who complete that third, about 30 per cent go on to complete a full MBA.
All these approaches yield handy revenue for business schools. But the risk is that quality is compromised. "We're very careful about the balance. If you tailor a programme too much, it isn't a general management programme," says Banister.
Professor Frank Horwitz, the director of the Cranfield School of Management, says that being tied to one company can dilute the diversity many regard as critical for an MBA programme. However, Amba (the Association of MBAs), which accredits courses, seems relaxed about the growth of tailor-made MBAs. "There needn't be a problem if the school controls admissions, curriculum content, assessment and academic standards and awards the degree," Robert Owen, the director of accreditations and business school services at Amba, says. That looks like a green light for further growth of customised MBAs.