Music? Biotech? Real estate? The rise of specialist MBA programmes

Several courses tailored to specific industries are now being offered, says Jessica Moore

"Traditional MBA courses didn't appeal to me," says Johann Gouws, 34. "They seemed too general." As head of marketing at Faber Music, he was looking to gain specific management skills tailored to his sector. "After 10 years in the music industry, I wanted to be certain that an MBA would take my skills to director level, where I would be making strategic decisions."

Gouws is not alone. An increasing number of individuals are today looking for MBA programmes that understand the unique complexities of their industry. Enter courses such as Nottingham's MBA tailored to healthcare, the College of Estate Management's MBA in real estate and construction, Anglia Ruskin's MBA in education, and a host of other sector-specific MBAs. In Gouws's case, it was Henley Business School's MBA for the music industry that piqued his interest.

These types of MBAs tick boxes for professionals and business schools alike, all looking to differentiate themselves in a crowded and competitive marketplace. Employers appreciate these courses too, reassured by the knowledge and management skills that they deliver, alongside more conventional, industry-wide teaching.

"Our business school wanted to specifically target sectors in which the MBA could be relevant," says Professor Duncan Bloy, director of Cardiff's MBA in media management, which launched last year. "The programme includes the fundamentals of any MBA programme, while providing contextualisation to a media environment." It's the same on Gouws's course. "On every module, we have three days of workshops, followed by an extra day dedicated to applying those ideas to the music industry. People working at a senior level come in to help apply the topic to what's really happening in their world."

Although still relatively new offerings in the UK, sector-specific MBAs have been available in other parts of the world – especially in India, says Dr Matthew Higgins, senior lecturer in marketing and consumption at Leicester University's School of Management. "They've had growth in particular industries, so their universities have focused on MBA programmes that target those. The UK has been quite slow in picking that up."

We're gathering pace, however. Sheffield Hallam University boasts a new facilities management MBA, which is supported by the Facilities Management Association (FMA). The European Business School London is relaunching its MBA in international business in 2014, while Leicester is launching a biotechnology MBA in February, developed in association with the Netherlands Biotech Industry Association (Niaba).

"People who take an MBA in biotechnology already have a very strong career in the sector and have no interest in moving beyond it," explains Higgins. "While they might have the biotechnology background, they're looking for managerial skills that they don't necessarily possess at the moment. It's a very specific case, and we're increasingly seeing the need for it."

"It's not difficult to start up a company in biotech, relatively speaking," explains Dr Vincent Pieterse, who is involved in running the new biotechnology MBA. "The difficult part is making that organisation sustainable – over 95 per cent of organisations in this sector never bring a product to market and go bankrupt within five years. We need programmes that help new organisations to grow. Biotech executives tend to know how their product will create a better world, but haven't thought about whether it will make money. Well, you can't save the world if your company folds!"

Bloy is similarly aware of the need to produce MBA graduates that are work-ready and able to flourish. "We give our media MBA students as much exposure as possible to the journalistic fraternity," he says. "We have key people from the industry come to speak to them, and our students work on live projects with media companies, spending a couple of months with organisations including ITV Wales, BBC Wales and Ofcom."

In another bid to link these studies with the working world, many qualifications are offered part-time and via distance learning – including the new biotechnology course. Because of its close links with Niaba and with expert staff in the Netherlands, where optional workshops will take place. Otherwise, all teaching will take place online. "The key drive is to make sure that people can stay in their jobs while they take the MBA, so they don't lose sight of the sector," says Higgins. "The aim is that they start to incorporate the ideas while they're working."

For Gouws, that's exactly how it works. "My MBA studies aren't 'extra' to what I do every day, they're an integral part of it – so when I come home and study, everything I do is related to my work in the office." Ultimately, he says, "that makes me better at my job".

Case study: 'I became more cogent in meetings at my company – and started to put forward better-considered ideas'

Tim Rufus 31, gained his MBA in shipping and logistics from Middlesex University while working for a UK-based shipping company. He completed his course in 2012 and has recently relocated to Shanghai.

"The industry-specific MBA programme made a lot of sense to me. It looks at ship finance and ship risk management, so I learned a lot about my industry alongside more general business management skills. It was absolutely ideal – everything I learnt I was able to implement in practice.

While I was studying, I became increasingly good at expressing my opinions through online discussions with other students – most of whom were older than me and in more senior roles. Consequently, I became more cogent in meetings at my company, and I put forward better-considered ideas.

Through working with other students, I have great contacts in my industry all over the world. We've kept in touch and consult each other when we look to invest in new areas.

My final dissertation had to relate to the company I work for, on a subject decided with senior management. My writing was presented to the CEO and chief operating officer. They made comments on it in our end of year review. I think that had a direct impact on my career.

I completed the MBA in September and was moved to China to represent my company in April. I'd like to think the two things are related."

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