A matter of degree

A matter of degree

With so many diverse MBA programs, rising executives must consider myriad factors, from a school's overall reputation to its individual specialisations.

From the aspiring finance director to the would-be chief executive, professionals aiming for the upper ranks of a specific field of management are sometimes held back by a lack of a broad qualification beyond just technical skills. A Master of Business Administration degree can bridge the gap between functional expertise and management skills, but finding the right program among the 40 Australian universities offering MBAs is not as straightforward as it appears.

In the past 10 years, there has been an explosion in the number of MBA programs. Applicants can choose between 88 types of MBAs, with courses tailored to a kaleidoscope of management roles spanning one to two years' full-time or up to four years part-time, and costing between $10,000 and $48,000.

"Australia is overcrowded with MBAs and outside the top half-dozen, the quality starts to drop off," associate professor of marketing and MBA director at Monash University Graduate School of Business, Dr Peter Reed, says.

Picking the right one is a matter of deciding which orientation best suits the individual. Macquarie Graduate School of Management, for example, is well known for its part-time MBA; Monash offers personal skills development with a unit in this subject that precedes the formal curriculum; and the Australian Graduate School of Management runs an Accelerated Learning Laboratory in which students can take risks in a simulated environment.

However, mid-level professionals aiming to advance in a particular field will find the universities that regularly make the MBA ranking tables don't necessarily address their specific needs.

The University of Queensland Business School, for example, has stripped away electives, in line with schools such as Yale University in the United States, which focus on delivering integrated, multi-disciplinary executive skills.

From this year, all UQ Business School students will take the same subjects during their 12-month program and those wishing to build discipline-specific knowledge will need to follow up with a graduate certificate.

Picking an MBA on the basis of the electives offered is no solution either. Many MBAs have electives tacked onto their programs to attract a broader range of students without providing the necessary strategic and analytical depth to equip C-suite executives to direct their organisations. "There are many MBAs out there that have stand-and-deliver type education," MGSM's dean, Professor Roy Green, says. "It's like the airline model - 'Pile 'em in, sell 'em cheap'. But the question is whether they are giving the full MBA experience."

To complicate matters, many business-school heads suggest that those seeking a specialist management education are better off taking a specialist master's degree. MGSM, Monash and Swinburne University of Technology, among others, run specialist master's degrees with electives in areas such as marketing or finance management, but connected to the MBA.

Individual faculties also offer industry-specific MBA programs targeting students aspiring to functional management. The University of Technology Sydney's engineering faculty, for example, runs a specialist MBA degree in engineering jointly with its business school.

But while these degrees are good for functional management roles, professionals aiming for executive positions with cross-organisational responsibilities will need strategic and analytical skills best delivered through MBAs, industry observers say. Research by technology industry analyst Gartner shows that global corporations are looking for leadership capabilities, business acumen and strategic perspectives rather than technical skills when hiring their next chief information officer.

The chief operating officer of KPMG's global IT advisory practice and president of the Australian Computer Society, Kumar Parakala, agrees. "The issue with CIOs here is that they need more managerial skills," he notes.

"People aiming for high-level roles should go for programs that provide the vital skills for a CIO, such as IT strategy, performance, program and portfolio management, and cost economics. If the MBA doesn't cover these areas, it's a waste of time. Too many universities haven't caught up with the business world."

Parakala nominates the University of Sydney, the AGSM, Monash and the Australian National University as market leaders in IT-oriented MBAs. "They all have very good MBA programs with excellent electives that allow students to become good CIOs," he says. Other schools that aim for this specialty include RMIT University, Chifley Business School and UTS.

At ANU's National Graduate School of Management, entrepreneurship, innovation, commercialisation of research and managing big projects are among the 16 MBA subjects.

Courses are designed to build successive layers of depth and complexity within main business disciplines and deliver a broad understanding of the principles of managing technology in relation to the whole organisation.

MBA classes work in teams to apply interdisciplinary tools and techniques to real businesses, and it is these educational strategies that deliver value, the managing vice-president for Gartner Executive Programs and former CIO of Westpac, Mary-Ann Maxwell, says. "The real merit of my MBA was that it taught me to get on in teams."

A good MBA must not only suit an individual's career needs, it must also appeal to prospective employers. But only about a dozen MBAs in Australia resonate with employers looking for general management skills, ANU's MBA program director, Chris Nailer, says. He cites the programs at AGSM, MGSM, ANU, Monash, UTS and the universities of Sydney and Queensland among them.

Outside that list, the immediate past president of the Graduate Management Association of Australia, Rob Weller, nominates Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University, the University of Adelaide and the University of Western Australia.

An MBA from the AGSM rates as one of the most desirable by employers seeking high-level executives. It has also developed a solid reputation for its marketing program.

However, since the AGSM merged with the faculty of commerce and economics at the University of New South Wales, forming the Australian School of Business, it has been steering students looking for specialisation in their master's degrees. From 2009, the AGSM will offer a joint, two-year master's and MBA degree in sequence.

"The MBA provides some background in finance accounting and organisational behaviour, but the real strength is in the leadership material," AGSM director Professor Chris Adam says. "A Master of Finance will help you into a CFO role but if you're seeking a CEO role beyond that, you will have an MBA under your belt. That is career planning." The new structure helps deliver specialisation without changing the structure of the MBA, which still offers electives in subjects such as marketing.

Marketing practitioners are well served by the top-ranking business schools, with Monash commonly regarded alongside Melbourne Business School and AGSM as frontrunners of a group that includes MGSM, UWA, Griffith, Curtin University of Technology Business School, University of Queensland and University of Adelaide.

Monash, which has the largest department of marketing in Australia, offers a professional track in marketing that provides a high-level background and strategic positioning for general managers on central concepts such as branding and segmentation. This MBA attracts people looking for a career in marketing or those in a senior management team who need deeper knowledge in this discipline so they can take a wider strategic view of the capabilities of the organisation, Reed says.

Those looking for high-level finance roles will find that accounting and finance is a core competence of any reputable MBA, but some universities stand out for their quality in these streams. MBS and MGSM are considered the top two in the field. Outside the A-list, which includes AGSM, universities such as UWA, Newcastle, Griffith, Adelaide, Swinburne and Deakin are also commended.

MBS and MGSM have invested heavily in their finance expertise. MGSM has steadily built up a cadre of highly regarded scholars in finance and it selects high-calibre students. A key attraction is its flexibility in allowing working students to enter and exit at different points and to tailor an MBA to suit personal goals. This year it will offer 33 elective subjects, although these will be streamed "more coherently" in future, Green says.

The move is in line with the Chicago Graduate School of Business and Cranfield School of Management in the United Kingdom, which has replaced 50 topic-based electives with 11 themed electives that reflect the interdependence and complexity of the business world.

However, MGSM's real forte is finance, alumnus and managing director of corporate advisers Beerworth & Partners, Dr Bill Beerworth, says. "The teachers are tough and they demand excellence and are quite determined to advance the school's reputation by delivering depth and rigour in finance."

MBS is another institution with a highly regarded finance program. Its dean, Professor John Seybolt, says it follows the London Business School model by augmenting a relatively small teaching staff with visiting scholars from around the world.

It also looks to IMD in Switzerland and INSEAD, which has campuses outside Paris and in Singapore. Both emphasise strong executive education and an international focus.

Since MBS merged with Mt Eliza Business School four years ago, it has also strengthened its cluster of leadership skills in both theory and practice. As part of this, it sends eight students from each intake to New York University's Stern School of Business for a term where they spend time on Wall Street. MBA student Daniel Westerman, who undertook an exchange with LBS, says: "I expected a massive difference to MBS but I found it on par in many ways."

Seybolt says several broad principles should guide students in picking a good MBA. "Students need to look at who accredits the school, where the faculty comes from, the partner schools and the qualifications required from students. Look at what kinds of organisations are recruiting at the schools." Look at the calibre of other students as well.

© Fairfax Business Media

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