MBAs (Master of Business Administration) are a rapidly expanding and unregulated global market, and the UK-based Association of MBAs (AMBA) is just one national body set up to monitor and evaluate the programmes on offer.
Prestigious schools in continental Europe and the US, such as Insead and the Harvard Business School, are among the more famous names that give the MBA its sparkle. There are, however, scores of institutions to choose from.
Despite the proliferation of the professional letters, an MBA continues to be the qualification of choice for IT professionals who want to have a joined-up view of business. This is even truer during a recession, says Tom Knight, a principal consultant in knowledge management practice with ICL. Knight is embarking on the final two modules of his MBA at the Open University.
"As an IT consultant, you are unqualified and the fear is that you are only as good as the last job," Knight says. "An MBA offers some way of codifying and quantifying the boundaries of your knowledge. It is a bit of an insurance policy during tough times."
An MBA remains, perhaps, a more pertinent qualification for IT staff than their peers from other departments, precisely because of the increasing importance of IT in organisations and the lack of any other professional qualifications to test IT skills.
Rob Lambert, senior lecturer at Cranfield School of Management, acknowledges that an MBA is a heavy-duty way of accomplishing the business context. However, he argues against offering thinner versions of the qualification that would enable more IT staff to access this base of knowledge. "An MBA is exactly aimed at broadening specialists. Dumbing it down means the quality goes down," he says.
Lambert confirms that there is a growing requirement for IT staff to add value to their company. He quotes the following corporate aims, which Cranfield discovered when it undertook a survey among companies: "They want an IT function that understands how to add value and realise ROI [return on investment] from the massive investment in IT."
For Cleveland Gibbon, a technical consultant with a PhD in Internet technologies, there is another reason why techies are considering the MBA route. "Ageism kicks in for technical staff when they are past 30," he says. "Companies aren't prepared to train them. They would rather train younger staff who may adapt more quickly."
Huge salary hikes might be expected to be the major incentive for IT professionals to become students again - documented increases range from 39 to 100s of percentage points. However, all the MBAs interviewed for this article were inspired by broader visions, too.
Ben Wishart, Tesco's director of strategy, left Kathmandu, where he had been leading adventure holidays, because he was "on a mission to get a basic business education and a route into management".
For the dedicated business student, it is possible to fit an MBA around the most hectic work and family schedules. The Internet has given a fresh impetus to distance learning and the Open University has invigilated exams in the most far-flung places.
However, the wise postgraduate starts their research well before the course begins in order to ensure that the correct MBA is selected to suit their career aspirations. The need for management schools to differentiate has resulted in every permutation of subject matter, study schedule and method of delivery.
Reputation is the most important thing to look for. There is no point squandering time and money on a certificate of dubious worth. AMBA can warn you off disreputable institutions. It also lists the 36 UK programmes that have received its accreditation kitemark.
While various rankings for MBAs do exist, AMBA warns that they should be treated with care, as many are based on different parameters. "The anomaly is that in business school circles, there is an almost universal consensus about which are the best education providers," the group says.
"Put 100 deans in a room and ask them to draw up a list of the top 100 schools and you are likely to see far less deviation than will be found in a comparative analysis of the different media rankings."
Counting the cost
MBAs do not come cheap and their high price will deter many. AMBA estimates that the cost of an MBA ranges from £8,500 to £36,000 a year, excluding living expenses.
Tesco's Wishart took two years out nine years ago to do his MBA at Cranfield. He reckons the cost back then was around £25,000 a year and says the full-time study option was only made possible by the death of a distant relative. "It was a fantastic time out. It was a real advantage being able to immerse myself in the holistic nature of the course seven days a week," Wishart says.
For the majority, however, the time-out route is not an option and a likelier source of funding is sponsorship from their employer. Knight received funding from ICL, in return for a lock-in clause of two years service for each module the company paid for. Should Knight quit before that time, he would have to pay back the fees.
Nor is full-time employment a necessary prerequisite for sponsorship. Contractors may be able to negotiate a deal with a client in return for a guaranteed period of service provision. This is an avenue being investigated by freelance consultant Gibbon who says he is close to securing a deal with a key client.
Evidence shows that hard work and endeavour do pay off, however. Multinationals such as Tesco are now setting up an MBA recruitment programme, to scale up their strategy and operations. While for Wishart, the MBA was on a personal level a "career transformational experience".
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This was first published in December 2001