The MBA (Master of Business Administration) is a postgraduate degree that is awarded to students who have mastered the study of business. Students of MBA programs study the theory and application of business and management principles.
Such study would hugely benefit any IT person, and in particular those in senior positions. An MBA is not, however, the only way to attain a good grounding in core business and leadership skills.
There are a multitude of good books on business and leadership to choose from. Articles from journals such as Harvard Business Review are also an excellent source of information. Many Business Schools have extensive executive education programmes and run a wide variety of short courses aimed at equipping delegates with specific skills. Many of these are aimed at a particular market such as finance for non-financial managers or organisational politics for IT managers.
I recently studied 20 IT professionals who had progressed beyond the ranks of IT and reached the position of CEO. None of the 20 had an MBA and yet all of them possessed a deep understanding and interest in business matters even though they had originally embarked on scientific/technical career paths. During their formative years many had requested time in other areas of the business to broaden their knowledge. Throughout their careers they had constantly gone above and beyond their "IT" job descriptions they had taken an interest in and got involved in business matters. In the absence of business strategies in their respective organisations a number had taken the initiative and seized the opportunity to write both the business and IT strategies for their organisations.
Will an additional qualification help?
The answer is possibly. It might open doors otherwise closed and it might be the deciding factor over two equally good candidates for a position. For other recruiters, and I include myself in this category, possession of a degree or MBA would not be a major consideration. Their prime focus would be on experience and qualities such as interpersonal and influencing skills, being a team player, common sense and integrity.
Broaden your skills' base. Spend some time, a year or two preferably in your formative years, out of your normal background and work in a different and challenging environment. A role such as PA to the managing director or chairman would be ideal for example. You would come out of the experience a different person, with additional strengths, enhanced skills, a broad view of how the organisation works as a whole and greater personal confidence. In the words of one of the CEOs in my studies "IT people need to develop the callused hands of life's experiences!"
Seek out and seize opportunities to operate outside your own sphere of influence. Experiment, learn by your mistakes, grow and gain confidence in doing new things. Read books and articles on business, organisational development, leadership, innovation etc. Get experience running other parts of the business, become a generalist, a rounded business person. Demonstrate enthusiasm for business matters and understand the psychology of the business. Know where technology is taking the world understand the trends for one's business and society in general. Tap into the sort of work that Henley College does on future trends and INSEAD Business School on long-range planning. Have an opinion on and contribution to make in relation to every item on the board agenda.
Do an MBA by all means but do it for you and your own personal development. Do not do it just to get a pay rise or a promotion. If you do decide to do an MBA do not underestimate the commitment. If you embark on a part time MBA you will need to juggle work, study and family/personal commitments - one normally suffers as a result. Full time is easier but then you will need to support yourself and possibly a family for a year unless you are lucky enough to get sponsorship. A full time MBA may also necessitate your living away from home with all its potential advantages and disadvantages - consider what this would mean for you.
On the flip side you will:
- learn a lot about business and yourself in a relatively short period of time
- gain a well respected qualification
- become a member of a powerful network that may aid you for the rest of your life
- make new friends
- have fun
The choice as ever is yours.
Robina Chatham, Managing Director of Robina Chatham Ltd and Visiting Fellow at Cranfield School of Management
Ajay Burlingham-Böhr, Director of IT Strategy and Systems with Anglia Ruskin University and formally Head of IS, RSPB
Ajay had reached the position of Head of IS for the RSPB. At this level she told me that the bulk of her time was spent dealing with issues such as organisational culture, business strategy/alignment, customer processes and innovation from a business perspective. Technical issues only consumed a fraction of her time. At this point in time she came to the conclusion that with her existing skill set she had no where to go beyond her current position and therefore decided to embark on an MBA. Ajay choose to study with the Open University, she committed around 14 hours per week for three years plus periodical study leave. She believes the MBA has given her greater confidence, increased knowledge and recognition as someone who understands business matters. Since completing her MBA Ajay has moved to a bigger role with Anglia Ruskin University.
- Don't underestimate the commitment in either time or finances
- Pick your institution wisely - the more theoretical MBAs may carry more academic weight but the more practical ones may be of more use in the real world
This was first published in October 2008