The care an IT professional takes to pick the right MBA course can pay dividends in terms of career development.
Although the world of MBAs can prove a minefield for the IT professional seeking to advance, the right course could help IT staff not just to analyse business problems but provide solutions.
The qualifications are many and varied, with 100 institutions offering one- and two-year courses that can cost £39,000.
IT is a relatively new business function and, until recently, many IT professionals have progressed within the cocoon of the speciality itself. But increasingly, as IT professionals seek to move up in the business, managerial skills are becoming essential.
"Staff need to understand the strategic issues: what the problems are, how they can transfer business issues into IT solutions and how to communicate these back to business managers," said Rob Lambert, senior lecturer at the Cranfield School of Management. "An MBA helps with understanding the context in which the company is working."
Getting a wider understanding via their MBA of how the business is run - such as how the market works or how financial and human resource functions contribute to the business - means IT staff are better placed to advance.
Lambert believed IT suppliers also need the skills an MBA can provide. "In the past, many IT professionals sold to the IT departments, but they are now selling to business management.
"This requires a different approach, so they cannot concentrate solely on IT. The manager will want to get a market analysis or speed up the completion of the books at the end of the month. The IT professional must understand this and be able to show the business value."
Martin Lockett, director of business development at Ashridge, recommended selecting a course that offers theoretical and practical content. He has seen too many MBAs that offer the skills to analyse a problem but not those to solve it.
"Most MBAs focus on equipping people with the concepts and ability to analyse the problem, but if you are going to be successful as a leader in IT or you want to go into a broader business role, you need to think of how an MBA can help you become a better manager and leader," he said.
In practical terms, applicants need to consider the differences in quality and style of MBAs on offer, as they can vary considerably. "There can be 30 to 300 people in MBA classes. It is a question of whether you want personal attention or to be part of a large group," said Lockett.
There is also the question of whether the course is focused toward academic or business issues, part-time or full-time and if it takes one year or two. There is also the consideration of how it will fit in with an individual's situation and their employer.
Ashridge's one-year MBA costs £29,500 and the two-year executive version £33,500. Cranfield courses cost about £20,000.
When it comes to choosing an MBA institution, Lockett advised that it should rate at least in the top 50 to 100 in the world.
The value of an MBA is not universally acknowledged. Outside the world of academia there are some more sceptical views.
"MBAs have their place but the essential requisite is proven practical experience," said John Handby, chief executive at CIO Connect. He believed experience is particularly important in the IT world. "People can go a long way without an MBA," he said. "An MBA will not necessarily make any difference to whether an individual gets on the board or not."
Terry Watts, chief operating officer at E-skills UK, has found that among his clients, experience is the prime requisite for promotion. "IT is still a relatively young industry and most of those at the top are not MBA-holders. There is value in an MBA, but it is not necessarily a passport to something else," he said.
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