Strategy Clinic: can an MBA help you get a management role?

Can an MBA help secure a senior management role? our panel of experts offers advice.

A good MBA can give your career a real boost

Solution by Ben Booth, chairman of BCS IT directors group Elite

You pose two questions, firstly about developing your career in IT, and secondly regarding the desirability of doing an MBA at this stage. I question whether there is nothing you can do to further develop your career in IT. By leading a team of business analysts you have shown that you can understand business as well as technology, and are in a "client facing" role.

All this is good for further progress in IT management, though if there are not opportunities with your present employer you might have to look elsewhere.

The value of an MBA depends very much on when you do it, and the school you go to. Too early and you do not have enough business experience to put what you learn into context too late and you will gain personally, but it will do little to help your career. Late twenties and early thirties are optimum, so this would be a good time to do it.

You should check the standing of the school you are proposing to go to, and the course - a good MBA can give your career a real boost, but for second or third division MBAs the time is probably better spent on developing your career at work.

One final point - I recently appointed someone to a senior IT position who has both technical training and experience and an MBA. You could find an MBA will help your IT career, and a move to senior management does not preclude a very senior IT role in the future.


Grasp the opportunity to learn new perspectives

Solution by Ollie Ross, director of research at the Corporate IT Forum

Large corporates - such as those that use the Corporate IT Forum's services - need people with strategic/practical IT understanding and strategic/practical business understanding to maximise the benefits from their existing investment in IT.

They also need people who are able to spot the technical and process innovations that will spearhead their future investment and future business development.

Grasp the opportunity. Who knows, you may progress to a senior business management role, or you may have helped yourself to a more senior IT role by virtue of your new-found business understanding. Either way, you cannot lose and you will encounter new perspectives along the way.


Forge yourself a new role in the wider business

Solution by Chris Potts, director at consultancy Dominic Barrow

It is a shame that we IT professionals keep talking about "IT" and "business" as mutually exclusive, when in fact there are some massive overlaps. If your company's IT department has positioned itself as a quasi-supplier to everyone else, then you will indeed have to leave the department to take a full part in the management of the company, but that does not mean having to leave IT.

Business executives are often crying out for senior and influential IT experts who do not have the conflicts of interest that come with working for a supplier, or quasi-supplier, of IT-related services. They know the company lacks expert IT customer skills, such as investment strategy and IT exploitation. Many IT departments aspire to offer these skills, but are constrained by their "internal supplier" positioning and mindset.

An MBA will give you a good grounding in wider business theory, although you may find that your hands-on experience already exceeds the IT elements of the course.

In any case, look to forge a new role in the wider business that makes the best use of your IT experience, business analysis background and mathematical brain.

Where are the biggest, and currently untapped, opportunities to use IT to create business value? What does the company need to do differently to exploit them?


An MBA alone is not a guarantee of success

Solution by Sheila Upton, director, technology security and risk services at Ernst & Young

MBAs are highly valued in the business world today, and funding, as well as the undoubted time commitment, is often perceived by many to be a barrier. The opportunity to obtain funding support is therefore a timely one.

Additionally, as IT has grown to become an integral component of business today, so the experience you have gained in IT will undoubtedly be of value. However, advancement in business is unlikely to be achieved by an MBA alone, and success is dependent on the right opportunities to apply the learning from your course.

What is not clear from your question is why you feel you have done everything to advance your career in IT, and whether you see an MBA as your "escape route" into the real world of business. Business analyst teams are often a key conduit between business and IT, and it may be that you have led your team to achieve a high level of credibility for IT in your organisation. If so, your MBA opportunity may be a timely one.

Do not abandon your IT roots too soon however. The significant role played by IT in the current business world presents fantastic opportunities for IT to play a significant influencing role at senior levels in business.

In summary, challenge your own motives, and recognise that an MBA is a significant time commitment and will be most successful if carried out with the full support of your current employer.


MBA can give a broader view of business functions

Solution by Sharm Manwani, head of information management at Henley Management College

As a professional who has primarily worked in one function, you share the characteristics of many of those who embark on an MBA. There are many reasons why people do an MBA, but one of the most important is to obtain a broader view of all the business functions such as marketing, sales, operations and finance.

With a business analysis background you should already have had some exposure to different functions. The MBA would enhance that knowledge and give you an understanding of processes in a range of organisations.

You might find that the MBA gives you the opportunity to move into a senior business function role and then back into a top CIO role, which is as much about business change as it is about IT.

From a personal perspective, having decided to do an MBA when I was the head of IS, I found that this gave me a range of career options. In practice, I took on a new CIO role as European IT & business processes director for a major organisation.

Having completed my MBA and then the DBA at Henley, I am now lecturing on the programme. We have added cross-functional and personal development elements and it is targeted at experienced professionals.

There are many good MBA programmes with their own focus areas and it is important that you select one that suits your needs and that of the organisation you work for.

If you do decide to do this, clearly you must be prepared to invest the personal time that is required for such a major qualification and ideally look for as many synergies as possible.


Make sure MBA matches your career progression

Solution by Roger Rawlinson, director of IT consultancy at NCC Group

Employer funded schemes of this nature are a great opportunity for employees to develop skills that assist in career development.

Your maths degree will be seen by many as a demonstration of your logical and analytical activities, but it will leave you weak in the areas required for business management.

Undertaking an MBA will enhance your knowledge, and hence prospects, in the business community.

In terms of your ambition to move to senior management, you need to also ascertain if there is a route for you to achieve this in your company, and that your efforts attaining the MBA are going to be utilised in your working environment. You need to be careful that you do not spend several years studying for a career that you employer has no intention of enabling.

Discuss your aspirations, and see what your options are in terms of career progression. The MBA on the face of it looks like a good opportunity, but be careful that you do not spend several years studying for one career while following a different path in your work.


MBA is not a passport to move out of IT function

Solution by Robin Laidlaw, president CW500 Club

In a word "yes". Sometimes you read comments about people being overqualified for a job, but adding an MBA to a maths degree is very good preparation for developing your career on from your current position.

You say "senior management role", but I am not sure if you mean continuing in IT or moving into another function and/or general management. An MBA is excellent for someone wanting to continue to grow in an IT environment, maybe aiming for CIO status, a seat on the executive committee and maybe even the board.

However it is no passport for a move out of IT into general management. That is much more difficult and the number of people who have made that transition is few.

Understanding the horizontal nature of business processes - a knowledge many IT people claim - confers no right to jump into one of the silos. Every function has its own skills and qualifications many posts require a recognised qualification, specific to that function, to be able to hold the post.

So it is good in itself, it will help you be a more skilled IT practitioner and it will help you in your quest for a senior role in IT, but it is no magic passport out of IT.

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