Look at the back of a £20 note and you'll see a picture of Adam Smith alongside a snippet from The Wealth of Nations about the benefits of the division of labour. In the centuries since the grand-daddy of free-market economics coined that neat little idea it has spread ever faster. Being a legend in your own lunchtime - or in your own niche of a specialism in an industry sub-sector - is now the way of the world.
It's appropriate, then, that a new breed of MBAs is springing up to cater for those who want a management qualification tailored to a sector or specialisation. While schools have long offered MBAs focused on finance or accounting, now they have branched out into some weird and wonderful courses indeed. You can even do an MBA in golf (see box). So if you are considering an MBA, might a specialised one be right for you?
The Schulich School of Business in Toronto runs MBAs that specialise in the health industry, the media, and non-profit leadership, among others. Its 19th MBA - focusing on mining - will start in the autumn. The impetus came from the industry, says Richard Ross, the former chief executive of a large mining company who runs the course. 'Twenty years ago, the typical boss of a mining company would have been a geologist or an engineer, but then the industry started to evolve and you saw more financial people in management positions - I was an accountant. Now there is a third wave developing, who have a strong background in sustainability and corporate social responsibility.'
Rather than being a course for hard-hatted drillers scowling at spreadsheets, then, the Schulich mining option aims to persuade students in the second year of their two-year MBA that the industry offers them a future. It's is a major opportunity in Canada - around 60% of the world's mining companies are listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The mining MBA is effectively a match-making service.
The situation is similar at Henley Business School, which recently introduced an MBA that is 'oriented' - its phrase - towards the music industry. Music, like mining, is undergoing massive change. 'The industry is professionalising very quickly,' says the school's dean, Professor John Board. 'People in management positions came up through the industry and there is a lack of people who can manage and lead properly.' Previously, it was all about sticking someone in a studio and selling their records, now it's more likely to be about franchising songs, or selling them for adverts. 'We don't have a module on managing pop groups, it's more like intellectual property, the sorts of things lawyers in the music industry might need to know,' says Board.
In both cases, say the schools, the specialised MBA is needed because the industries have new, unique problems and they need leaders educated in how to solve them. Music is trying to find new ways to make money online. Mining has challenges such as how to limit environmental damage. 'You can't take general MBA learning and apply it to the mining sector,' Ross says. 'Our students will come out of the class and be able to communicate with the industry. They'll be two years ahead of general MBAs in terms of getting a job.'
The specialist MBAs at Henley and Schulich are in fact classical, generalist MBAs with a specialism bolted on - only 15-20% of the Henley course is music-focused - but there is another, more immersive class of specialised MBA. Ann Feely, vice president of marketing and brand management at Californian wine importer Wilson Daniels, fell in love with wine in a vineyard in Sonoma. Realising that few people in the world of fine wine had both passion and financial nous, she took the wine MBA at Bordeaux Management School.
'If you do a specialised MBA you'd better know in your heart that this is what you want to do for the rest of your life,' Feely says. 'What you learn on the wine MBA doesn't translate to, say, coffee. Every case study was about wine.'
Feely believes the most valuable part was the networking. 'It more than doubled the number of wine professionals I know,' she says. 'Once I was at a wine expo with my boss and Paul Pontallier, the director of Chateau Margaux, came up to me and kissed me on the cheek and said hello. My boss was amazed. You would never meet people like that on a Harvard MBA.'
Ross backs this up. At least a dozen bigwigs from the mining industry will be teaching on the Schulich mining course. Last term there were four guest speaker events as a taster and, says Ross: 'After every class the students hang around chatting to them.'
So specialist MBAs have their good points. But some argue that they go against the grain - the whole idea of an MBA is that it is a generalist qualification that helps you change careers. Nitzan Yudan graduated from London Business School's highly regarded general MBA course last year. He began his studies after a career in banking, but while at LBS he changed tack, starting a business called Flat-Club, which helps MBAs around the world find accommodation. 'I went in to accelerate my banking career,' he says. 'I got job offers from American Express and Deutsche Bank, but something changed.' The MBA allowed him time to think about what he really wanted to do, and the contacts and encouragement at LBS turbo-charged his new venture.
'Through the alumni network I found people who advised me for free, and helped me raise money. I'm also part of the LBS incubator and save on office costs by being based in the school.' He estimates that the school and alumni have given him $500,000-worth of consulting.
Others argue that our increasingly complex world demands more generalism, not less. Stephan Chambers, MBA director of the Said Business School at Oxford University, thinks there are plenty of technical experts in business, but too few people who can see the big picture. 'The financial crisis was not caused by too much understanding, but too little,' he says, adding that the future for MBAs is to suck in knowledge from other disciplines. At Said, they draw on expertise from other university departments: students work with zoologists to understand complexity and with economists, lawyers and experts on government to learn about regulation. Even the theology department helps - handy if you are looking at Islamic finance, say. Chambers thinks that the next evolution of the MBA will be to teach the soft skills.
Another niggling doubt remains about specialist MBAs; are they just a way for schools that don't have the intellectual firepower of the big institutions to stand out from the crowd? Not at all, says a spokesman for Harvard: 'Schools have different goals, students have different goals, so there needs to be a match between a person's aspirations and the offerings of the schools they're applying to.' Chambers agrees: 'You are bound to get differentiation, and it's not surprising there are places that are focused alongside the elite general management schools.'
So, according to the business education industry, both generalist and specialist courses meet a demand and they wouldn't exist if they didn't. Which all sounds very much like a case study from an MBA course. Vive la difference, as Adam Smith might have said.
- Which specialism is right for you?
Those wanting to add some glamour to their studies might fancy the luxury-sector-focused MBA on offer at Milan's Bocconi School - it's sponsored by Bulgari.
Warwick Business School offers a global energy MBA, while Exeter has a One Planet MBA, run with the World Wildlife Fund, to train leaders in 'a culturally diverse, resource-constrained world'. Green-tinged MBAs already exist at schools including Yale and Barcelona's IE.
Another kind of green is offered on the golf MBA run by Claremont Western University in California, a tie-up with the PGA. And Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh runs an MBA in golf and country club management.
Nottingham teaches an MBA in entrepreneurship, California's Haas teaches a real estate MBA and Cass in London offers one on the film business.