At first glance, the impressive choice of international business schools available to prospective students and sponsoring employers is bewildering. And with the development of distance learning, leading schools have extended their catchment area to encompass large swathes of the globe; in return, they offer an international experience of business culture and development.
The choice of programmes can also be confusing. These include the traditional degree-awarding full-time Master of Business Administration (MBA), which lasts one or two years. The part-time or 'executive' version is for those who want to continue to work while studying - EMBAs run from 14 months to two years - and then there's the full-time one-year MSc for graduates. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a vast range of 'executive education' programmes that target the experienced manager and frequently are tailored to a specific employer's requirements. These account for more than 50% of top schools' revenues.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, good schools are often well-run businesses in their own right and include an impressive marketing and public relations function. The priority before looking at the glossy brochures, therefore, is to construct selection criteria based on the individual's career objectives and, where applicable, the needs of the employer. Once these criteria are established, it is much easier to identify the right type of course and the right school in terms of global reputation, the business experience and academic reputation of the faculty, the IT platform and the networking opportunities.
The popularity of the MBA - which can cost between $50,000-$75,000 for top-ranked schools - suffered during the recession of 2001-2003, but by 2005 it was business as usual, judging by the applications. Harvard Business School, which has places for 900 students each year, received over 6,500 applications last year, while Stanford GSB, with 360 students, received more than 4,500 applications.
At hand to help prospective students select an appropriate business school is the World MBA Tour, which visits over 50 venues in 40 countries annually with representation from more than 300 schools. Matt Symonds, a director of the organisation, says that following the recession, schools have become much more focused on delivering a visible return on investment (ROI) to students and employers. The website (www.topmba.com) is a useful source of information; it provides analysis tools to cater for individual selection criteria and a 'score card' facility that helps to assess the suitability of programmes to business needs and the cost-benefit profile/ROI of different schools.
Getting the right combination of face-to-face teaching and distance learning is important. The traditional teaching environment delivers the programme to students who can attend the school on a regular basis - typically, once a week or in fortnightly blocks. In contrast, the bottom end of the low-cost distance-learning market can be far from ideal - it's just you and your computer, with no interaction with peers. The middle way is the preferred option for those who do not have ready access to a school for weekly teaching. This combines a well-developed distance-learning facility with comparatively frequent workshops, where students can meet and interact (see 'Distance learning' box).
The opportunity to learn at different locations is also important for many executives. For the globally minded, INSEAD, with its two-campus structure in France and Singapore - together with its US partner school Wharton - offers MBA, EMBA, PhD and executive education programmes with a distinctly international bias. Students can study at all three campuses, making it possible to gain an MBA across three continents. Professor Antonio Fatas, dean of INSEAD's MBA programme, says: "We think of ourselves as the most international of the world's top business schools and we still limit the proportion of participants from any single nationality on our MBA programme."
Current MBA students represent more than 70 nationalities, with India the largest student population at 14%. Unusually, despite the foundation of the school in France, French participants account for only 13%. The school also boasts one of the largest alumni networks at 34,000, with high participation rates in most countries. Up to 50% of MBA alumni invited to the regular reunion gatherings attend.
A recent innovation in the distance-learning market is the Global Communities MBA, offered by Instituto de Empresa (IE), based in Madrid. Using the new 'LINC' concept (Learning via Internationally Networked Communities), the MBA is available as a combined online and face-to-face programme, with 'Community Integration Sessions' scheduled in 18 locations worldwide, including Madrid, London, New York, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Participants can interact with their own class and professors, and also with IE's alumni base - an international network of mentors and business figures.
IE dean, Santiago Iniguez de Onzono, says: "We recognise that internet-based professional networks are stronger than the traditional version if properly managed."
U21 Global is an online graduate business school and a joint venture between Universitas 21 and Thomson Learning. Universitas 21 is an international network of 18 universities in 10 countries, which facilitates collaboration and cooperation between the member universities. Members include the University of Melbourne, McGill University in Canada, Fudan University in China, the University of Auckland, Korea University, Edinburgh University, University of Hong Kong, National University of Singapore, Sweden's Lund University and the University of Virginia.
Helen Lange, MBA programme director at Universitas 21 Global in Hong Kong, says: "It is vital for students to have access to a member of the business school 24/7. Communication within the organisation is very important to ensure that a culture of 'passing the problem' doesn't develop."
U21 Global provides an orientation programme for students to help them enter postgraduate study and to allow them to become familiar with the learning environment before they begin classes. During this programme, new students meet fellow students and the networking process begins.
Lange says: "Our students are organised into virtual classes and they are required to interact constantly with their fellow students and faculty through a series of discussion board activities and group assignments. Students bring work problems to the discussion board, and given the international reach of our student base - currently over 45 countries - they gain first hand experience of differences and similarities in management issues due to cultural diversity." The online school also offers networking functions for students, so they have the opportunity to meet face to face.
Employment culture is an important issue for employers that sponsor EMBAs. It is not uncommon in the US and UK, for example, where ambition is virtually synonymous with jobhopping, for employers to use EMBA sponsorships as an executive retention tool - a temporary pair of golden handcuffs, if you like. The employer's explicit objective is to develop the individual's management skills, but the implicit agenda is to hang on to a valuable and highly ambitious young executive for another two years. In China, while the full-time MBA may attract the job changer, the sponsored executive version needs to be relevant to those employees committed to a career with a single employer. For this reason, an important growth area for the international school is the customised EMBA (see 'Customised courses' box).
Cass Business School, part of City University, London, operates its China EMBA in conjunction with the Bank of China and the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SUFE), and runs an annual symposium in Shanghai where students from the London campus can integrate with their south-east Asian counterparts.
"We think it is really important that students who are studying on an international programme have the opportunity to interact with colleagues and businesses in foreign cultures," says Professor David Sims, associate dean for MBA programmes at Cass. "Over half our London-based students believe they will be doing business in or with China in the future. The symposium also provides an opportunity for our Chinese EMBA students to see the business world through the eyes of their London-based colleagues."
Ultimately, however prestigious, the school will be judged by the cultural diversity of the student population and the networking facilities. Professor Richard Speed, associate dean of faculty resources at Melbourne Business School, says: "The ability to develop a global network of contacts is a vital inherent feature of these programmes. Students often start the programme thinking that it's all about the qualification. When they leave, they know it's all about the network.
"This is why face-to-face contact is essential. The person you sit next to is likely to be as important to your business education as the teacher at the front of the class."
BREAKING THE MBA MOULD
A few years ago the observation that "you can't create a leader in a classroom" sent shockwaves through the MBA world, coming as it did from Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Canada. "MBAs do a great job in teaching functional business skills," he concedes, "but they do a terrible job on management aspects."
In 1996 Mintzberg, with Jonathan Gosling of the UK's Lancaster University Management School, created the International Masters in Practising Management (IMPM). The IMPM seeks to break the mould of the functional 'silos', so common in management education - for example, marketing and finance. The programme is structured around managerial 'mindsets' and takes place in blocks over 18 months at various locations. It opens in Lancaster with managing in general and the 'reflective' mindset in particular, and closes at INSEAD with managing change, the 'action' mindset. Participants are usually aged over 35 and already in senior management positions.
Mintzberg can be extremely blunt about certain aspects of business schools and how they are ranked. On return on investment, for example, he says: "As a guide to a management education programme, it's nonsense - all it tells you is how much you might earn if you get this particular school's qualification - it does not tell you if you'll be a better manager."
His views can be found in Managers not MBAs (Prentice Hall, 2004). IMPM website: www.impm.org.
CUSTOMISED COURSES IN CHINA
According to a 2005 McKinsey report, China needs 75,000 experienced managers over the next five years, as the country attempts to stake out positions in other global sectors. Currently, it has an estimated 4,000 experienced managers, the report says. It states that China must ensure that more of its workers are suitable for employment by multinationals. "But addressing this problem will be no small feat: China will have to change the way it finances its universities, revamp the curriculums and improve the language skills of its graduates." Chinese employers are meeting this challenge by establishing joint ventures with Western business schools to bring global business skills direct to Chinese executives.
Dr Buck Pei in Beijing is associate dean and director of the China programme for the WP Carey School of Business (Arizona State University), which offers a customised EMBA for the China subsidiary of Motorola, among other programmes. Pei explains: "The executives we receive on our Motorola EMBA in Beijing are focused on a career path within their company. The course covers all the EMBA subjects, but is designed with the Motorola corporate culture in mind. This is Motorola's investment in the next generation of managers for its Chinese operation."
WP Carey has also established a Shanghai EMBA. Developed in cooperation with the Ministry of Finance and delivered in collaboration with the Shanghai National Accounting Institute, this is aimed at senior government officials and executives, and is delivered face to face in Mandarin and English. "China must prepare its state-owned businesses to succeed internationally," Pei stresses.
The Robert Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, also offers a Beijing and Shanghai EMBA. Walter Czarnecki, manager of the school's China Business Development and Executive Programs in Beijing, says: "Location is paramount. Our students are middle-to-senior managers from the Chinese government, multinationals and smaller companies looking for a global business perspective. But they need to find it here in China, and they need a combination of business theory and the practical aspects of management, which they can bring to their jobs immediately."
The school runs a course for Otis Elevator China. Quentin Lam, director of field operations at Otis, has worked in New York and is a graduate of the China course. "Few managers have time to find programmes outside the corporate environment. As an American, I could see how the programme impacted on my Chinese classmates. Systems thinking taught me that problems cannot be approached from only an analytical point of view."
See www.mckinseyquarterly.com/ newsletters/2005_11.htm.
Competition among business schools has triggered the growth of innovative distance-learning EMBA programmes - the delivery system targeted at busy executives who want to keep up the day job while studying to improve their global business leadership skills. Although convenience is a given in distance-learning programmes, the quality and quantity of face-to-face sessions and the effectiveness of networking facilities should be scrutinised. Students who maintain full-time jobs need to ensure that the school provides a high level of pastoral support, so they can avoid the isolation that frequently bedevils distance learners.
School reputation: Check the rankings (for example, from the FT), the regular recruiters of alumni and the frequency of face-to-face student and alumni gatherings.
Course content: Make sure the course is pitched at the right level for your language skills and current knowledge.
Teaching staff: The international business experience, research and publishing record of the faculty are important.
Student support: Schools that run face-to-face courses claim that the drop-out rate is much lower than for distance learning. Consider what support the programme offers if you should find yourself struggling, how easy it is to ask questions, report problems and, importantly, how quickly you will get a response irrespective of time-zone differences.
Networking: One of the attractions is a network of alumni, many of whom will be business leaders prepared to devote time to supporting ambitious students. Check how many alumni participate in gatherings.
MBA or MSc?
Both the MBA and the MSc are full time, but the course objectives are quite different. In particular, the MBA is designed for experienced managers who have a minimum of three to five years in business and wish to progress up the corporate ladder or who are looking for a career change. Many have at least five years' experience and this makes the student interaction much more effective for the group. Shared experiences are an important element of the MBA experience.
The model for the MSc in the UK and US, for example, is generally aimed at younger graduates, particularly those who have not previously studied management. This type of course provides a good grounding in management and business theory, which can act as a stepping-stone to the first job.
However, for international schools the distinction between the MBA and MSc is beginning to blur as schools move towards the pan-European quality assurance process under the Bologna Accord, which seeks to harmonise courses to help students and sponsoring employers to compare like with like. The Accord has already been signed by more than 40 countries and becomes operational in 2010.
For more information, see the Graduate Management Admission Council's website at www.gmac.com/gmac.