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Sunday, 15 February 2015 22:00

Back to School: Executive MBA programs change with the times

Written by  Jill Hinton
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Back to School: Executive MBA programs change with the times SOURCE: POETSANDQUANTS.COM

Business professionals and managers looking to take the next step in their careers often turn to graduate degrees such as those offered in executive Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs to help advance their skills and make important career connections.

Compared to a traditional MBA program where students attend school full time, executive MBAs offer more flexible schedules and curriculum, as well as different kinds of networking opportunities for working professionals.

Greg Janicki, director of the executive MBA program at Michigan State University’s Troy campus, said that it’s mostly student demand that’s driving the shift toward executive MBA programs.

“A big part of the change has not been so much the programs, while they have changed,” Janicki said. “What I think is changing more is the individuals that are pursuing business education.”

In particular, traditional MBA students in the past were often high-ranking male executives, he said. That’s not necessarily the case these days.

“What we’re seeing in our program with the executive MBA is individuals from all industries and from all levels within an organization trying to make themselves better prepared to be successful in their pursuits,” he said.

In-house degrees

One of the biggest trends in MBA programs is that today’s universities are working directly with companies to provide MBAs that are specifically developed to meet that company’s unique needs.

For example, Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business currently offers an executive MBA program in conjunction with Spectrum Health.

“All students are experienced Spectrum Health professionals, and the curriculum is health industry-focused,” said Claudia Bajema, the university’s director of graduate business programs. “Each of the three MBA program options is designed to provide career-stage appropriate acumen.”

Western Michigan University also works directly with companies to provide in-house education. Currently, WMU is offering an MBA program at Parker Hannifin, said Satish Deshpande, associate dean for operations and graduate programs at the Haworth College of Business.

The university has signed a confidentiality agreement with the Cleveland-based hydraulics manufacturer, which has manufacturing facilities in Kalamazoo. This allows the employee-students to discuss issues and work on projects that are directly related to the issues the company faces as part of the coursework.

These in-house MBA programs offer a level of specialization and degree customization that’s previously unheard of, sources said. The company that partners with a university decides when and where the classes are held, allowing for irregular business cycles, and the employee-students focus on projects and issues that are unique to that organization.

Deshpande said these types of programs not only help with recruitment and retention, but they also build a unique rapport among the graduates.

“You’ve got people in this company who maybe sat a few offices away and maybe just said, ‘hi.’ All of a sudden, (they) have become great friends,” he said. “It’s improved relationships, networking and collaboration within the company.”

Both Davenport University and Northwood University also offer executive MBA programs or evening and weekend courses, respectively.

Different kinds of skills and projects

Today’s students in executive MBA programs also work on real-world projects that solve tangible issues for companies and organizations.

“We have recently launched what we call our ‘social impact’ projects,” said MSU’s Janicki, describing a program that has students work with nonprofits for eight to 10 months on specific projects. “These are teams of MBA students pairing with local nonprofits to solve a business problem for those nonprofits. We’re now in our second year of that project, and we’re getting extraordinary response from those nonprofits.”

WMU actually offers management case and business plan pitch competitions, where students compete against one another for prestige and even prizes and where judges are executives from companies around the region.

“It’s just not projects and teaching in the classroom,” Deshpande said. “We also have something called a pitch competition, where MBA students and off-campus students can do their pitch, and if they win the competition, they get a nice prize. And the best team wins.”

Last year’s case competition winner was the MBA team from Parker Hannifin, he said.

New specializations

To appeal to today’s students who are looking to specialize their business education, almost all executive MBA programs offer their students the chance to focus their graduate education on a specific niche.

“Individuals are starting to desire more options with the type of education they receive, more specific competencies in their graduate program,” Janicki said. “There’s increasing competition in the market for graduate programs that focus very specifically on things like business analytics or market research.”

Bajema from GVSU agreed.

“The MBA is a general management/business degree, but many programs offer students concentrations in select areas, such as finance, marketing, etc.,” Bajema said. “At the same time, there are more alternatives to the MBA in the form of specialized master’s degrees, such as master of finance, master of accounting, (or) master of supply chain.”

WMU’s executive MBA students can choose from a variety of MBA specializations, including aviation and computer information systems. The university is currently developing programs that specialize in engineering. It’s also working to unveil a degree program that would allow students to earn their medical degree and MBA all within the same program.

Schools also offer MBAs within very specialized industries, building on the expertise they already have in other university departments, such as aviation or medicine, in the case of WMU.

“We can’t be best in everything,” Deshpande said. “We have to (collaborate) because we’re a business school, and that’s a smart thing. Why invest elsewhere when there are literally resources and strengths within your institution?”

For example, Ferris State University offers MBAs paired with its accounting and pharmacy program. FSU also offers an MBA certificate in design and innovation management. Meanwhile, Davenport University offers concentrations in human resource management, health care management, finance, accounting, marketing and strategic management. Cornerstone University offers an MBA program that teaches business “all based on Christ-centered principles.”

In addition to executive-style and concentration-specific MBAs, Spring Arbor University markets an accelerated MBA program that can be completed in 18 months.

Relationships matter

Deshpande said one of the most underrated benefits of an executive MBA is the relationships that students develop with one another and with other people they meet along the way.

“It’s amazing the kinds of folks you have in classrooms, folks from different industries,” he said. “You don’t know the guy sitting next to you in this class or the next class, because everyone is on a different schedule. You can really learn from them, and it’s the relationships that you build and the traction that you have and the friendships that you make.”

He gave an example of a recent class that included a venture capitalist from Chicago and the mayor of a Michigan city. He’s even had a student in one of his classes who had two Emmy Awards. But importantly, all these diverse professionals are working together on the same projects and building relationships, he said.

“We tend to underestimate the friendships and the relationships we build,” Deshpande said. “For me, some of my best friends were my friends I had in school and college. Our market is working professionals. We want them to be successful, we want to give them a great education. We gauge what the market needs. But we also want them to build and create relationships. That’s really going to help you down the road. That’s what a professional MBA gets you. It’s a completely different world.”

More focus on leadership, ethics

Michigan State has also increased its focus on skills that weren’t traditionally a large focus of MBA programs.

“We have recently enhanced our leadership training for our students to include more executive coaching style support, allowing our students to be a bit more reflective of what skills and competencies they possess and how to leverage them more effectively to accomplish work,” said Janicki, noting that the program helps students more effectively “accomplish the mission of their organization.”

“(We need to be) able to make sure our program is not just teaching the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting, but the more broad subject of how to do you run an organization effectively,” Janicki said. “And that includes more than just the numbers — it includes the marketing piece, it includes the leadership piece, it includes the organizational development piece, it includes the legal piece and the ethical piece as well.”

Read 4535 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 February 2015 16:18

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