Pathway to the bigger picture
With things generally quiet on the economic front – it’s little wonder that New Zealand’s MBA providers have experienced big increases in the number of enrolments this year.
The Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT), which has delivered the Southern Cross University MBA and DBA as supported distance learning programmes for the past ten years, has experienced record enrolments for its first two trimesters. Other universities we spoke to for this article also report increased enrolments. AUT’s EFT (Equivalent Full Time) students are up 38 percent on this time last year, and 50 percent up on 2007. The only restraint on numbers is the capping on Government funding and class size restrictions.
To gain an accurate picture of what’s happening in the MBA space, a good place to start is the MBA Agency website (www.thembaagency.com) – the home of the ‘WebGuide to New Zealand MBA Programmes’. Publisher Regena Mitchell reports that while total enrolments were up to 1310 in 2008, there was also the smallest number of graduates since she began keeping track in 1996. Just 363 received their coveted degrees – well below the 400 average.
“People seem to be staying longer and taking more time to go through the programme,” says Mitchell. “It was also interesting to note that seats exceeded demand by 36 percent in 2008, across the board.” That’s clearly not the case in 2009.
Other observations from Mitchell include an increase in part-time students, a growth in Auckland-delivered programmes, and a very low number of people dropping out. “This could be taken as a sign that the MBA is getting too easy – although the average drop-out rate has remained static at seven percent for many years.”
So why the sudden upsurge in interest in the MBA?
Ken Lee, MBA director at the Business School Faculty of Business and Law, AUT University, suggests one of the key factors as being the current cycle of uncertainty, the bleak outlook for the remainder of the year and the slow economic recovery ahead. “People are concluding that if they want to compete for the best jobs their education credentials are more important than ever. There appears to be a direct relationship between economic downturn and study uptake.”
Another reason for the MBA’s popularity is the matching of curriculum with new and emerging requirements in managerial competencies. Lee says the AUT curricular is ahead on this front, with a stronger emphasis in areas such as entrepreneurship, leadership, decision-making, HR, sustainability and business ethics. He also says it’s about striking a balance between these issues, skills and concepts and the basic business disciplines, and maintaining a flexible approach going forward.
John Tucker, MBA director at the University of Waikato Management School, believes the curriculum trend towards the soft skills of management, including a more in-depth coverage of business sustainability and ethics, will continue.
“This is driven by the global fallout from the finance sector, and the recognition of the need to operate ethically and for the best interests of all stakeholders and the planet. This will intensify as a new business model emerges in a global context and climate change gains greater focus.”
Making your mind up on which MBA programme is best for you is absolutely vital. And it’s no easy feat – New Zealand has 11 institutions offering various MBA options, including University of Canterbury and University of Otago in the South Island.
Peter Withers, director of Academic Programmes at the University of Auckland Business School, suggests you first answer three simple questions:
• Why am I doing this? (Is it for promotion, money, the diploma itself, time out?)
• How committed am I?
• Who do I want to be sitting next to? (Because you’ll be learning a lot from your fellow students.)
Entry criteria varies – although no provider opens its MBA doors for just anyone. There is reputation at stake here, and the Universities jealously guard their programme branding. It was also pointed out to me that while the current economic difficulties may have increased the number of applicants, they’re not necessarily a better standard of applicant.
In recognition of the diversity of applicants’ backgrounds, The University of Auckland now offers two MBA programmes. Withers says The New Zealand Executive MBA attracts senior executives from all over the country. The average age is 40 and they are high achievers with significant local and international business experience.
The Auckland MBA targets younger mid-career applicants with an average age of 32, minimum five years experience – and classes held one or two evenings a week over the duration of the programme.
Withers says both MBA programmes were over-subscribed in June and the stakes are high. The programmes are not about ‘bums on seats’ or driving revenue – entry standards are rigorous and students are expected to fully engage in the learning opportunities, he says. “We work hard to select the right candidates – and much depends on attitude and maturity.”
If your preference is for supported distance learning, perhaps off-shore, then there are just two options available in New Zealand – the Henley Executive MBA, delivered through the Henley Business School, and the Southern Cross University MBA. These offer great flexibility for students, and as Wayne Dreyer NZ director MBA/DBA at the MIT points out, students like the fact that they can just get on with the assignments and exams and don’t have to go to classes (although they are encouraged to attend workshops).
“Choosing a programme is all about matching your learning style, as well as meeting your professional and personal demands.”
Dreyer describes the Southern Cross MBA as ‘the paperless MBA’ because all assignments and assessments are totally handled online. (It’s also worth remembering that this particular MBA is not eligible for New Zealand student funding, as it is Australian sourced.)
Meanwhile, some Universities offer their programmes from multiple locations. Massey University, for example, has centres in Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington and Christchurch.
Jonathan Matheny, MBA programme leader at the Massey University College of Business recommends that intending students look at the level of responsiveness of both lecturers and the people running the programme. “Consider the level of practicality in the offering, is it practical or buried in academia? And does it provide the opportunity for students to generate their own knowledge, to ‘think for themselves’? The knowledge must be portable, not confined to the classroom,” he says.
Mobility is another factor, says Matheny. Will the programme accommodate a change of circumstances? “I know of two Hamilton-based students – one studies in our Auckland stream and the other with our Christchurch group. Today’s mid to senior manager operates nationwide, and our MBA delivery has to reflect this.”
An MBA is a major investment, so when choosing a programme it’s advisable to talk to recent graduates, take your time, sit in on some classes, and consider who you’ll be learning with.
“If you’re looking for that richer, rounder learning experience, it matters who else is in the classroom,” says the University of Auckland’s Peter Withers. “That’s why we offer two programmes – because people who’re in the mid-stage of their career operate within different parameters and should not be put in the same room as senior executives. Look for like-minded company.”
Navigating your way through
Do the hard yards and you can have every confidence of success. That’s the advice from AUT’s Ken Lee. Completion rates and pass rates are high with MBAs (96 percent and 90-plus percent respectively at AUT) because students are “incredibly focused”, and yes, they’ve made a serious up-front investment in their future.
“It’s also a huge emotional and time investment for supporting families, partners and friends as well,” says Lee. “That’s why we invite family and partners to our orientation functions – to explain that their support is crucial for those inevitable late nights.
“Expect to actively engage with your peers and lecturers. Expect to take responsibility for your learning, and challenge the status quo. And expect to apply critical analysis in practical situations if you’re chasing top grades,” adds Lee. You’ll need to learn to think strategically and holistically about business and develop the softer skills of management – such as negotiating job contracts, problem solving and presentation. At AUT they are also developing a programme of personal and professional development to complement the rigour of the academic programme.
Be clear on your motives, your commitment, and be comfortable on your timing, the programme and the class atmosphere, says Peter Withers. Get your attitude right from the outset, be disciplined in your study and your obligations to your study groups. Engage teaching staff early on, especially if you’re having initial doubts.
“Remember, it’s your responsibility to grasp this learning opportunity.”
Regena Mitchell’s advice includes making friends and developing robust relationships with fellow students who have skills in areas other than yours. “Working with others who have skills and expertise in areas different from your own will serve you well – in the short term, as well as the long. When times are tough, it’s your friends who will help to get you through.”
John Tucker agrees that collaboration with others in the class is essential, to share understanding and learnings. “This is an important attribute in negotiating the way through the programme and offers significant support structure.”
Time management is also critical, says Tucker. “It’s a learned skill and requires considerable effort. There is also usually a heavy reading and research load within any MBA programme. Students have to develop skills in managing this aspect.”
Although don’t attempt to read everything, warns MIT’s Dreyer. “Skim reading is often advisable, particularly if it’s boring. Be selective, and don’t try to cram at the last minute.”
Establishing a regular study routine is important, adds Massey’s Matheny. “Find somewhere quiet where there’re no interruptions – even if it means training your four-year-old not to come into the home office.”
Matheny knows of one student who made arrangements to study in a neighbour’s back room, so she literally ‘won’t be home’. “Even her neighbour may not be aware of when she is there.”
More relevant than ever
The relevance of the MBA is perhaps greater than ever, and this is reflected in the high demand for programmes. The business environment has shifted, job market competition is hotter than ever and job candidates need that extra edge and confidence in their business abilities.
“The Massey MBA remains current, even in this dynamic business environment – but above all it provides the opportunity for people to extend their thinking. It teaches you to think,” says Matheny.
“The recession means businesses are re-engineering their operations to meet the demand and then take advantage of identified opportunities,” says Tucker. “To prepare for this, employers need to put middle and senior managers through an MBA. As they progress through the programme, they’ll develop the skills to exploit the opportunities, given the support of the employer.”
Owner-managers must also use the recession time to upskill, says Tucker, to take advantage of the upswing when it happens. “This is the time to delegate and prepare for the future. No longer can SMEs operate on the strength of innovation alone. Sound management and leadership is required to survive.”
There’s no question that the MBA gives students the big picture – a greater understanding of economics on a global scale. So when Government introduces measures, graduates can see what the impact will be on business – and specifically their business. It addresses leadership issues, allowing students to see, measure and take risks, tackle hard decisions, and understand why things come unstuck from time to time.
Peter Withers believes that attitudes towards the MBA, particularly by Baby Boomer business owners is still eight to ten years behind the Northern Hemisphere. This is because of the ingrained DIY attitude amongst these family-owned Kiwi businesses. “There’s a degree of cynicism there.”
But if you’re in your 30s or 40s and aspire to lead an entity, then you must engage with global companies at their level. Know how to play the game and speak their language, says Withers. “The MBA is your driver’s licence.
“To survive in business today doesn’t call for short-term linear decisions – you’ve got to think over the horizon. The MBA helps you do that.”
He says the Auckland MBA includes a course on how to make high value decisions and implement them. “To survive you need to develop people capable of thinking in that environment.”
The true proof of relevancy lies in the students who report that they can apply new knowledge to their businesses even with only a few papers completed. Ken Lee recalls one student who experienced six promotions during his MBA studies and was head hunted for a top position, once he had graduated.
Good for business
For business owners, an MBA provides a whole toolbox of skills, knowledge and practices to help them grow their business to a new level. At some stage of their business’s development, they will need this skillset.
“It helps if they already have a stable business and the experience to relate to what they are being taught on the programme,” says Ken Lee. “Then they can transcribe the theory into practice and put new learning into the context of their business.”
It’s never too late to enrol in a programme. Peter Withers knows of one owner-manager in his mid to late 50s who is highly successful at property development and leasing and took on an MBA to “learn how to think and learn how to change direction”.
A part-time MBA is probably the best option for business owners, and for most the MBA is a chance to gain a broader perspective and see just how far they can go with their business. The payback can be almost instantaneous – there is the story of one business owner who left the MBA programme just a quarter of the way in, because his business began growing too fast!
There’s no doubt that the MBA is also good for employers who choose to support a manager through his or her studies.
“It sends all the right messages back to staff, and because an assignment in just about every paper relates to the student’s organisation, there’s direct benefit to that organisation – the employer can almost treat it like an internal-consultancy,” says Massey’s Jonathan Matheny.
It’s a given that confidence comes from knowledge and understanding, and MBA-equipped employees therefore become better, more confident, all-round executives who can hold a conversation and challenge business professionals or advisors.
Regena Mitchell believes employers should back MBA aspirants or risk losing them, and she doesn’t recommend bonding them either. “It’s asking for trouble. They’ll be very unhappy and only look for another employer to buy them out.”
So is membership to the MBA club worth all the expense, sleep deprivation, family pressures and inconvenience? Feedback from graduates would suggest that it very much is – and every MBA department head has numerous satisfying tales to share from graduates.
Wayne Dreyer recalls the MBA graduate who was one of 17 children in the family, and the first member of his extended family to go through University.
Jonathan Matheny shares the story of 65 MBA students introducing themselves to each other during orientation. One student mentioned in his introduction that he was about to be made redundant from his job. “Less than a month later he landed a job through a contact of one of the students – that’s the power of our MBA network!”
For AUT’s Ken Lee the most satisfaction comes from hearing from graduates who have been promoted or have landed top jobs. “I’ve heard from graduates based all over the world – the executive in New York, consultant in London, financial manager at a Hong Kong bank and logistics/operations manager in China.”
Peter Withers remembers the “engineer’s engineer” who made it through to graduation and remarked: “you’ve taught me how to think, not what to think”. But it was an email from a recent student that stood out the most for Withers – a student who was initially uncertain of why he was there amongst ‘the posturing and egos of the other students’, but who soon realised that the programme grows everyone as human beings. It teaches humility and builds leadership qualities. ‘My one true aim is to be an inspiring leader and have the confidence to move through any uncertainty’, the student had typed.
That’s exactly what’s required for these uncertain times.
Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.