Education and Development
Degrees of flavour

Why do an MBA? Based on our research of this buoyant sector, perhaps that question should be: Why aren’t you doing an MBA? This is after seeing the dynamic innovation in our MBA courses and the youngsters – some in their mid-50s – who’re benefitting from taking the plunge.

It is a vibrant, challenging, expansive, international-but-Kiwi, switched-on and eclectic environment – all at the same time. While some providers, like the Waikato Management School, are embracing technology in every way possible (as being an essential skill for being in business today and tomorrow), Otago University School of Business is about to ban technology devices from the course. ‘Park your laptop at the door and stick your smartphone in your sock drawer’ stuff.
And if you think that might just be a gimmick; listen up. The status of Kiwi MBAs in terms of international recognition by those who count globally is beating the pants off our cousins across the ditch. The message is: stay home if you want to be in the A(credited)-Team!

But how do you choose where to spend your money, and most importantly, your precious time? Unless you are fortunate enough to have an employer pay you, while picking up the business school tab too (an increasingly rare occurrence, although you do hear Fonterra mentioned a good deal around the canteens), you will be faced with opting out for a full-time Executive MBA, with plenty of interaction, networking and team assignments – or part-time, which can involve anything from largely online contact and weekend, or short-term campus sessions. And there’re some permutations in-between.

The word is flexibility. Or if you like, meeting the market needs; which is appropriate for a discipline which lives by the dictates of the ‘market’.
As Andrew Barney, director MBA Programme, Massey University puts it, “In virtually any New Zealand institution I can think of, offering an accredited MBA, you can’t go wrong. It’s like ice cream; it’s about what turns you on. Your favourite flavour, when faced with a cabinet of tempting delights.
“Most institutions today have the flexibility to tweak their offering to meet the needs of mature students, often with families and large work responsibilities, wanting to develop their skills, leadership abilities and grow their network.
“Content across the board, is broadly the same. Superficially there are great differences, but don’t be misled, it is all about how the institution you choose delivers that content,” says Barney, who, when cornered on what flavour the Massey MBA would be, replied, “Chocolate ripple; all blended together smoothly – and definitely not Neapolitan, all segmented into separate stripes of flavour.”

Interestingly, Barney doesn’t see the traditional opposition institutions as his competition, but his own university, offering specialist Masterates in subjects like finance, marketing, administration and HR. They only require 180 credits, rather than the usual standard 240 for an MBA.
What one business school does is soon copied by others, if they see it is regarded as a differentiator when it comes to the final choice. Hence, many MBA courses are taking a ‘cohort’ (their buzz-word for ‘course group’) to anywhere from Guangzhou to New York for a week or two, for intense exposure to that environment. It is the ‘flavour’ (to stay with the ice cream model) of the moment, although some dismiss it as ‘study/business travel.’

Triple crowns and indigenous values
The University of Auckland Business School and the Waikato Management School at the University of Waikato, along with the Queensland University of Technology, are the only institutions in Australasia to have the coveted ‘Triple Crown’ (AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA) endorsement from globally recognised accreditation agencies.
In addition, Dr. Peter Sun, associate dean enterprise at the Waikato Management School, would point out that the school celebrated its finest hour to date in London, on 19 October 2011, when it was honoured with The Association of MBAs inaugural ‘MBA Innovation Award’, in partnership with the Waikato-Tainui College for Research and Development, at a gala ceremony.
The award recognised its ‘exciting new practices that are innovative and original’ in the face of ‘many high-calibre entries from across the world’, according to AMBA’s Sharon Bamford.
Accepting the award on the night, Dr Sun said, “To us, this award is an affirmation that our programmes are always at the cutting edge of management education, and celebrates our boldness in venturing into unchartered waters. Our innovative MBA programme attempts to bring indigenous values into the forefront of business dynamics. We believe that there is unity in diversity and creativity when diverse perspectives meet. The award is also a celebration of the multicultural nature of New Zealand society.”
He says the school has developed strong relationships around sustainability (something Waikato was quickly onto in the early 2000s) with Canadian business schools and their indigenous society.
“Don’t come to Waikato if you don’t have growth aspirations,” he says. And you suspect he might add if you are a technophobe and don’t want to be challenged to produce a YouTube promo; handle snap quizzes; and work with Facebook and Twitter.
He takes SME participants particularly seriously and relishes the success achieved by alumnus Les Roa and his Longveld Engineering company.
“The challenge for all SME owners, who usually have a technical skill or knowledge of a niche market, is how to grow. Product/market expertise gets overtaken in time. You cannot just run on that.
“In our MBA, we systematically develop a wider orientation and help you adapt to the implication of new markets. We teach you essential skills, like how to obtain the optimal sources of finance; dealing with large organisations; interrelating perspectives; and on to important basics like commercial contracting and how not to get ‘bitten’ or burnt out.”  
Sun and his colleagues aren’t resting on their newly-acquired laurels either, launching their own version of ‘Dragon’s Den’.
“The final paper in part one of our MBA is called ‘Integrative Paper: Identifying and Planning New Ventures’. Participants are given the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts and theories taught in part one and pitch an idea for a new business venture to a panel of experts.  
“They research a product/service to create a business plan from which they will present their idea and look at the steps needed to execute its implementation. The judges are key business people and corporate and executive education alumni.” 

The VUCA world
Peter Withers, director of academic programmes, Graduate School of Enterprise at Auckland University is a ‘superstar’ of the New Zealand MBA world. That is attested to in his being recently appointed to the Board of the Executive MBA Council, the so-called ‘primary voice’ of the Executive MBA industry, representing the top 220 Executive MBA programmes worldwide.
It helps that he has some 30 years of international experience across diplomacy, business consulting, and executive education in a number of countries.
“The Business School sets the highest bar in the country for entry criteria,” Withers says, “and it is seen as a ‘first choice’ university for ambitious students.
“Our research says the Auckland MBA is attracting students for whom the key motivations are ‘challenge my thinking’, ‘gain new business tools/techniques’ and acquiring ‘a business management education’.”
It’s about adapting to the VUCA world.
“Technology, sustainability, social media, reputation management, etcetera are all elements of the VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The challenge for both MBA programmes and students is to provide a learning experience that embraces the tools and the global mindset necessary to compete successfully in that world.
“Kiwi SME business owners are very concerned about the time commitment, so often their staff do [an MBA] rather than them. Lots of business owners in family-businesses get their children to do an MBA, to bring robust business processes to the organisation as it grows and develops.”
Over the past four years The University of Auckland MBA classes have worked with more than 90 New Zealand companies on domestic consulting projects and more than 80 New Zealand companies on international consulting projects in countries as diverse as Malaysia, Chile, China, Korea, Hungary, Greece, Czech Republic and Spain.

But don’t for a moment underestimate the success being achieved by Christopher Theunissen, associate dean postgraduate at the Faculty of Business, Manukau Institute of Technology, and his colleagues, who are primarily involved with the delivery of executive education (supported distance learning) postgraduate programmes, including the MBA and DBA, offered in collaboration with Australia’s Southern Cross University.
Like Withers, he has an extensive international and local pedigree and thrives on innovation and adaptability.
“MIT offers the highly practical and accessible, technically and financially, supported distance learning model, as utilised by Southern Cross University, and our collaboration allows individuals to try to achieve the best possible balance between their family, academic and professional responsibilities.
“Our most popular postgraduate courses for business executives remain the ever-popular MBA, together with other similar but more specialised programmes which share the MBA philosophy (similar shared core components), including a Masters in Human Resources and Organisational Development (MHROD), and Masters in Professional Accounting (MPA).”
MIT also offers further specialisation with their Doctor of Business Administration.
The MIT MBA is in the $2,000 to $3,000 category. “Qualifications like the MBA are often regarded as being somewhat expensive, even though evidence suggests that the return on investment is considerable, both professionally and financially,” says Theunissen. “Notwithstanding this, with increased competition and pressure for jobs in times of higher unemployment, individuals often feel the need to study further to enhance their own.”

Cultural quotient
Ian Lafferty, director, executive programmes at the School of Business, University of Otago, like his counterparts has a more-than-interesting CV and a record of great achievement. More than two-thirds of his students come from offshore and many stay on in Dunedin and surrounds afterwards.
“Our MBA students become immersed in Dunedin for the full period. The city, in turn, adopts them. On arrival, from the proverbial four corners of the earth, they are met by their mentors, who guide, counsel and expose them to the lower half of the mainland. Just one of the factors that makes us unique,” he says.
It also reflects the school’s strong commitment to CQ, or Cultural Quotient.
“IQ used to be what it is all about,” says Lafferty, “but these days EQ and CQ are where we are at.”
Delivery and structure, he believes, are even more critical to the Otago MBA, than content.
“Today’s employers want people who, amongst other attributes, have: communication and relationship skills; embrace innovation; willingly accept change as an opportunity; have strong self-awareness, values and ethics; and are well-grounded. And that’s what we deliver, plus.
“The market wants people with a strong general degree from the right institution, and I don’t see that changing. We are unashamedly traditionalists dedicated to an educational venture, rather than a commercial one. It’s easy to focus on the latter, while the former makes us unique and special. And it’s tough,” he says.
“You’ll get teamwork, communication and negation skills and learn problem-solving – and it’s more about the problem than the solution. And you’ll be engaged all the time, I promise, as you get a first-class education from a world-class faculty in a first-class environment.”
Don’t come too young (“you’re too inexperienced”) or too old (“what’s the value of it if you don’t have time to exploit your learning?”) is his advice. At 30-plus you have time to launch yourself to great heights and, importantly, recover your costs.
Class sizes are a maximum of 40 and typically 35, or 7 x 5 syndicates – meaning they all get to know each other and the faculty, or as he puts it, ‘there’s no place to hide’.

Facing up to the future
Also in the ‘classic MBA’ camp is Massey University. Its MBA programme director is Andrew Barney, who is both a traditionalist and a futurist.
“Massey, along with all other providers of MBAs and learning need to face up to the future which has arrived in the form of EDX – free online lectures, done in collaboration with Stanford University and MIT in the States.
“Call it the ‘Google-ising of Education’ if you will. If you don’t pay the fees, you simply get a ‘certificate of completion’; if you do, you get a degree. The challenge for us and particularly the providers of largely online offerings is: will employers really care whether you have a degree or a certificate of completion?
“To get onto our course at Massey, you need to tell us what you have to offer the other students in your cohort. We also require you to develop relationships, share digs, the getting to-and-from the course, and the rest. We are ‘Old School’ in the process, if not in the content.”
Woe betide you if you cannot get to a compulsory class, since Massey University offers the course across four campuses, in a staggered form: Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington and Christchurch. The liberal-thinking Barney delights in the different attitudes to everything from issues, to dress and application across the centres, particularly when students come together.
“We celebrate innovation, especially when our students band together to create successful business. And, of course, we are New Zealand-focused,” he says, “so we need to expose our students to the differences in this market, before taking them abroad, if those international trips are to provide maximum benefit.”
And their research shows them to be leaders in this very-untraditional activity, which attracts academics and alumni – known as ‘hitch-hikers’. (Alumni are regularly drafted in to mentor students.)
They’ve been on seven forays to the likes of Stockton, California (to experience a bankrupt city); Silicon Valley; China; and Denmark (because of Barney’s connections, and the parallels with agriculture and SMEs). The eighth trip leaves shortly for Argentina, Chile and Brazil.
The knowledge, the experience, sharing and the bonding, which is further enhanced, is the clincher for Barney.
Time to step up to the counter and select your flavour.

Kevin Kevany is an Auckland-based writer. Email

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