MBA educators shift from teaching to coaching in an all-out effort to ensure their programmes stay relevant and leading edge. Kevin Kevany has more.
In theory these should be halcyon days for those in the business of business education globally – that’s if The Goldman Sachs Group Inc’s US$500-million educating-and-training, mentoring and funding of 10,000 SMEs initiative is anything to go by. That, plus the US$300-million Blackstone founder’s scholarship programme at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, for students from around the world, and billed as a rival to the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
But traditional educational institutions everywhere are being forced to re-examine their teaching models and methods with the burgeoning challenge of the rather inelegant sounding MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Courses). MOOCs are being delivered by some of the top universities in the world as well as, amongst others, the likes of Coursera and Udacity, two recent Silicon Valley start-ups providing free education, often of the highest calibre, and featuring internationally renowned academics.
We asked the leaders of New Zealand’s top business schools where they thought the traditional MBA now ranked with Kiwi businessmen/women, particularly SME owner/managers, and whether many bright young/mid-career people were using the lull in business activity to improve their qualifications and experience?
Their responses were varied and reflected the wide range of focus, course options and teaching philosophies on offer. There is also an indication of a growing discomfort at the educational authorities dated approach to measuring the effectiveness and, therefore, the funding that currently flows to universities as a consequence of that.
Victoria Business School director, MBA and International MBA, Natalie Stevens took up the challenge first. “Generally there is mixed support for MBAs in New Zealand compared to globally – where they are held in very high regard.
“I think this is because by and large there has not been enough business involvement in the design of academic programmes. This is changing and most MBA programmes now actively encourage and solicit a closer ‘town-gown’ relationship. This is critical as we need to make sure our MBA programmes are turning out graduates with the right skills for ‘tomorrow’s leaders’; and we simply can’t do that without input into the curriculum from businesses,” says Stevens.
“We also need to make sure our programmes and students are connected to our exemplar leaders and businesses. We believe ‘social media’ is the perfect vehicle for us to achieve this.”
As to the dated and complicated government funding formula and some SMEs asking employees to partially-fund their studies, ‘Vic’ has come up with an innovative solution.
“We are making it easier for students to achieve an MBA and employers to fund their employees’ professional development,” says Stevens, “via our staircasing option.”
Students can complete a Post Experience Certificate in Management Studies (four courses); ‘staircase’ into a Post Experience Diploma (four more); then, on achieving a B+ average, a student can apply for the MBA programme and cross-credit completed courses into the MBA, leaving only eight courses to go, explains Stevens.
“There is evidence in the marketplace that employers are looking for people to invest in their own personal development and prove that they can achieve at an executive level of study: the Vic MBA ‘staircasing’ option provides a great way for employers to see evidence of personal investment, and employees to prove their ambition and leadership competence.”
Students work together in teams to help businesses solve challenges related to strategic issues, HR, marketing, operational, or a combination of all.
“Students get to apply new knowledge and the company receives valuable insights and practical advice on how to solve their issues. ‘Business Lab’ brainstorming sessions are held after work and teams recommend solutions using frameworks and concepts taught in the curriculum,” says Stevens.
Economy driving interest
“Interest in the Massey MBA is again on the rise,” says Martin H. Devlin, Professor Emeritus and acting MBA director, at Massey University’s College of Business. “We think this is due to the economy showing signs of strengthening – especially with government’s international initiatives and the Christchurch rebuild.”
Devlin notes the two-year, part-time Massey Executive MBA is the only ‘taught’ programme available New Zealand-wide. Offered in four locations, at weekends, it allows huge flexibility for candidates who need to move or whose employer may require short-notice travel, project work etc. Students can do ‘make-ups’ in four centres.
“The need for more MBAs with leadership and managerial capability is growing, not decreasing. The MBA is a very powerful international brand, transcending international boundaries. An accredited MBA is a worldwide degree of significance to employers but is also an ideal platform for start-ups or, increasingly, governance appointments.”
Devlin believes that while the MBA is ‘not so widely recognised amongst SMEs’, there certainly are exceptions. “Principally a number of very successful business owner/managers seeking a more strategic and/or formal foundation to assist in business growth.”
He points to a number of successful SMEs established by graduates.
An increasing number of candidates are being fully-funded by employers, and Devlin reckons Massey candidates are equally divided between those “seeking to make a career change as there are those looking to career advancement”.
The changing face of business education
Waikato’s Dr Peter Sun, associate dean enterprise at Waikato Management School (The University of Waikato), believes the current environment is “far from halcyon days for those in the business of business education” despite the Goldman Sachs initiative and others.
“However, these types of initiatives are a reflection of the changing face of business education. Business education today is no longer based on the content being delivered. Take for example the growing trend in MOOCs, where content is delivered free by some of the top universities in the world.
“What is being stressed by us is the skill and competency required to deal with the complexities characterising today’s environment. Business programmes which are not able to deliver on this will be soon irrelevant. This is the critical challenge facing the MBA today,” says Dr Sun.
New Zealand SMEs are in survival mode, with owner/managers currently unable to extricate themselves from the daily operations of the business to focus on growth and development.
“It is essential that owner/managers gradually extricate themselves from operations which constrain the drive and creativity, which made them entrepreneurs in the first place, and move towards delegation and governance.
“These, by the way, are essential leadership and business skills you learn in our MBA programme. Many SME owners, once they come into the programme, become converts and see the immense value it provides in enabling them to lead and transform their businesses.”
Confirmation that these are highly competitive days for those in the business of business education globally comes from one of those institutional leaders who has already begun to radically revitalise executive education; Peter Withers, director of academic programmes at The University of Auckland Business School’s Graduate School of Management.
“There is also considerable churn in this sector globally, as full-time MBA programmes (geared to younger students with minimal work experience) shrink and programmes catering for experienced executives consolidate,” says Withers. “Globally, students in executive MBA programmes now average 37 years of age and 14 years’ work experience. As a result MBA providers must pay far greater attention to the needs of business in the VUCA world – a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.”
Withers believes in the ‘new normal’ global environment it is the nations that develop expertise in decision-making and strategic thinking that will prosper; and at the executive level, business schools need to shift from teaching to coaching and avoid the disciplinary ‘silos’ of traditional MBA courses by exploiting synergies across the university.
“It means a degree focused on applied interactive learning and the acquisition of advanced decision-making skills. Such skills are particularly relevant for SMEs. The executive coaching component embedded in this MBA is at the leading edge of global MBA methodology.
“Over the past three years, a number of initially tentative steps at the School have gathered momentum and are attracting international attention amongst the global Executive MBA community. These include the piloting of a course in complexity management which subsequently has underpinned the development of a final-year MBA course sequence that traverses international thinking on value creation and business model innovation; organisational leadership and ethics; and executive coaching for the individual leader.
“This trio of integrated-learning courses is having a powerful impact on the thinking and performance of our MBA graduates and, in turn, is driving the recruitment of better qualified MBA students.”
Withers is committed to the cluster of thought leadership courses (above) and believes that, along with the other refocused components, is helping to establish Auckland University Graduate School of Management as “a globally-progressive thinker and participant in executive education”.
As The University of Auckland MBA is geared to practising executives, they have zero intakes of students from offshore. They do, however, have a diverse group of nationalities represented in their classrooms, all of whom are experienced professionals living and working in New Zealand.
Meanwhile, Wellington’s ‘Vic’ is meeting the challenge by providing a dynamic experience.
Stevens again: “Our MBA is founded on the pillars of leadership, innovation and integration and this is underpinned by a focus on developing our student’s ability to think critically, and analyse problems and issues, from a number of different perspectives.
“These skills are as essential to the SME sector, as any other.
“The other unique proposition of the Vic MBA is our demographic spread of students. Although our average age is 35 years we recruit executives from 28 to 50 plus This means that Gen Y, Gen X and the Baby Boomers all work together and must learn about each other’s leadership and communication styles; plus the use and engagement with technology.”
Is that not a volatile mix?
“Sometimes it can be a real ‘generation collision’, but group interaction is a critical part of every student’s MBA journey, and because of the dynamic nature of our groups, when they are ‘performing’ they can often get extraordinary outcomes,” Stevens says.
Massey’s response is highly practical and internationally-recognised.
“Our flexible entry criteria allow a high degree of selectivity of candidates,” says Devlin, “all of whom must have at least eight years of business or related experience. Of particular note is the teaching process or pedagogy employed, which is discourse-based, drawing on student experience to develop in-class learning.
“It is a very practical programme utilising student’s workplaces as environments for applied learning.”
Massey MBA is increasingly using ‘Stream’ (a Moodle development) to offer more online tuition, but retains the essential face-to-face discourse necessary.
Meeting a slow economy
How is Waikato Management School meeting the slow economy and the MOOC challenge?
“Economic flux necessitates organisational managers to lead in a more dynamic environment. One positive way to come out of an economic recession is to re-invent yourself out of it, and this requires leadership,” says Dr Peter Sun.
“For this reason we have now made leadership development the core theme of our MBA programmes. We engage every participant in a ‘leadership clinic’.”
Students are assessed at the beginning of their programme (personality and leadership behaviours, through a 360-degree evaluation); they do a one-on-one session with a trained organisational psychologist; maintain a leadership journal; and these are used as assignments in some of the papers they do.
“From 2014 we will be having compulsory leadership workshops, as well as developing their skills in integrative thinking,” says Dr Sun.
Waikato Management School believes modern business leaders must be able to lead a generation that is ‘tech-savvy.’
“For this, our MBAs must be exposed to new technology and social media. We are surprised sometimes to find mid-career leaders in their forties, who have not been exposed to social media. They have heard about YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc., but have not had any first-hand experiences with these media.
“All our content is delivered online and we encourage the use of e-devices such as iPads, Android tablets etc. Some of the assignments require participants to use Facebook and YouTube. Although all our sessions are face-to-face, delivering rich participant experiences, our strategy in the future is to use blended learning where some face-to-face interactions can happen synchronously through an online platform,” explains Dr Sun.
The University of Auckland MBA programme does not include online offerings but makes extensive use of educational technology in that all class reading materials, reference sourcing and, increasingly, textbooks are provided in digital form for the students.
“In any MBA programme, it is important to distinguish between fads and topics that add richness to your MBA objectives,” says Withers, “hence our inclusion of a domestic consulting requirement, with students working on growth issues with SME companies; an international business consulting requirement with students spending time in foreign language markets exploring export strategies for established New Zealand companies (students travel to Chile this year); and a course focusing on value creation and customer focus in the business.
“These offerings are designed to enrich the decision-making objectives of the degree programme. They, alongside the leadership and coaching components, are highly valued by both executive students and their employers.”
The Dunedin difference
At the University of Otago in Dunedin – which comprehensively topped other New Zealand universities in all four categories of the latest league tables measuring student performance – they do things very differently. In the words of Ian Lafferty, director executive programmes at the School of Business, University of Otago, they are “unashamedly traditionalists” and that “it’s more about the problem than the solution”. Class sizes are 15 to 20; more than half the students this year are from abroad; and last year they started a ‘park your mobile technology at the door’ policy.
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 – normally ex-MBA graduates who have gone on to greater things locally – who guide, counsel and expose them to what the lower half of the Mainland has to offer.
The focus is on communication and relationship skills; embracing innovation; willingly accepting change as an opportunity; developing strong self-awareness, values and ethics; and being well-grounded. There is also a strong commitment to CQ, or Cultural Quotient.
And there is an opportunity to go on exchange to a number of other universities around the world.
Kevin Kevany is an Auckland based freelance writer. Email [email protected]
Waikato Management School conducts a Dragon’s Den event at the end of Part 1 of its MBA programme, which is all about core competencies and provides an opportunity for participants, working in groups, to come up with an entrepreneurial venture integrating these core skills.
“It is a capstone paper,” says Dr Sun, “and has been highly successful. We have had interesting projects starting up as a result of this event. It also provides participants with an opportunity to stand up to experienced judges and pitch their business and value propositions.
Last year they also ran a group study tour to China.
Massey MBA has fostered ‘start-up weekends’ and other innovative opportunities, like a ‘community service’ day where local businesses and MBA students combine for a range of consultancy-type activities, all free.
A recent Kapiti-Horowhenua Enterprise Forum hosted by local lines company Electra Ltd is to be followed up by a similar interaction with local businesses by the Massey MBA group.
Their International Study Tour in Year 2 is a highlight. Students have visited companies like Google and Microsoft, the NY Stock Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, John Deere, and gone to Brazil, China, and Western Europe.
All students in the Vic MBA go on a study tour to China; take part in a Dragon’s Den Consultancy Challenge and a not-for-profit project; plus a series of Business Labs which focus specifically on the SME sector.