TRADITIONALLY, an MBA has been a generalist qualification which teaches fresh skills and opens up avenues. But a new breed of focused MBAs has emerged in recent years. These concentrate on a specific area such as the energy industry, defence, financial services, the BRIC countries or even corporate and social responsibility (see box). They are aimed at those who have a firm idea where they are going and want to deepen their knowledge. They have proved popular with people who have clear career goals, but for some their narrowness goes against the spirit of the MBA.
Jonathan De Grande runs the financial services (FS) MBA at Vlerick, a Belgian business school, and says that such accusations are unfounded. “It has more or less the same curriculum as a general MBA, but with a financial services slant,” he says. Projects and case studies will be taken from the financial services so that rather than studying a retailer, say, you would look at a simulation of an insurance company, a bank or portfolio manager.
The reason the FS MBA works, he says, is the sheer breadth and complexity of the financial services. “People who come on to our programme are working in a specific area but they don’t have an overall picture of how the company works,” he says. “Perhaps they recently moved into a management role. Our aim is to make them into excellent managers.”
Similarly, Warwick runs a Global Energy MBA which is aimed at people from a massive range of businesses, from power station managers to private equity professionals who raise capital for infrastructure projects. Other focused MBAs are aimed at sectors where business knowledge can add value. BPP runs an MBA with City law firm Simmons & Simmons, in which trainees are given an intensive introduction to business. Cass runs a similar course for lawyers from Hogan & Lovells which uses modules drawn from the MBA. These courses help lawyers understand the financial services clients that they work with.
Not everybody is a fan of focused MBAs. Colin Carnall, director of executive education at Cass, says that the whole point of an MBA is to provide breadth. You should think of your skills as being like a T, he says. “The vertical line is deep knowledge of one particular thing, while the cross-bar at the top is a broad understanding of management tools and frameworks – and that is what an MBA is meant to provide.” An MBA is no substitute for experience, and people who think that taking an MBA early in their career will open doors may be disappointed. Nobody should do one before they have proper management experience, says Carnall, meaning that “one, you’ve been responsible for the bottom line, and two, you have had to make bad news stick.” A focused MBA does not provide a short-cut.
Graham Clark from Cranfield School of Management, which runs both a general MBA and a defence one for MoD employees who work with civilian businesses such as contractors, is also sceptical about most focused MBAs. “It is a bit populist and flavour-of-the-month. We need to be aware of corporate social responsibility, energy issues, and the BRICs. But an MBA that works for a specific career path might not work in the future.” Rather than opening doors, he thinks, a specialist MBA could be a dead-end.
The whole point of a general MBA is that it should be bang up-to-date. Clark says that compared to five years ago the Cranfield MBA is more focused on personal development, teaching people to be self-aware and to change their bad management habits. It also takes a more holistic approach, joining the dots between disciplines. A good general MBA should cover everything that a focused one does. “If we lose sight of the essence of the MBA then the whole product is devalued,” he says. “It is about having people who are able to operate as effective leaders in any organisation – whether that is commercial, public sector, armed forces, or not for profit.”
WARWICK GLOBAL ENERGY MBA AND PORTFOLIO MANAGER FOR RWE NPOWER
HAVING graduated from Bath Business School with an MSc in International Management, Mani Yanika joined Ernst & Young and then JP Morgan. He chose the Global Energy MBA because "I have been involved in the energy market for many years and wanted to be recognised as an expert in this field. The UK energy industry has evolved tremendously over the past few years; the UK generation mix is moving away from the traditional sources of energy to new resources."
The sector is also increasingly international. “In order to solve global energy issues, companies and regulators need bright energy professionals equipped with intangible skills who understand the energy industry,” he says.
His cohort included energy professionals from across the world who worked in “trading, the financial sector, engineering, government and consulting to name a few.” Now he wants to move into oil derivatives sales. “The knowledge and experience gained in the course will give me an immediate edge,” he says.
DOS AND DON’TS | WHY DO A FOCUSED MBA?
You have gone past the age when most people do an MBA – you are in your mid-30s onwards – and have a deep knowledge of your particular area, but want a more general understanding of the rest of your industry.
You are in an industry where management is not a core skill – law, journalism, or medicine for example – but you have recently moved into a management role, or want to move into one, and are looking for the MBA to give you specific management skills.
You are thinking of doing an MBA anyway, and would whether you get on the focused course or not.
The school also offers a general management MBA, and you will have a chance to mingle with those people. This should mean that there is no chance of the focus being too narrow.
You want to go and work in a country, so you do an MBA focused on that country. Just go and do one there instead.
You couldn’t get on to a general management MBA. Consider going back and doing your GMAT again.
You have a specific job in mind and you think that the focused MBA will help you get it. Remember that the world is changing quickly and that the job you want might not exist in 10 years. An MBA is meant to broaden your horizons, not narrow your opportunities.
You are at the start of your career and want to boost your CV. Think about doing a masters in your chosen area instead – an MBA should wait until you have more experience.
ELS DE KEYSER
HEAD OF CENTRALISED CLAIMS MANAGEMENT AT KBC INSURANCE
ELS de Keyser had just moved to KBC’s non-life insurance section, where she supervised five departments handling large and complex claims, when the financial crisis struck.
She decided it was a perfect opportunity to take the financial services MBA at Vlerick (MBA FSI). “I wanted specifically to understand what was happening, preferably in a multidisciplinary setting, and to enhance my options with my employer, a bancassurance group with home markets in Belgium and Central Europe.”
Previously, she had been familiar with asset management and wanted to add specific banking and insurance knowledge, while developing general management skills “to give me more options within the group”. The modular structure also meant she could continue working while doing the MBA.
“I did not find it narrow in focus. The programme was set up as a full MBA, covering all relevant subject matters, not just the ones specifically dealing with the financial sector.”
As well as Ghent, where Vlerick is based, she traveled to Sankt-Gallen, Montréal, London, New York and even as far as Beijing. “I will never forget the Chinese insurance company manager who presented his business to us in an almost military style, in Chinese.”
As for networking, “we had good contact with the alumni of previous editions of the MBA FSI, who were invited to some parts of the program and who organised some of the company visits.”
And the next step? “It is too early to tell whether it has helped my career, since I just graduated, but I believe that whatever my next step will be, this MBA definitely will help me, either by increasing my options with my current employer or by having developed the skills necessary to set up my own business.”
WHAT’S OUT THERE | FOCUSED MBAS
MBAs targeted specifically at those in the financial services are available from Vlerick in Belgium, and the Universities of East London, Greenwich and Coventry.
At Warwick you can do an MBA that specialises in the energy industry. Cranford has an MBA targeted to those in defence – mainly from the armed forces and the MoD.
BPP runs an MBA that is targeted at those in the law, with City law firm Simmons and Simmons. Cass runs a course with Hogan Lovells that makes use of some of the MBA modules.
Those interested in working in the BRICs might look up an MBA aimed at those countries at the Chung-Ang Business School in South Korea.
Alternatively, Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii has an MBA aimed at Japan. UoH also runs a 15-month, intensive China-focused MBA with the Japan-America Institute of Management Science.
Nottingham University Business School runs an MBA specifically focused on Corporate and Social Responsibility. The course used to be sponsored by British American Tobacco.
There is an MBA in Non-Profit Management at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. It focuses on global development and aims to produce “socially responsible leaders”.