MBA Programs. The benefits of an MBA are almost as varied as the programmes available and the students studying them. With some 100,000 graduating per year with an MBA from one of approximately 1,000 US or 550 European schools, this represents variety indeed. It is therefore not surprising that all these benefits are not fully appreciated, or that outdated ideas of benefits persist.

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Traditionally, having an MBA meant that you were one of an exclusive group of highly selected students who had survived a rigorous academic programme, with a strong emphasis on quantitative and analytical skills. While you might have little or no organisational experience, you were confident in your ability to solve problems, and expected a correspondingly high salary on appointment.

It is clear from the numbers above that an MBA is no longer a mark of exclusivity. But paradoxically the massive expansion in MBA provision has, in many ways, made the qualification more attractive to employers. This is because of a shift in emphasis in MBA content, and a major change in those studying for the qualification. Both changes were pioneered primarily in the UK, where the typical student is now in their late twenties or thirties, has considerable management experience, and is more likely to be studying while working (via part-time, executive or distance learning programmes) rather than incurring the opportunity costs of full-time study. In fact, many managers are now studying UK MBA programmes from around the globe, without detriment to the quality of their student experience or the value of the qualification.

Employers no longer see MBA as standing for arrogance, ignorance of the real world and high salary demands (twenty years ago, this was a common view in Europe outside of the traditional blue-chip employers of MBAs). Instead, they see the qualification, allied to relevant experience and proven organisational achievements, as indicating flexibility, the ability to welcome rather than resist change, creativity, self-motivation, personal effectiveness, and a range of other qualities needed in the fluid organisational environments to which they are currently recruiting.

This means that one major benefit for the MBA graduate is that if they are applying for a new job, their attractiveness in terms of existing stresngths and experience will be considerably enhanced by the possession of the qualification. Note, though, that this basis will normally be important. An MBA without other attributes will today have a restricted appeal; only the 'top' schools tend to have consultancies and employers queueing up to employ their graduates, and even then relevant work experience will normally be expected.

So much for one of the historic benefits. The other benefits of traditional MBAs have perhaps been less affected by time. The confidence of knowing that you are as familiar with concepts as those trying to 'blind you with jargon' is as valid as ever, as is the ability to be constructively critical of consultants or others purveying 'solutions' to management problems. It is still important to be able to use management tools and techniques - from a basic spreadsheet to a sophisticated knowledge management tool - to communicate clearly, whether in writing or when making presentations, and to analyse a problem thoroughly before suggesting a solution. Understanding the basic functions in an organisation and the main features in the environment that impact upon it is still vital for effective strategic management. Exposure to the latest thinking in management will always be an asset.

But added to these, an MBA today is likely to give you a range of 'softer' skills and understanding. You are likely to develop your teamworking skills, to gain an understanding of why people in organisations behave as they do, and to become more aware of the problems stress can cause. You will be far better able to understand and respond effectively to the uncertainty and complexity that is a feature of organisational life in times of rapid change. You may well have developed your own creativity. Above all, you will be able to stand back from situations and 'make sense of them' in a range of different ways, reflecting different perspectives. What is more, you will learn from these 'conceptual experiments' reflecting your capacity to respond to future situations.

Those studying part-time are often surprised at the speed with which these benefits become apparent. Almost from the start of a programme, testing conceptual frameworks taught in the course against a student's own experience changes the way they see situations, thereby markedly increasing their effectiveness as managers. This unanticipated benefit of the study process is so powerful, and the promotions that follow so rapid, that possession of the letters 'MBA' may become almost irrelevant.

Other unanticipated benefits are improved time management skills (indeed, it would be hard to survive an MBA programme without these), a network of contacts that will outlast their management career, and increased motivation at work as things start to make sense. Above all, the learning and reflective habits developed will ensure that even long after graduating, those with MBAs will be outperforming those without.An MBA may no longer be an exclusive qualification for those heading for the most senior ranks of management, or a guarantee of an immediate doubling of salary. But an appropriate MBA still offers managers career and personal benefits that are likely to far outweigh any financial and personal costs.

To gain these benefits, you will need to choose your course carefully. It will need to be suited to your particular needs, and offered by a respected institution. Be warned - gaining a reputable MBA will be hard work. Beware too that it may also become addictive, and may change your life and your career in ways that you cannot envisage at the outset!

Author: Sheila Cameron, The Open University


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