October 23, 2006 10:20 am

Company-specific EMBAs: Poor relation comes in from the cold

While executive MBAs continue to go from strength to strength, company-specific EMBAs, those programmes that are made-to-measure by a school for a single company, have always languished in the shade.

Schools and companies alike point the finger at sustainability or expense as reasons for not following the single-company EMBA route. But the main criticism is that no possibility of wide networking.

MBA students can generally learn as much from their peers as they can from a faculty. But single-company EMBA participants’ networking opportunities are limited to people from the same company, so critics says that the benefits are limited.

As a consequence, many schools are wary of entering this market.

At the Chicago Graduate School of Business, deputy dean Mark Zmijewski says the school has been approached to run a single-company EMBA, but has never felt that it was “the right fit”.

While Prof Zmijewski does not rule out the possibility, he says the school has high standards that would have to be met before they went ahead.

Rick Crawley, associate dean for external relations and corporate communications at Lancaster University Management School in the UK, accepts that the single-company model has always been open to criticism. But he stresses that for some companies a single-company EMBA, focused solely on the needs of that company, can work very well and may be the best solution for its business needs.

While Lancaster no longer runs a single company EMBA, Prof Crawley says that its programme for British Airways, which it ran for more than a decade, was very successful.

“It depends on the company, but you can give terrific focus on the issues of the company if, for example, you are trying to sweep through massive cultural changes. It [a single-company EMBA] is one solution.”

For those schools that do decide to run a company-specific EMBA in partnership with a company, the advantages can be considerable.

The Robert Smith school of business at the University of Maryland has teamed up with Science Applications International Corporation (Saic), a systems, solutions and technical service company, to deliver a 20-month customised EMBA programme.

Alison Buckley, director of executive MBA admissions at the Smith School, says there are advantages for all concerned.

For the students she says, the company foots the tuition, while the school has the opportunity to develop a close relationship with an organisation.

She says the criticism about lack of networking possibilities should be considered from another angle.

Programme participants have a possibly unique opportunity to build a strong network with managers throughout their organisation and to develop relationships with other employees they might not have met otherwise.

The faculty at the Smith school, she adds, believes it is important “to continually challenge and force people [students] to think about roles differently“. The faculty has a different perspective so that single company EMBA candidates are kept on their toes.

Moreover, she points out, large companies that have in-house degree programmes are frequently multinational, “So you have people in the classroom together from across the organisation who think differently,” she adds. “You don’t have as much group-think.”

From Saic’s perspective, Mary Pietanza, manager of learning programmes and partnerships, is confident that, the tailored EMBA is the way forward.

“We are using this programme to retain and develop very good employees,“ she says.

“The school is providing content aligned to our business environment, they are delivering it in the context of our business and educating our employees to address specific business challenges unique to our company.” Given such specific goals she adds that a consortium programme would not have been appropriate.

Ms Pietanza adds that the networking possibilities are wide. Saic EMBA participants have diverse education and experience backgrounds, and have been drawn from both inside and outside the US.

“Just about every business unit is represented in this programme – there is a diversity in goals and business as well as industry background.“

The company hopes that the programme will act as a catalyst to build a culture of collaboration and teamwork which will move from the classroom into the workplace.

Her views are echoed by Nigel Banister, chief executive of Manchester Business School Worldwide, the distance- learning arm of Manchester Business School (MBSW), based in the UK. It runs corporate programmes for the consultancies PwC and KPMG, and the telecoms company BT.

Mr Banister also emphasises that candidates can be drawn from a number of countries and will frequently have never have met before. “You can build up a great camaraderie and they become a powerful force to drive the company forward.”

Recognising the fact that single-company EMBAs can be a little insular, Mr Banister says MBSW recommends that some elements of a programme are taken in the public arena so that students have the benefit of meeting executives from other walks of life with differing viewpoints.

And he adds that PwC has overcome the networking issue by asking the school to send PwC students to MBSW’s executive teaching centres around the world.

KPMG’s single-company EMBA run with MBSW, the professional services adviser’s perspective, has been very successful.

“I am always looking for qualifications that are going to meet the needs of the business and at the same time challenge our staff and meet their personal ambitions in terms of their career and their own personal development,” says Michael Walby, national exam senior training manager at the company.

And Mr Walby rejects the charge that the course is isolating.

While there are elements of the programme that are specific to KPMG in terms of business needs, and at certain times of the year KPMG students work in isolation, he says: “we interact with the world business community. There are workshops where our staff have the opportunity to meet with the wider business community and meet a wider field.

“They [KPMG students] meet with their peers and get a wider experience.“ But for those companies that do want a wider networking element, while at the same time having a focused EMBA the solution is to compromise and adopt a consortium EMBA.

Bradford University School of Management has been running an EMBA for Emirates Airline for eight years. It was initially a single-company EMBA, but Emirates Airline expanded the programme to include various consortium partners.

The reasons for this, says Craig Johnson, director of studies at Bradford, were two-fold.

The lead company, he says, wished to enrich the learning experience by allowing participants to network with executives from other companies, and at the same times the company wanted its employees to gain a wider business perspective.

According to Mr Johnson the programme has worked well and the EMBA consortium is considering further expansion.

While single-company EMBAs are unlikely ever to have the same appeal as the open EMBA, Prof Crawley says that it is a matter of “horses for courses“. At the right time and the right place, he says, a customised EMBA is the best solution.

At MBSW, Mr Banister is convinced of their potential.

“Single-company EMBAs are an expanding market, and employers are constructing their requirements and their retention around it,” he says.

Customised EMBAs, he adds, represent a great opportunity for top-tier business schools to expand: “We recognise that, and we are going to do our best to win our share of that.”

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