Last updated: October 26, 2010 12:27 pm

Business schools face EMBA challenge

In May this year, all eyes in the medical world were on a Spaniard as he stepped in front of the television cameras. Known only as Rafael, he was one of the first people in the world to have undergone a large-scale facial transplant, and to go public to promote this intricate form of surgery.

The doctors involved were some of the most highly qualified in the world, so it is perhaps surprising that the lead anaesthetist on the 30-hour operation, Ignacio Jimenez Lopez, has gone back to school to study for an MBA, or, to be more precise, for an executive MBA – a part-time MBA for working managers.

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But Jimenez Lopez is not alone. Because EMBA programmes are designed to run parallel to a professional career, they are proving an ideal additional qualification for engineers, doctors, scientists or even clergymen, all searching for a move to a higher level.

At New York University’s Stern School of Business, for example, 40 per cent of enrolled students are either doctors or have PhDs, says Liane Kentas, director for EMBA admissions and marketing.

“Physicians seem to have more reasons than most,” says Kentas. “If they are to become the bosses of doctors and administrators, they need leadership

Such was the motivation for Jimenez Lopez, who enrolled in the programme at Iese Business School in Barcelona. and management skills.”

“A medical career is a very vocational career, where you feel you are helping someone quite directly and in a very personal and close way,” he says. “But I believe my vocation was … also to apply this spirit of service for the benefit of a larger community. I felt the only way I could do this was to try to take a more managerial role within the health sector.”

However, it is in the corporate world that the EMBA has traditionally been particularly attractive, as it enables companies to retain their high-flying managers while grooming them for board-level appointments.

Indeed, the degree was originally viewed as the ultimate corporate programme. Companies paid for their employees to attend in their droves.

No more. The recession has only exacerbated a situation that started developing up to a decade ago, when corporations began to reduce their level of financial sponsorship.

“Company sponsorship is dropping like a rock,” says Eric Weber, associate dean at Iese. “It has reached a historic low.”

With the most expensive EMBA programmes costing upwards of $150,000, it is easy to see why companies shirk from sponsoring students, both because of the ticket price and because of the message it sends to other employees.

But there is a more fundamental problem. EMBA programmes pose a peculiar dilemma for corporations: on the one hand, they are potentially investing in the next generation of board members, but on the other, they are investing in credentials to make those executives more corporately mobile.

The result of all this belt-tightening is that application and enrolment numbers are flat or even decreasing at many business schools, says Patty Keegan, associate dean for the EMBA programme at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

She says one of the biggest challenges is that many students are taking a long time to commit. “Now we’re working with people for a couple of years. They are waiting until the time is right.”

The big question for EMBA programme directors is whether the decline is part of the economic downturn or whether it is a trend, says Howard Kaufold, director of the EMBA programme at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “This is more of a cycle than a trend,” he says. “I still think the EMBA is good value, but it’s harder to see that when you are in a down cycle.”

Business schools that are seeing growth are often offering programmes in countries and regions that have traditionally been underserved by management schools, in general, and by this kind of programme in particular. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are proving increasingly significant for centres of learning such as London Business School and Insead.

On a more local level, Queen’s School of Business in Canada is expanding the reach of its videoconferencing MBA by using the latest technology to deliver the programme to individual desktops. As a result, it is teaching students as far afield as Winnipeg and Bermuda. “We know there are other people who want to take a programme like this,” says Gloria Saccon, director of Queen’s EMBA programme.

Demand in Asia is also strong and rising, says Steve DeKrey, associate dean of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School. While the full-time MBA is the flagship programme in the US, and the masters in management degree is the gold standard in Europe, the EMBA is the degree of choice in the east. “In Asia, the EMBA is taking over the mantle that the MBA has in the west,” says DeKrey. “Back in the west, [the EMBA] has always been the stepchild.”

Almost a third of participants on the Kellogg-HKUST EMBA, number one in the Financial Times rankings this year, are self-financing, says DeKrey. “It’s not just that the company won’t pay … half of my people who are self-financed are doing so through choice.”

It is a trend that is seen across all EMBA programmes as managers take more control over their own careers.

“Many people on the programme realise that this might be the last moment in their professional career to make a switch,” says Weber at Iese. “They want personal branding.”

As a result, this aspiring group of participants is demanding services from the business schools that would have been unheard of when the programmes were company sponsored – most notably career counselling.

“If you look back 10 years, you would not have let the words ‘career services’ cross your lips,” says Kaufold.

For other students, the degree is a way to jump-start a new career. “The EMBA is a platform to develop entrepreneurial projects,” says Javier Gimeno, dean of the EMBA programme at Insead.

As for Jimenez Lopez, although the EMBA has been a stepping stone in his career, it is not the final one. “On the one hand, I feel I need to put into practice everything I have learnt in the EMBA,” he says. “But also – thanks to the EMBA – I have realised that I need to put everything into practice at an international level. And to jump to the next level, I feel I need to experience working and living abroad.”

What do you think will be the next big development in EMBA programmes?

Thomas Robertson, Dean, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Professor Thomas Robertson
Dean, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, US

“Successful EMBA programmes will continue to integrate new technology in support of the total degree experience. There are numerous advantages, including connectivity among students and faculty, and classroom experiences that better simulate the challenges of today’s interconnected global economy. The trick is to utilise this technology without diluting the important human elements of teaching and community.”

Jennifer George, Dean and director, Melbourne Business School, Australia
Professor Jennifer George
Dean and director, Melbourne Business School, Australia

“I think we will see business schools expanding into offshore delivery of EMBA programmes and building a global network of EMBA programmes in cities around the world. I expect this will not be online education – instead, business schools, perhaps using locally sourced staff, will offer EMBAs in multiple locations.”

Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean, IE Business School, Madrid, Spain
Professor Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño
Dean, IE Business School, Madrid, Spain

“‘Hybridisation’ is the prevalent phenomenon across leading EMBA programmes – affecting the curriculum and merging management with humanities, design or biology. The future EMBA will further mix the private and public; exploit symbioses between pedagogy and technology; integrate academic and clinical faculty; promote cultural diversity in class profiles; and foster alliances between business schools across continents.”

Mahendra Gupta, Dean, Olin Business School, Washington University, St Louis, US
Professor Mahendra Gupta
Dean, Olin Business School, Washington University, St Louis, US

“As Group of Seven economies restructure, tight training budgets and ‘self-funders’ are the new normal. EMBA programmes must equip students and companies to retool for slower growth at home, and uncover opportunities in emerging markets. Global offerings, engaged international alumni, career support and integrated solutions to complex business problems are imperative.”

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