Manchester Business School (MBS) is no slouch when it comes to developing MBA programmes for leading companies such as IBM, Arthur Anderson and KPMG. But last year’s merger of its parent, Manchester University, with close neighbour Umist, has boosted MBS’s ability to offer tailor-made courses for a much wider variety of blue chip companies.

MBS’s new distance learning MBA for commercial executives within BT Global Services, which services BT’s 3,400 multinational clients, is one of the first fruits of a merger that created the UK’s biggest university with 9,000 staff and a £500m annual budget.

The merger has meant Manchester Business School Worldwide, MBS’s distance learning arm, can now run the BT programme in conjunction with the university’s school of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (Mace), which gives it access to a wider range of specialist expertise.

MBS Worldwide will manage the general management core modules, and Mace will run the specialist elective modules in areas such as project management and risk assessment. Nigel Banister, head of MBS Worldwide, which has 3,500 students and is the fastest growing part of MBS, says that putting on this sort of programme would not have been possible before the merger.

“Now we can tailor specific courses for engineering managers and blend that with the top MBA tuition that we give at MBS,” says Mr Banister. “The word is getting out and we are talking to other organisations about putting on similar courses.”

The first 15 BT managers from the US, Europe and the UK began work on a specially tailored MBA programme last autumn and have just finished the first module on MBS’s Manchester campus.

The BT MBA programme will take two and a half years to complete, compared with 19 months for a full-time MBA, and will consist of a blend of printed, electronic and face-to-face sessions which will result in the award of a normal MBA. Seven of the 12 modules will be covered through distance learning and five will be on campus.

The programme is designed to help BT engineers build on their existing experience and develop their understanding of other business aspects such as strategy, finance, marketing and international business.

As part of the course, BT managers will work on a practical project that covers a key issue within BT. Students have access to MBS’ extensive library and databases via the web to support their studies.

BT, which spends £61m a year on training and developing its 100,000 staff, faces the same dilemma as any blue chip employer. It needs to raise the skills of its executives. But if it allows them to take leave of absence to pursue a full time MBA course, it is unlikely they will return to BT.

“We are committed to raising the level of skills and expertise of our top flyers and at the same time the format of the course means they have minimum disruption to their working life,” says Debbie Barlow, a BT consultant.

BT picked MBS because it was one of the world’s top 50 MBA providers and has a wealth of sector-specific distance learning MBA programmes.

Mr Banister believes a growing number of big companies see part-time company-specific MBAs as a viable alternative to traditional MBA courses. “Instead of waiting for people to do an MBA and then recruit them afterwards, companies are thinking why not put their own high fliers through MBA courses on a part-time basis without disturbing their careers,” he says.

Such courses help them retain better staff, and can be tailored to suit a company’s interests, both in subject matter and timing. MBS, for example, has worked with BT to make sure on-campus sessions are fitted in with the least disruptive times to release the BT managers on the course.

The fine tuning in terms of course content and timing means the BT MBA course is more flexible than the traditional part-time MBA course, where students have to work to a set course syllabus and timetable.

“A company gets a pay-back not only on individuals increasing their skills but also using it as a way to solve real company problems through projects carried out on the MBA course,” says Mr Banister.

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