Rich mix of cultures adds to the learning experience

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“When I evaluated our in-house MBA, the more I discovered the less impressed I became. I could not think of anything less dynamic than being taught with a group of people from the same company, where we all adopted the same institutionalised approach and outlook as each other.”

This indictment of single-company EMBAs comes from a senior consultant at a leading financial institution based in the City of London. After researching the options he persuaded his company against putting him through the in-house programme and joined the open programme run by Cass Business School in London.

Since then his company has stopped its in-house programme, which had been run by another school.

The episode encapsulates the objections of many EMBA participants and their sponsoring companies to single-company EMBAs. The rich mix of cultures, nationalities and sectors offered by a typical open programme is often considered to be one of the most important elements of the learning process. “EMBA students learn almost as much from each other, through the sharing of their experiences, as they do from their professors,” admits one UK EMBA programme director.

Single schemes have always been in the minority, and allowing individuals to choose from a preferred “list of suppliers” for EMBAs will tend to increases the popularity of open programmes. Some schools have never even been approached to run single-company EMBAs.

One in this category is Lausanne-based IMD, allowing Jim Ellert, associate dean for academic affairs, to sum up the pros and cons of single-company schemes dispassionately. Advantages for companies, he says, could include cost savings, because large numbers of employees could be put through an EMBA at lower cost; an increased ability to influence the content and design of the programme; and more latitude to arrange schedules around company events.

On the other hand, he says: “You would miss the sharing of ideas across companies, and there might be a concern over too much studying of your own company rather than best practice. There would be no opportunity for personal networking outside your company, and there could be a concern that you would get short-changed on the development of key functional skills.”

Schools that are, or have been, involved in single-company programmes offer a range of arguments in their favour.

It is not necessarily the case, they say, that these programmes fall short in terms of cultural, national or sectoral diversity: “Depending on the company, you could find a greater diversity within a single-company EMBA than in a mixed programme,” says Rick Crawley, director of external relations and communications at Lancaster University Management School.

Lancaster was long associated with its British Airways single-company EMBA programme, which no longer runs, but the school would have no objections to running such a scheme again, says Prof Crawley. Much would depend on numbers, he says – a “cohort” in the mid-20s would be necessary to provide a broad enough range of experience.

Often, companies have special reasons for wanting to do their own thing. The BA EMBA, which began in the late 1980s, was part of the airline’s shift from a bureaucratic, public sector organisation into what was at one stage “the world’s favourite airline,” says Prof Crawley.

Similarly, takeover-hungry companies may favour single-company programmes as a way to help managers from the acquired companies integrate into their new employer, says Linda Moyler, head of tailored qualifications at Henley Management College. An example at Henley is ISS, the acquisitive Danish facilities services provider.

There are ways, too, to ensure participants on single-company EMBA programmes benefit from external content and influences. “We discuss with companies whether there are other industries they want to focus on during the EMBA,” says Ms Moyler. This input can then be provided either by faculty or external contributors.

Another motivation could be the desire for a common management level across large companies, and to improve networking and communications between divisions.

This lies behind the IBM single-company EMBA, which Henley runs throughout Europe and which has 800 participants at any one time.

José Mario Alvarez de Novales, associate director at Instituto de Empresa, says tailored or company-specific EMBAs (which the Madrid school does not have) can be an optimal solution for large companies if they meet some conditions. Candidates should not come from the same department or business units, the school should filter candidates rigorously and any changes to the programme should not “touch the core” of a standard EMBA.

“An EMBA, corporate [company-specific] or not, is a master’s degree and society as a whole, not only the corporation, must be assured that an EMBA can manage and lead in any company or institution,” he says.

This point is recognised by many in-company EMBA programmes. Arcelor, the big Luxembourg-based steel group, sends eight to 10 high-level executives each year to ESCP-EAP’s European EMBA programme, an open course in which they mix with 50 executives from other industries. There is, however, one specific feature for the Arcelor participants: they are split into teams of four or five, and each team undertakes a consulting project selected by the steel group’s board.

In-company programme providers also ensure graduation brings the participant a qualification with the school’s name on it, rather than the sponsor’s. “At the end of the day it’s a Henley MBA,” says Ian Turner, Henley’s director of graduate qualifications programmes. Whatever type of programme they attend, participants “do the same exams and dissertations, marked by the same set of tutors”.

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