For most MBA alumni, the abiding memories from their time at business school will be the long hours, the personal relationships forged through teamwork and the star professors – the ones who go the extra mile. Indeed, in many feedback forms, such inspiring professors appear as the most important people in the team that leads to successful studies.

But not for Nenad Filipovic, academic director at IEDC Bled School of Management in Slovenia.

“In any programme, one lousy professor hurts, but can be accommodated. But get a lousy programme manager and it means the end of the world. They’re the most important people in the whole process,” he says.

Programme managers – who can be responsible for everything from replacing white board markers to meeting visiting professors at the airport – are key to the smooth running of any educational programme because their job is to keep the various groups involved working harmoniously together.

It is probably the most challenging job at any business school, says Dianne Bevelander, associate dean MBA programmes at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

“They have to deal with all the stakeholders, students, faculty and all different departments like finance and housing and they have no authority over any of them. On every issue, anything from late assignments to people not participating on trips, the students look to the programme manager to help them solve the problems. And sometimes they are even looked down upon by professors because they are ‘just admin’ staff,” she says.

Which is why later this week Prof Filipovic and Ms Bevelander will be teaching on the Programme Management Seminar at IEDC, a three-day programme designed to help staff at business schools better understand and cope with the complex array of tasks and decisions they face.

Created by the Central and East European Management Development Association (Ceeman, which has its headquarters on the IEDC campus), PMS is entering its seventh year,
previous seminars having attracted almost 200 participants from more than 30 countries.

The genesis for PMS was sparked by feedback from another Ceeman project, the faculty development programme (Imta), which had been running for some years, says Milenko Gudic, Imta managing director.

“Imta was designed to help faculty understand multiple roles, including programme administration and institution-building. We noticed that the sessions on these subjects attracted much attention and discussion,” says Prof Gudic. In addition, he says, students and faculty invariably gave high evaluations for the in-house programme management element in feedback on Ceeman and IEDC courses.

“We knew that high-quality education can only be achieved if there is consistency between all the functions, so we felt that our educational programmes should also address the programme management function. So we set about designing PMS, where we targeted the ‘infantry that eventually wins the war,’ colloquially speaking,” says Prof Gudic.

Programme managers can be the overlooked element of an MBA programme, he says, and while the better schools provide training for them, this tends to be on an as-needed basis.

From the start PMS was based on an interactive approach between students and faculty, an educational feature still lacking in many parts of the former socialist bloc. This, along with key classes – which include team building, marketing, customer service, tapping the value of alumni and the often sensitive role of managing faculty, students and other staff – appear to have resonated with participants.

“I really appreciated the open discussions within the group and between participants and lecturers,” says Theresa Kodritsch, assistant director of international relations at HHL-Leipzig Graduate School of Management in Germany, who attended last year’s PMS.

In particular, she picked up ideas on how to integrate alumni into different parts of programme management, such as enrolment. “These gave me some ‘aha’ moments. I realised it is not only taking them [alumni] in and returning nothing, but we have to give to alumni too, by, for example, the possibility to talk about themselves,” says Ms Kodritsch.

Don Nightingale, PMS programme director and a professor of strategy, says the challenges to staff when running a programme are enormous and often overlooked. “Programme managers deal so intensively with people they burn out. We [at my former school, Queen’s University, Canada] made them go out and take a new course every year, or try another school. Just by talking to others,
it’s therapeutic and they come back recharged.”

Adevotee of creating a positive learning environment, Prof Nightingale puts considerable effort into the first session, on team building, designed to carefully, but quickly, bring the participants to express personal opinions.

“It’s absolutely important when you are running any programme to create a very positive, trusting atmosphere and to get personal. This is critical to building teams, and teams are critical to programme success,” he says.

Given the diversity of students, however, cultural and social differences inevitably create some tensions.

“I remember teaching a case I had written about a highly abusive professor [in Canada] who had brought the programme manager to tears . . . Two Russian ladies in the class said
they couldn’t understand the problem. They said their bosses hollered at them all the time.

“So there are still significant cultural issues we have to deal with,” says Prof Nightingale.

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