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The tide has turned for the Executive MBA in Europe in the past few years. A decade or so ago it was a minor adjunct to the world of management education within Europe.

Although US companies had long appreciated its merits, in Europe the qualification did not have the cachet of its full-time sister and as a consequence attracted limited resources and even less interest.

However, the Application Trends Survey 2004 by the General Management Admission Council, in partnership with the Executive MBA Council, reported a 53 per cent increase on last year in the number of EMBA applications.

With increasing demand for EMBAs, Europe’s response has been swift: the Thunderbird, Garvin School of International Management and CMC Graduate School of Business near Prague have joined forces to offer an EMBA; Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in partnership with Frankfurt University’s Goethe School are to offer an EMBA there and Audencia Nantes school of management is launching an EMBA in January.

Some of the change in the EMBA’s fortunes can be attributed to the series of bodyblows the full-time MBA has suffered recently.

These include:
■ the prolonged downturn in the economic cycle, which has led to a dwindling number of applications, and has coupled with a reluctance to be out of the workplace, sometimes for as long as two years;
■ criticisms about the value of the qualification by Henry Mintzberg, the management writer;
■ the Bologna Declaration - the harmonisation of European higher education systems - has prompted universities to design a raft of masters programmes that compete for participants with MBA programmes;
■ the cost of a full-time MBA is becoming expensive and for many potential applicants this high cost is something they cannot or will not bear.

However, although the MBA’s misfortunes have driven many into the arms of the EMBA, this is not the complete picture.

Corporate perception of the EMBA has shifted. Full-time programmes may have raised corporate consciousness about the value of management education but it is to the EMBA that European companies are now turning, realising that they truly can “have their cake and eat it”.

Companies have always been reluctant to send their employees on a full-time MBA programme, because employees are absent for a long time and often do not return after graduation. The EMBA however, offers flexibility - in study and in work - the merits of which attract employees and companies alike.

“There is definitely a trend to the EMBA from the full-time programme,” says Kai Peters, chief executive officer at Ashridge.

He says the school is receiving far more inquiries from companies about the qualification and how to use the EMBA route.

“For many companies there is now an increased awareness of the EMBA and how it delivers value to the organisation,” says Zeger Degraeve, professor of decision sciences at London Business School. “It is much more the case of an awareness problem [of the EMBA] that has been resolved.”

Eric Cornuel, director general for the European Foundation for Management Development says business schools and corporations now work closely together.

“Companies are now becoming more involved and encouraging [their] employees to develop and they are integrating that to the needs of the organisation.” Many company executives in Europe are on the governance bodies of these business schools, he says, and have helped create and design the EMBA programme.

“It seems that companies have really put their hands into the curricula,” says Prof Cornuel. “They want the products to fit their needs.”

A further fillip for the changing fortunes of the EMBA, he adds, is simply due to demographics. The global economy allows easy movement between jobs and companies realise they need to show more appreciation if they wish to retain their executives.

“You can hook people for money [in the first place] but very often it is not enough to keep them,” says Prof Cornuel.

Sponsoring employees on an EMBA programme encourages company loyalty, as well as demonstrating to employees ways to develop and enhance their careers.

Prof Degraeve at LBS says the school has seen an increase in self sponsorship, with a corresponding decrease in company sponsorship.

Nevertheless Prof Degraeve emphasises that it is critical for EMBA students to have endorsement from their companies and although full company sponsorship may be waning, in many cases European companies are providing some level of support - allowing students time away from the workplace and reimbursing travel and accommodation expenses.

An EMBA is not a one-way street says Prof Degraeve. The LBS EMBA has an in-company consulting project - a management report in which students address an issue from their company and work with faculty supervision to come up with solutions.

“We see it as some form of giving back to the organisation,” he says.

Organisations also have the immediate benefit of their employees’ knowledge. Participants can put into practice what they learned, thus reinforcing their own knowledge while providing their company with up-to-the-minute cutting-edge learning.

But Sean Gough, managing director of Lighthouse, a UK public relations company, sounds a note of caution.

One of his employees has recently graduated with an EMBA from London Business School. While Mr Gough acknowledges the company now has access to expertise it would not otherwise have had, the company, which has 15 employees, did feel the impact of the programme.

“The demands of the programme are intense at the better schools and the students’ attention is diverted considerably from their tasks,” he says.

A large company will be able to weather one of its employees focusing much of their attention elsewhere he adds, but in a smaller company this is not the case. “I would strongly advise anyone else from a small business perspective to think about it,” he adds.

But for larger companies at least, an EMBA is very much the way forward.

Merck, the pharmaceuticals group, is one of four organisations that take part in the Ashridge European Partnership Consortium EMBA.

It has been sending participants on the programme for the past eight years and intends to do so for at least two more years.

This year Merck is sponsoring 10 employees on the programme.

Merck identifies those employees that show talent and potential for future growth says Tanja Bender, human resources manager at Merck.

The company is highly selective about its employees who enter the Ashridge programme - it is prepared to pay 75 per cent of the cost of the programme with the employee footing the remainder.

Ms Bender says the EMBA programme allows Merck to reward loyalty, retain employees who might otherwise leave the company and also nurture high potential. Many of its employees, she adds, are scientists and engineers who lack a marketing or general management background and the EMBA plugs that knowledge gap.

Prof Cornuel anticipates that the EMBA will eventually outstrip the full-time MBA in popularity, within Europe at least.

“The response from companies is now more positive for EMBAs,” he says. “And they have become part of the educational landscape.”

Initially, some European EMBAs were expensive and many were tailor-made but now there is a much broader appeal and it has come to attract a wider corporate audience.

European companies have come to appreciate that the EMBA fulfils several of their needs.

The continent’s diversity of cultures and ease of access between countries means companies need a qualification that produces managers who can put new ideas and knowledge into practice immediately, without having to put their careers on hold while they study.

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