Although they come from the same stable, an MBA and an EMBA are very different creatures.

Although they may make the same demands on candidates – a good academic background, a healthy score in the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and relevant experience – comparing the two is a futile exercise.

An MBA is a full time option while the EMBA takes place in the evenings or weekends. EMBA participants are older, often considerably older, than their MBA counterparts. They have a wealth of work experience under their belts, 10 years is often the norm with some participants having worked for 15 years or more. This in turn translates into dynamic classes with EMBA students and faculty learning much from each other, compared with the more traditional teacher/pupil approach of an MBA class.

EMBA students also tend to look more haggard – they have a demanding day job, often families and a masters degree to juggle. There is no time for the luxury of reflection that is a tenet of an MBA programme.

In almost all schools, students on both programmes share the same faculty and facilities and many schools offer the same core curriculum. At the Chicago Graduate School of Business the products are so similar that the school – which was the first to create the EMBA in 1943 – refuses to name its programme an EMBA but instead refers to it as an MBA for executives. The same is true at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

At IMD in Lausanne, the school has tailored its EMBA to take account of its students’ expertise – while students on both programmes follow the same curriculum, participants on the EMBA go into far more depth on the application side.

Marianne Vandenbosch, executive MBA programme manager, says the school made a conscious decision to design an MBA for executives, rather than merely adapting its full time MBA programme for an executive audience.

The pattern is repeated in the US. For example, Wharton’s two-year EMBA weekend residential programme is built on the same curriculum as its full time MBA but is tailored to take account of participants’ experience and knowledge. While at Columbia Business School in New York, although the first three terms of the EMBA focus on core courses, similar to that of a full time MBA, the final two terms adopt an executive education approach, with a focus on electives and the team project course.

Team learning is a consistent theme for EMBA programmes. At Chicago GSB, the MBA for executives offers just a handful of electives, compared with the wide range on offer for the full time programme. Students work together in more or less permanent teams so that a strong sense of camaraderie is established. At Kenan-Flagler school at the University of North Carolina, Hugh O’Neill, professor of strategy and associate dean of EMBA programmes weekend and evening, says that while the core of the EMBA and MBA programmes is the same, with both cohorts following the same number of credit hours, the EMBA programme has a strong focus on team-based learning and participants learning from each other.

“The difference lies in the focus for analysing and applying material,” he says.

Within an EMBA programme the experience base within the classroom is much higher, he adds, and although case studies are still used, they are employed in a different way, with the case study becoming a platform for discussion.

Much care is taken when the EMBA teams are put together – trying to create as diverse a culture and work experience as possible. Kenan-Flagler’s EMBA students also take a form of a personality profile, so that participants can understand their individual styles and “can be coached in ways to accommodate learning and sharing”, says Prof O’Neill. Kenan-Flagler’s MBA students are not required to take this profile.

Prof O’Neill explains that not only does the profiling work well, but also because participants spend a great deal of time working together in a virtual environment it is imperative that when team members do meet they make the maximum use of their time together.

Despite a wealth of experience at their fingertips, EMBA participants are not given any dispensation when it comes to skipping classes, even for those classes where they may already have considerable expertise.

“We are looking for the executives to coach each other,” comments Prof O’Neill. He adds that, in his experience, participants are learning more from each other than they are from the faculty.

“What we do bring as faculty is a set of ideas that are then tested and developed. The ideas presented to the participants then serve as a template upon which to test their own experience.”

At Tanaka Business School at Imperial College, London, EMBA participants have an average of seven years work experience. However, this does not mean that they are able to skip classes.

“There are no exemptions,” warns Ebrahim Mohamed, programme director of the school’s EMBA.

An accountant will be expected to attend accountancy classes he says, although adds that this has never been an issue because the students are learning in a different way.

“For the first couple of lectures some students [such as an accountant] will hear things they have heard before, but I can guarantee they will learn things they have never learned before,” agrees Bill Kooser, associate dean for the executive MBA programmes at Chicago. He also points out that these students are a great resource for their peers, because they are able to share their expertise.

One criticism sometimes levelled at an EMBA is that it must be a “lighter” qualification than its full-time counterpart. The argument is that there is simply too much expected of an EMBA participant, so credit hours or academic rigor must be sacrificed.

Prof Kooser categorically denies this. He says the programme is every bit as rigorous as its full time counterpart and might even be considered harder, given that participants juggle full-time employment while studying.

EMBA students are mature and used to balancing their lives adds Ms Vandenbosch.

Selection of candidates is equally rigorous, whatever the programme.

On the MBA for executives, greater emphasis is placed on work experience and work history, says Prof Kooser, however, all participants must demonstrate good academic qualifications and inter-personal skills.

At both IMD and Kenan-Flagler leadership experience – either within the community or within a candidate’s career to date, as well as work experience, letters of recommendation and GMAT, are taken into consideration during selection of students. Prof O’Neill says that a strong GMAT score is no guarantee of securing a place on an EMBA programme, but equally a weak GMAT does not mean that a would-be candidate has to be ruled out.

“Strong recommendations can help counter adventurous youthful experience, or non-stellar GMATs,” says Prof O’Neill. There are also the intangibles. “We’re also looking for an applicant’s hunger and curiosity,” adds Ms Vandenbosch. “Will they work hard? Will they allow themselves to be stretched? How open minded are they?”

Perhaps the $6m question is whether an EMBA is worth it, the time, the commitment, the cost, is there a return on investment?

Most definitely says Prof Kooser. He acknowledges that the qualification is costly – the programme on the Chicago campus costs $107,000 – but says that on graduation participants go on to assume new responsibilities within their careers and sometimes new careers.

Chicago’s MBA for executives commands a comparable price tag to its full-time equivalent. However at IMD there is a vast difference, with an MBA costing in the region of SFr75,000 compared with the SFr117,000 price tag of an EMBA.

Ms Vandenbosch explains that the school’s EMBA includes a series of distance learning assignments based on a student’s own companies – looking at the strategy of their company for example. It is these assignments – effectively an in-house consultation – that helps to bump up the cost. Ms Vandenbosch says that the companies, as well as the participants, benefit from these assignments, hence the variation in costs.

However she too cites the vistas that open to EMBA graduates. It is a worthwhile exercise, she concludes.

An EMBA is not a softer option: credit hours, commitment, academic rigour are often identical to the full-time qualification and while EMBAs do vary from school to school in terms of programme length and contact hours, all participants must adopt a team-based approach and be comfortable with juggling several demanding aspects of their lives.

Perhaps the most significant differential is cost. Mr Mohamed says an EMBA takes much longer to complete and is one reason why at Tanka it costs more than £30,000 against the £23,000 of the full time MBA. However, he concedes one of the biggest drivers on price is market forces. As the popularity of EMBA grows while full time MBA numbers dwindle, schools may find participants willing to pay a premium for the product and this differential will become even more noticeable.

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