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The EMBA project is the pièce de résistance of the degree, an opportunity for students to showcase the skills they have learnt.
If they get it right, it can often lead to a promotion or positive career change. Projects can cover any subject. Sarah Dixon, dean of Bradford Business School, has supervised work that has ranged from devising internal reviews, such as “Product Portfolio Rationalisation: Options for Strategic Advantage” (a study of a telecoms organisation), to international business analysis – “Corporate Learning and Renewal in an Australian Grocery Wholesaler”.
According to Dixon, the most important thing is that students are interested in the subject they choose, which should be realistic in scope and enhance their careers. It can be easy to settle on an area you are familiar with, she says, but students should seek to use projects that are challenging and achievable as additional EMBA collateral.
Projects can relate to students’ employers or a new business venture. The choice these days depends on the individual, explains Steve Seymour, director of MBA programmes at Ashridge Business School. Until three years ago, consulting projects were the norm, he says, particularly where companies were sponsoring a student’s EMBA. But since then, more and more students have self-funded and are keen to develop entrepreneurial projects.
Yusuf Chadun, for example, an alumnus from Ashridge, initially considered doing a consulting project for Accenture and then Dell, the companies for which he was working. But he found opportunities limited and decided to design a venture that grew out of his personal circumstances, bringing up a small child while working. The result was Third Door, a flexible office space with a communal social area and on-site childcare, which he has since turned into a successful business.
Chadun says the first question he asked was one all students should: “Is there a need for it in the market?” It turned out there was indeed a need for such a workspace, with nothing of its kind in the UK. He was awarded a distinction.
Once the subject of your project is shown to be feasible, the best way forward is to “get your hands dirty”, says Seymour. Use the tools the EMBA has given you, rather than “leaving them rusting”. Students should take advantage of all resources available – their network, for example. They could interview colleagues, fellow students, academics and industry experts. If consulting, try to access senior managers. And at business school, there is plenty of faculty supervision available.
Textbooks, the internet and electronic data are also vital resources; the more variety, the better. Chadun, for example, attended the Baby Show at Earls Court in London to interview prospective clients, used SurveyMonkey.com (a free online questionnaire tool) to reach more people, and consulted childcare experts. He also took an entrepreneurship module at his school.
Finally, there are pitfalls when designing a project: do not get too set on an initial plan, as circumstances may change suddenly within an organisation – a boss leaving, for example.
Students should be prepared to turn ideas upside down if necessary, and think on their feet. They should also avoid writing a merely descriptive project with no projections or solutions. “A final report based on ‘I’m sure it will work’, without adequate demonstration of real research [will not work],” says Bertrand Moingeon, vice-dean of the Trium Global Executive MBA programme. He also highlights the importance of not breaching company confidentiality, which can occur if legal considerations are not respected during research.
Dixon says the ideal project for the student, the supervisor and the company (if it is involved) is a “win, win, win”. The company gets a better understanding of a business issue, the student gains a step up the career ladder and the supervisor gains information that pushes the boundaries of research. Moingeon, meanwhile, describes an ideal project as one that has the potential to be successful in both financial and social terms.
Whichever direction students choose to take, their projects will be seen as a direct reflection of their acquired knowledge, so it is vital to ensure this is showcased.