/ 30 March 2009

A mile wide, an inch deep

The investment in an MBA is significant, both in financial terms and in personal commitment.

An MBA at Wits Business School will cost R105 000; the equivalent at Harvard Business School would be $150 000.

The personal commitment involves substantial time allocation for individual preparation, syndicate meetings, class attendance and studying for examinations, which will involve major sacrifices in an individual’s family and social life.

So why study for an MBA, particularly in current times when the economic downturn suggests postponing all but the most critical expenditures? What returns on this investment can be expected?

In the United States, many of the historic contractions in economic activity have been accompanied with an increase in applications for an MBA, perhaps signalling that this is a time for self-development for future gains rather than sticking around for lucrative bonuses and promotions.

For organisations, it may be an ideal time to offer staff a ‘sabbatical” to study for an MBA. Valuable staff are part of the critical resources that give an organisation distinctive capabilities, so it would be beneficial to develop these resources.

They understand the organisation’s culture, would not need to be inducted into the processes and can be fast-tracked for higher positions to the benefit of the organisation.

A survey of 300 Wits Business School MBA alumni conducted last year revealed that the five aspects most enjoyed about the WBS experience were:

  • Personal enrichment;
  • Being stretched outside comfort zones;
  • Interacting with peers;
  • Academic studies; and
  • Sharing of ideas

Clearly, the key need in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that is being satisfied is self-actualisation, developing oneself for oneself.

However, there is a recognition that learning is important, both from the classroom and from one’s colleagues, where the learning process is a two-way flow.

So, while the normal returns from the investment in an MBA are expected, such as higher salaries, more responsibility and associated rewards, alumni acknowledged that many of the greatest benefits are intangible and difficult to quantify.

How does one place a value on a career-changing module, or a stimulating guest lecture, or a revelation that changes one’s whole approach to solving business problems or to life in general?

Such returns are long-term rewards for the current investment and, as organisations strive to build long-term shareholder value, so individuals should be building their personal value. The best time to make such an investment is more dependent on the state of self-motivation of the individual, or the ‘fire in the belly”, rather than the state of the economy.

The critical decision then becomes the choice of institution at which to study. Such an institution should be recognised internationally; have a strong complement of faculty with a track record in research and teaching excellence; utilise relevant and current case studies; and possess first-class
facilities for studying.

Equally important is the calibre of one’s fellow students, as 50% of the learning experience will be from colleagues as opposed to the classroom environment. Longer-term benefits will include networking opportunities through the alumni association and the association with successful peers.

Opportunities for international studies are also important criteria, as experienced by overseas study tours, or enjoyed by the PIM programme (Partnership in International Management), where students can study electives at one of 50 international business schools, but for the price of the local education.

With the trend toward globalisation, it is important to be exposed to international business challenges and opportunities. The best way is a combination of academic studies plus experience of other cultures.

Prospective MBA candidates are advised to do their homework: get as much information as possible about the potential business schools, particularly from current or former students to understand their experiences — word of mouth is still a very credible source.

Set your selection criteria and evaluate the business schools against these, as the study of an MBA is not a decision that is made lightly. The MBA programme has been described as ‘a mile wide and an inch deep”.

It will change the way you approach business challenges, the methodology you use to address business problems and your understanding of a broad range of issues to be considered when making managerial decisions.

If you are ready for a career or life-changing experience and appreciate the investment and sacrifices that are required, then the MBA is an ideal degree for building your capabilities and developing yourself to your full potential.

Professor Geoff Bick is academic director of the Wits Business School