|By Deborah Steinborn and Beth Gardiner, WSJ CareerJournal
Christoph Cueille found a convenient way to earn a master’s of business administration without having to take time off from work: He is earning it on the job, in a customized program offered by his employer.
The manager at a France-based unit of Stryker Corp. is one of a growing number of professionals studying toward degrees that have been custom-made for corporations. Since September 2004, the French division of the Kalamazoo, Michigan, medical-device company has offered select employees the chance to enroll in an 18-month M.B.A. program in conjunction with Audencia Nantes School of Management. In content, the program is similar to the French business school’s regular M.B.A. curriculum. But employees take classes at the office as well as on campus, with some specialized twists. The boss picks up the tuition.
In Europe, Asia and the U.S., such tailor-made programs are gaining appeal with companies as an alternative to enrolling top talent in executive M.B.A. programs. The arrangements often bridge borders, if not continents — a sign that business education is becoming as global as business itself.
Cass Business School in London has offered a customized M.B.A. for practicing lawyers at Lovells LLP’s London and Hong Kong offices since 2006. That same year, Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona launched an M.B.A. for Seoul-based LG Electronics Inc. SDA Bocconi School of Management recently introduced an international master’s in corporate banking for UniCredit Group employees in several European countries. And the International Management Institute St. Petersburg offers customized M.B.A.s to Russia’s state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom and United Technologies Corp. of Hartford, Connecticut.
The programs offer a generalized approach to management education, though by their very nature they differ from company to company and from school to school. Thunderbird’s M.B.A. program for LG Electronics has a stronger focus on marketing than on accounting and finance, though it does mandate some of the same core courses as the school’s executive M.B.A. program.
“It’s tailored to the company’s specific business needs,” says Beth Stoops, senior vice president of corporate learning at Thunderbird.
Harald Benink, professor of finance at the Rotterdam School of Management of Erasmus University in the Netherlands, says, “What you are doing is turning electives into classes customized around issues particular to the company. But overall, you have to stick to the standardized format.”
There are “important restrictions about the extent to which you can customize an M.B.A. program. Otherwise, that program won’t have the recognition of important accrediting agencies anymore,” Prof. Benink says.
Rotterdam School of Management offered customized M.B.A. programs in recent years to companies including accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers and oil-services firm Schlumberger Ltd. but is now working with those same clients to develop tailor-made executive-education offerings. “You have to ask whether it’s really worth it [to invest in a customized M.B.A.], because in the end, how customized, how different, is it really?” Prof. Benink says.
Tuition is roughly in line with the cost of an executive M.B.A. Employers usually handpick potential applicants for the programs and they, in turn, “apply” to the schools. Employees continue working, with classes typically occurring in compact modules once a month. Thunderbird’s M.B.A. for LG Electronics is structured around 10 five-day modules held every four weeks at LG headquarters in South Korea, with a final month of classes on Thunderbird’s campus in the U.S.
The International Management Institute St. Petersburg offers its clients several options on the length and location of classes, typically in intensive blocks occurring once every three months.
The Cass-Lovells customized M.B.A. takes a slower approach, with participants attending one three-hour lecture on a different core subject every two months in the program’s first two years. Lawyers who stick with the program can earn an M.B.A. in seven years; they apply and must be accepted to Cass’s regular executive M.B.A. program for the final two years.
More often than not, classes are held on company premises. Distance learning can play a big role as well. As a result, custom-M.B.A. candidates don’t mingle with classmates as participants in executive M.B.A. programs tend to do. The SDA Bocconi UniCredit master’s, for instance, is a mix of 50 teaching days and an equal amount of distance learning, spread over two years.
Critics see that as a drawback of a corporation-focused M.B.A. “One of the most valued aspects of an M.B.A. program is the ability to interact with people from different companies,” says Arnold Longboy, director of corporate relations and recruitment at University of Chicago Graduate School of Business’s Europe campus. The University of Chicago doesn’t offer such customized degrees.
Proponents counter that participants get exposure to colleagues whom they often haven’t met. Mr. Cueille, 46 years old, has worked for six years in the Stryker unit’s research-and-development department and has just one R&D co-worker in his M.B.A. class of 14, while “everyone else is from marketing, project management, sales management and other areas,” he says. “I have learned a lot from these colleagues. They bring very different perspectives to the classroom.”
One big selling point to employers is that most tailored programs incorporate a case study or project focused on the specific company. “We can address real-life issues in the customized M.B.A.,” says Valérie Claude-Gaudillat, director of M.B.A.s at Audencia Nantes. “That is very valuable for the company and the students.”
At Cass Business School, courses for the Lovells attorneys often use case studies that involve legal issues, says Scott Moeller, Cass’s head of executive education. A class on mergers and acquisitions deals heavily with the legal aspects of such transactions.
Chris Stoakes, the firm’s head of legal training, says giving Lovells lawyers a grounding in the basics of the business world will help them better serve clients, most of whom are large multinational companies or banks. “If you understand the business context in which your client is asking for advice, you give them better advice,” he says.
Emma Nicholson, a Lovells litigation lawyer who has attended the Cass lectures in London, says a class on the basics of accounting has been particularly helpful, since her work includes cases in which accountants and auditors are accused of negligence. “I’ve heard [in class] a lot of the terms used by clients, so now I’m more comfortable [that] I know what they mean.”
Originally posted March 28, 2008