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Time-Starved Managers Turn To Innovative Mini-MBAs Online

Managers can ramp up their skill sets and develop new ventures with a "mini-MBA" program – short, cheap and condensed distance learning.

PerioC Ltd, an innovative life sciences start-up, is a product of business schools’ increasingly innovative MBA programs. Trudi Haemmerli, who hit on the idea while studying part-time at Swiss business school St Gallen HSG with a former colleague from Novartis, the drugs giant, is a great advocate of flexible learning.

She believes PerioC has been geared for growth both because of the opportunity to develop a business plan as part of her studies, but also because of learning freedom. A full-time MBA would have carried greater risk. Five people involved in managing the business have invested about £500,000 in seed capital into PerioC. Its product – a treatment for the gum disease periodontitis – is undergoing clinical trials.

“I just felt I would rather find a role within the organization which allows me to keep my hand in… But still gives me time and freedom to go off and do an MBA,” says Trudi, who worked at Novartis while studying part-time.

She illustrates the way managers can ramp up their skill sets – and develop new ventures – with training on the side.

It is something that business schools have been trying to emulate, but it has been slow to catch on on a global scale. America and Canada have become clusters for new “mini-MBA” courses which are being taught from Toronto to New Brunswick, but the trend has not yet emerged across Europe.

Gaining an additional qualification part-time is now relatively easy – a program at McGill University in Montreal, for example, condenses MBA topics into eight-day programs. It makes mini-MBAs not so much an alternative but rather an addition to a traditional degree. They are akin to Moocs, or massive open online courses, but they carry the weight of schools’ branding.

“It acts as a complement,” says Peter Methot, managing director of executive education at Rutgers Business School, which runs up to 18 “mini MBAs” on topics such as entrepreneurship and digital marketing.

“The mini-MBA also serves the purpose of focusing on a specific subject matter in a condensed period of time,” he adds.

Where MBA degrees are expensive, mini courses cost as little as $5,000 and have relaxed entry requirements.

They are targeting middle-managers, according to Alan Middleton, executive director of the Schulich School of Business’ Executive Education Centre. “The mini-MBA tends to get people later on in their careers,” he says, who want to move into broader responsibilities or more senior roles. “They don’t really have time to go back [to business school] for a year or an 18 month program,” Alan adds.

In that sense they are similar to custom executive education courses and EMBAs, which attract candidates who want to move up the ladder in their current careers, rather than establish new ones – although this is starting to change.

As such, about 65% of mini-MBA students at Rutgers are sponsored by their employers - but it is still unclear whether their qualifications will be recognized by external recruiters, who typically target full-time MBA programs for mid-level and senior management hires. 

Peter says: “We have seen an exponential increase in the value employers place on a mini-MBA.”

But Alan points to entrepreneurs like Trudi, who benefit from shorter courses because they cannot face leaving the start-up office for even a short period of time. Often mini-MBA candidates are either business owners or managers of start-ups, he says. “They are feeling time starved."

Some go on to complete traditional business school programs, with the mini-MBA acting as a taster-course. Dr Yvonne Moogan, Salford Business School’s MBA director, says they are for “ambitious executives who want a taster” of management and business study. Salford offers five mini-MBA programs which are taught in the UK and Abu Dhabi, costing about £3,500 each.

“There is still a small percentage of enrolees who go on to complete an MBA,” says Peter, but the demographics have shifted over time and most managers cannot commit to lengthy degree programs.

With so little time together, however, networking opportunities are questionable. But because class ages range from 30 to 50+ there is a wealth of experience to potentially tap into, and Alan says the mini-MBA alumni group is the most active of Schulich's executive offerings.

A way that mini-MBAs are innovating is through incorporating distance learning. Much of the content on Schulich’s mini-MBA is taught through an online platform, according to Alan. But, like many schools' executives, he faced opposition in rolling out this online method of study. “They saw it as cannibalizing the MBA [at first],” Alan says.

Teaching through learning technology is opening up mini-MBA programs to a wider audience, although they have yet to catch on across the Atlantic and most of Schulich’s students hail from Canada, Alan admits.

While business schools in Europe seem to remain sceptical, programs like Schulich's are having to compete with professional services firms including PricewaterhouseCoopers, which sell similar courses and often brand them as “mini-MBAs”.

“You’ve got the consultants as well as the Deloittes and KPMGs all looking at training as an extension of their consulting activates - you get real overlaps,” Alan says. “Fortunately for us, they charge so much that they price themselves out [of] a lot of these markets. [But] I keep my eye on those McKinsey lads.”

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