Maximising your value and purpose

In an age when turbulence and uncertainty continue to rock the world’s economies and business environment, the MBA remains a beacon of life-enhancing, career-changing knowledge and inspiration. 

These are interesting times for New Zealand’s MBA sector – to say the least. When NZBusiness approached the major programme providers in early September, the sector was clearly experiencing some significant trends.

In the words of Dr Heather Connolly, director of professional programmes at the University of Waikato’s Management School, there has been a major re-evaluation of the MBA across New Zealand’s universities, and it began before Covid-19 made its full presence felt.

“The market is demanding a lot more around the MBA being business relevant,” says Connolly.

As for Covid’s impact, she says Waikato University saw an increase in MBA enquiries, applications and enrolments during and post the nationwide lockdown as people had more time to consider their careers and trajectories.

“They want to future-proof themselves in a market that’s completely still unknown. We’ve seen a pattern in enrolments not seen in the past. Proactive people are recognising the requirement to upskill in areas that puts them in a stronger position as a candidate for roles in this uncertain environment.”

She predicts an increase in the number of people wanting to study an MBA in 2021, and they will choose programmes that are business ready and able to teach students the skillsets to manage businesses through this massive period of change.

Connolly also believes the big question will be, “How do we staircase people into a programme, who haven’t studied before?” She believes some peoples’ biggest fear is that they’re not good enough for such high-level study. 

“It’s an incorrect fear. They need to understand the qualities that they bring to the classroom table are just as important as the qualities and conversations brought to the table from an academic perspective.”

Students’ prior knowledge is important too, she adds. “It’s how we combine that with new learnings, with collective learnings of the class and the socialisation of that knowledge. This is the value for students moving forward.”

NZBusiness also spoke to AUT’s MBA director Ken Lee, who says the MBA sector remains healthy and enrolments are buoyant. 

Covid-19 has understandably challenged the delivery of courses, he says. In response AUT has developed significant online resources that can be delivered asynchronously. 

“We can alternate between online and face-to-face delivery as circumstances dictate.”

Lee says 2021 and beyond is likely to see more technology-enhanced course delivery, along with more flexible study options.

 

Flexibility and choice

Substantial revisions to curricula and a cross-disciplinary approach to courses will be common trends across New Zealand’s MBA sector in 2021.

At AUT next year’s programme revisions revolve around flexibility and choice for students, while emphasising their future orientation and providing added value through extracurricular activities. A new four by 10-week term structure allows more time to reflect and digest course material.

“We drive a customer-centric approach to determine ‘Where are you now? Where do you want to go to? And what do you need to get there?’” explains Lee.  

“The programme’s flexible structure means a student can start the programme at any one of four entry points, and if personal commitments require it, they can take a term off without causing significant disruption to their study.”

He says many prospective MBA students come with a pre-conceived idea about their preferred discipline area, and encourages them to keep an open mind and explore the many options that the programme offers. 

“In such cases it is not uncommon to see a student become stimulated by a topic that they hadn’t previously considered, and this can lead to a life or career-changing experience.”

At Waikato University, Connolly says their course initiatives have centred on a cross-disciplinary approach. Students don’t get the traditional vanilla flavoured MBA where they study separate papers around marketing, accounting, economics, supply chain and leadership. The cross-disciplinary approach involves bringing in separate experts on economics and supply chain to solve problems that managers face. It’s about understanding the business environment through a variety of lenses. To help with this academics are balanced with practitioners and guest speakers, to share the practical value of where these various frameworks are applied for managers.

“We strip away all the academic theory and apply what’s exactly relevant for a manager at that point in time,” explains Connolly.

Going forward the Waikato MBA will be about understanding the new business environment as it emerges, understanding the uncertainty and being able to come to grips with what the future might look like and applying the appropriate economic, supply chain, leadership, governance and strategic principles.

One of the papers is centred on people and productivity, which addresses the fact that millennials work very differently to older managers. The paper covers harnessing knowledge, working across distances, engaging people through technology – all geared for the future post-Covid world in which many people may work for companies in other countries and no longer be locked into desk-bound ‘9 to 5’ routines.

“The big challenge is going to be reforming and moulding company cultures that trust people to do the work but set expectations around how objectives are met,” Connolly explains.

Her advice is to choose an MBA that is contextualised for the environment managers are facing today. Learnings must be personalised in order to be applied back into your organisation, as well as socialised with others. 

More relevant than ever

When it comes to employability, the MBA is still right up there. “Enhanced salary potential and career advancement remain strong drivers for those wanting to transform their careers and be at the forefront of business leadership,” says AUT’s Lee. “The MBA as a brand continues to have worldwide recognition, and despite the variances in teaching and curriculum, the value of the degree remains strong.

“MBAs provide valuable business networks and opportunities to experience new places and cultures for doing business,” he says. “Authentic practice-based learning experiences and co-creation of knowledge feature strongly in the pedagogy to provide a strong practical focus to engaged learning and the teaching environment. 

“More than half the programme is delivered by contract lecturers who are successful senior business practitioners and consultants, bringing a wealth of current, relevant practical experience to the classroom.”

Heather Connolly agrees that a New Zealand MBA is still recognised as a quality business management degree. The vast majority allow you to study part-time, while holding down a full-time job.

It’s a degree, generally for people already with a career path. One that delivers the knowledge, skillset and learning journey to allow you to improve your position within an industry – for example, from a manager to a senior manager or leader – as well as jump across different industries or sectors. 

“On a CV, it’s the letters MBA that will often get you an interview,” she says.

 

Before you enrol

Studying for an MBA is an academically rigorous and challenging process, so be clear about why you want one, says Ken Lee. 

“The notion of having an MBA can be very seductive, but when the going gets tough students must reflect on their values and personal and professional goals to help maintain their passion for learning.”

He recommends setting aside or negotiating appropriate study time with one’s family and/or employer. 

“Being results orientated and a good time manager are valuable attributes, and understanding what it means to be effective as a postgraduate business student is also essential. 

“So the skills of critical thinking, analysis, problem-solving, and effective communication may need to be revisited, especially if the prospective student hasn’t been recently exposed to the postgraduate business environment.”

Heather Connolly has advice for future students too – particularly around procrastinating and underestimating the importance of the learning journey.

“Any MBA student will tell you it’s about the learning journey and not about the exact courses within it,” she says. “Understand the absolute importance and value of networking and take every opportunity, both within and outside courses, to develop the platform that you need to succeed as a leader.”

The cohort and the relationships you develop through your MBA will remain with you for the rest of your working career, she explains, and it’s important to get involved in the business community as much as you can.

There are many stories of the positive differences an MBA has on the lives and careers of students. There are those who’ve been fast-tracked to senior positions or changed direction within the company. 

Business opportunities are not restricted to graduates either, says Lee. “Students completing their AUT MBA are often presented with business opportunities as an outcome of their Applied Business Projects. For example, one student recently landed a million-dollar contract with an internationally recognised New Zealand company as the result of his project, and another was offered a seat on the board of a non-profit organisation.”

At Waikato University, Heather Connolly describes how many MBA alumni enjoy coming back to assist students on subsequent programmes through various initiatives. “They’re happy to give back and share their learnings. They also get invited to various conferences we host, and that helps keep them engaged.”

An MBA is the ultimate confidence booster, Connolly says, and nothing thrills her more than to see a past Waikato student announcing a major career step on LinkedIn – perhaps as the new CEO of an international organisation. 

“It’s particularly gratifying to see their response to any congratulatory messages that reads ‘I use the learning from my MBA every day in the decisions that I make!’”  

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