Asst. dean: All MBA programs are not alike

When looking for a program, you need to decide what you want to achieve and find the best fit

One way to get ahead in the company you work for is to get an MBA or an executive MBA, but not all programs are equal.

Some have very few course hours, and rely on credit for “life experience.” Others rely on e-learning where students have little chance to interact.

University of Pittsburgh through its Joseph M Katz Graduate School of Business offers an EMBA program that takes students to three campuses around the world and stresses the added value that international networking brings to the experience.

William Valenta, the assistant dean for the EMBA worldwide program at Katz, says that when his school builds a class it is trying to spark interaction.

“When you see online MBA programs there is a question to some degree in our minds about how effective they are because much of the interaction that is really great in an MBA program is from students with different backgrounds discussing how they think about a problem,” he said.

“So as you start to get more mature students, those conversations get more sophisticated. They push the instructor more and then you have a higher level of conversation happening throughout the program, he said.

Students for the Katz EMBA program already have about 13 years of experience in business.

The program has students based in Prague, São Paulo and Pittsburgh. The three cohorts, as Valenta calls them, meet several times during the program in global executive forums and then split up again.

Students come into contact with different methods and ideas from around the world. “We’ll have students from the United States, students from Europe, students from South America, and how they go about approaching business problems in itself is a learning experience. As they then go back to their companies and … they are working in different locations, it allows them to reflect on the things they have learned in the global executive forum and use that to their advantage,” Valenta said.

Students from all three locations will come to Prague in May. “We bring that group together and they don’t know each other. By the end of that first week they are exchanging business cards and talking to each other. They find things [in common]. And the relationship builds from there. And they network out from there. And the faculty gets involved with some of the projects. And it just builds from there. It is just a wonderful network,” he said.

And it has practical implications in the long term. Valenta related a story of a former student from a decade ago with whom he has stayed in touch. The former student got stuck in Kuala Lampur. “I called my friend Mike, out of the blue, and explained the situation. He said, ‘A friend of yours? Sure we’ll take care of him.’ And we see that across the MBA program,” Valenta said, adding that there were 30,000 alumni worldwide.

With the Internet, social media and globalization, the business landscape has changed rapidly. “But the concepts of sound business fundamentals really haven’t changed. And that is really where you start grounding your business program,” Valenta said.

He gave an example of why learning the classical basics are important. “I can walk into Brooks Brothers today and I can buy a gray pinstripe Brooks Bothers suit and I can put that suit on 10 years from now and people will never know,” Valanta said.

“Or I can leave here, I can fly to Milan and I can get the newest colors for a spring suit. I will look great this spring. If I wear the thing next year, people will look at me and say, ‘Where did you get that?’” he added.

MBA programs in the late 1990s and early 2000s got trapped by getting too narrowly focused on the trends. “While we keep an eye on the trends [and] we are always looking for new trends to add topical substance, we’re rooted in core business fundamentals because no matter what you always go back to that,” Valenta said.

There is also a difference between following a trend and paying attention to it. “You learn that trends are analogous. So you look at the tech bubble. How did that relate to the housing bubble? What are the things that we learned there?” he said.

“Instead of chasing the next thing you look for how to make the next thing better. And those are the kind of things that we do,” he said.

The Katz EMBA program does not give credit for life experience or take other shortcuts, and compared to its competition it is a bit expensive. But Valenta says that students and the companies that send them, if the student is sponsored, need to ask important questions about what kind of value they want to get. There are programs where you can get an MBA or EMBA in one year, but it may not fulfill what you hope to achieve.

“The first thing an employer should ask is whether it an AACSB accredited program. Is it a research based program? What amount of the faculty that are teaching have PhDs and how much experience do they have? At the end of the day is it recognized?” Valenta said.

Typically what you see in MBA programs that are not high quality is that the first things they cut out are courses in statistics, economics, optimization and operations, according to Valenta. “You know why? Because that is really hard stuff,” he said.

Then they give some kind of credit for life experience. “Well, before you know it you take 15 credits and they hand you a piece of paper,” he said.

But if you give a person or a team with one of the one-year life-experience based MBAs and a person or team with Katz MBAs the same business problem to analyze and look at the results, you will see a big difference, Valenta says. “And tell me if the extra money wasn’t worth it. Every single day it will be worth it,” he adds.

Some employers are aware of the difference and know the Katz name, while others don’t. Explaining the difference is one of the school’s missions. “We are educators. We have to educate all the time, whether we are in front of HR reps or talking to potential students,” he said. He also encourages people to pick up the phone and talk to the directors of the programs and find out who is teaching the courses and what the curriculum is.

He also admits that sometimes when he talks to a potential student whose goals are not clear, that maybe one of the other programs that give out a diploma for less work and less money might be a better fit for that individual.

The financial crisis hurt MBA programs substantially. “The first two places that companies cut are education benefits and R&D. Those are the places that aren’t making any money,” he said.

But many companies now are embracing longer-term thinking, a core concept of corporate social responsibility. “When I talk to companies that bring these things up, typically they are investing in high-potential employees. I say ‘I get it that things are tough. You can think about it for the next quarter or what you can do is take a longer-term approach that perhaps this employee that you are paying this sum of money for to go through the program may actually be able to assist you in resolving your piece of the crisis faster.’ … And so really you have to think of these things as a longer-term investment,” he said.

“Some companies do that, despite crises, some companies recognize they are going to invest in their talent. And quite frankly I think in the long run those companies are going to be stronger as opposed to the companies that choose not to,” he said, adding that it is an ongoing battle.

The dynamics of recruiting students has also changed, and now Katz has to approach individuals more often than before, since companies don’t fund students as much as in the past.

“We had to adjust to the dynamic but my hope is that it is also part of a generational thing. Like anything else younger students in business are more keenly aware of issues of corporate social responsibility and thinking longer term so my hope is that we will start to see the pendulum swing a little bit,” he said.

Right now the program has a mix of people sponsored or partly sponsored by companies, and these students hope to use their MBA to go up the corporate ladder internally. Other self-funded students are looking to make a big salary jump by moving to another firm in the same sector, while still others are looking to change their career focus completely.

“Some students come in and start their own business. Some actually recruit each other in the classroom. I see that in every class. They network with each other and say there is an opening in my [new] company, why don’t you apply for it. … And the next thing you know they say I am working at XYZ company,” Valenta said.

Education wasn’t Valenta’s first career. He was previously in law enforcement. He doesn’t see the move to education was a big change. “The satisfaction I get out of the things I do is having an impact on people’s lives. I did that 22 years in law enforcement and I’ve done that 10 years now in higher education. Just in different ways,” he said.

“I was in the sex crimes unit [and] child abuse unit,” he said, adding that he helped get some children out of very bad situations.  “Those are the things you get satisfaction with. That’s the common thread,” he said. He also was involved in setting up the first community policing units in Albania.

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