Let’s face it; if you haven’t got one; at least one of your colleagues has. As an engineer or technician, is it a worthwhile endeavour? - A year or two involving a potentially jaded professor providing you with potentially questionable concepts?

There is no doubt that currently, MBAs have an uncertain reputation with employers. And the quality of MBAs offered range dramatically from the outstanding to the ghastly – there is absolutely no comparison in worth between a Harvard MBA and one of these strange creatures cobbled together by one of the more provincial universities. But even with the Harvard MBAs you have all heard (to distraction) about the Wall Street MBA pack who have destroyed companies and economies with gleeful abandon (whilst protecting their own back pockets, of course).

At present, MBA programs take on huge numbers of …. Let’s call ‘em kids - with absolutely no work experience, but huge egos and ambitions, who then, on graduating, expect to command the Star Ship Endeavour in business enterprise. The result invariably, on taking strategic control of a company, is to plunge it into enormously destructive downward spirals. Or as a result of ineptitude get safely sidelined. Certainly, 30 years ago, achieving an MBA guaranteed you a massive salary increase. This was much to my bemusement as I could never work out how one or two years in a classroom could suddenly justify a 30% (or more) salary increase. One’s skills cannot be that much better after achieving an MBA. Today these massive salary increases are rare. Unless, however, you go to Harvard or Wharton and then become a Wall Street banker ( a beleaguered and somewhat destructive species as we have all come to know).

I am sounding horribly cynical, but I do have some personal experience having completed an MBA 30 years ago at a fairly prestigious university. Whilst most of my cohort was honest and ethical I notice that 3 have been jailed for fraud and two have bankrupted their companies. One has done exceptionally well, however, selling Hong Kong property – but even this is a questionable contribution to building an economy.

Part of the problem with MBAs is that it would appear that most of them have become increasingly oriented around the theory of management and its research and less on real world approaches such as leadership, accounting, ethics and business law. Harry Mintzberg, one of the current outstanding management thinkers, feels that MBA education is failing as the courses tend to focus on the so called “science of management” rather than on the real issue - that it is really an “art and craft”. He also expresses the concern that management training has focused erroneously on short term profits and ramping up share prices. Managers need to learn from their own experiences instead and realize that reducing management to a purely scientific endeavour is missing the point. Another concern is that many of the lecturers and professors populating the business schools have little or no experience in the real business world. At least with mature age students, their work experience is brought into the mix when studying for a MBA.

One aspect of the MBA which I did find useful was the case study approach. But there seems to be a trend away from the use of them and a move towards the scrutiny of hypothetical business situations. This is sad as I have always found real world case study discussions enormously useful and the resultant debate with students a great learning experience. (Incidentally, I often wonder why this approach cannot be applied more extensively to engineering).

On the other hand, there is no doubt that engineering professionals are often short changed when working for businesses. They often work long hours and put in significant creative effort in technical areas. Despite this they have little opportunity to move into more (even technical) managerial positions - often getting bypassed by smart kids with commerce or legal degrees (or even with human resources backgrounds). Some sort of management prowess is essential, therefore, to survive and grow careers - especially in businesses where the technical paths have dead-ends.

There are many examples of engineers who have done MBAs and who are enormously satisfied as they have gained a greater perspective of business and improved their careers (and even their personal lives). Before tackling their MBAs, however, substantial engineering experience is usually attained to derive greater career benefits. On their MBA programs another great benefit is their interaction with other outstanding engineers and professionals from law, commerce, marketing, HR, accountancy (and even medicine and divinity).

What should you do?

* If you feel an MBA is for you; ensure you go for an outstanding one which focuses on art and craft and is of a high quality with staff who have demonstrated real business experience
* Look at the MBA as providing you with the skills to deal with business and not necessarily providing you with a greater salary
* Ensure you get into an MBA where you can interact vigorously with your peers in the other disciplines such as Law/Accountancy/Business
* Ensure the MBA helps you break down the barriers and build up key competencies and confidence in the other disciplines such as accountancy/law/human resources/logistics
* Think about an MBA as giving you the skills to set up your own business
* Tie in the MBA closely to your technical skills to maximize your leverage

Unfortunately, I really believe that a lot of business experience and indeed, commentary is ‘reflected’ by Warren Buffet’s comment: “In the business world, the rear-view mirror is always clearer than the windshield”.
Yours in engineering learning