Time was not on Nic Lee’s side. Like many executives, he did not have the luxury of taking a break from his business analyst’s role at Terra Firma, one of Australia’s leading management consulting firms. He wanted to further his education, but could not put the brakes on his life in the fast lane.
“Working full-time has always been the priority. The luxury of taking a break from work did not present itself,” says Nic. So, he enrolled on a part-time MBA program at Melbourne Business School, one of a new breed of flexible courses designed for the busy manager.
The program was split over three years. “I would have classes from Friday to Sunday, once every three or four weeks,” says Nic. He graduated last year and has been promoted to a senior role at Terra Firma. “Combining the complementary nature of my studies to my existing work has been a great career enhancement. Long-term, the MBA has opened new doors and opportunities,” he says.
The increasing pressures of management and fuller work schedules means many executives can no longer afford to take one or two years out of work to obtain a traditional MBA degree.
The business education market has had to adapt to meet the needs of today’s business world, according to Federico Frattini, director of the Flex EMBA program at MIP Politecnico di Milano, the Italian business school.
“These factors together conspire to make it extremely difficult to attend face-to-face MBAs and executive MBAs,” he says.
An obvious alternative is the EMBA, designed for more senior workers and spread out over a longer period. But these programs are also risky. “In the case of our EMBA participants, leaving their job carries a risk, given their seniority and what they have accomplished in their careers,” says Paula Robles associate director of marketing at INSEAD.
The rise of flexible and distance learning, where students use online platforms to study from the comfort of their work desks or even at home on the sofa, means there is now a wealth of choice available.
“Flexible study can be very attractive for some, especially those who do not want to leave their full-time employment to avoid losing momentum,” says Paula.
There are plenty of ways to fit MBA training into a harried schedule. According to the latest GMAC data, 60% of full-time one-year MBA programs reported a decrease in applications in 2014. But applications to part-time MBA programs and flexible MBA programs increased, while outside of the US, EMBA programs are also gaining in popularity.
A flexible MBA allows working students to load up on courses over a long period of time. The Modular MBA program at Cass Business School in London caters for this by holding classes once a month, over a weekend.
But EMBA programs can be pricey. The two-year program at Wharton School costs $181,500 – including tuition, books, and program-related housing and meals.
“Some companies can’t fund executive MBAs. Companies are also more reluctant to give up their employees in terms of time,” says Ashley Arnold, director of MBA recruitment at the UK’s Henley Business School.
This problem has aided the growth in provision of distance learning programs, which are often cheaper and do not require much travel time. Henley’s Flexible Executive MBA can be taught almost entirely through an online learning environment, according to Ashley, although there are some face-to-face meetings.
The online method of delivery relies on technology and many programs are developed by outside providers such as Coursera and FutureLearn.
For multinational companies, there is increasing pressure to develop global teams who can work together on specific projects – virtually. Experts say that virtual team meetings can break biases in thinking and spur innovation.
Flexible MBA programs delivered online mirror these practices. “Some do email, some might do Skype, [and] some might setup some great whizzy bit of kit that allows them to work virtually,” Ashley says of the Henley executives.
But a constant criticism of these programs is that it is harder to connect with peers from a distance. Henley offers an online platform for its students to network, but executives often use independent communication systems developed by their companies, says Ashley.
He adds: “Although we have facilities, most step outside of that. If you force them into some channel of virtual communication, they won’t use it.”
MIP’s Flex EMBA has developed an online platform with Microsoft. About 80% of the program is taught via distance learning and 20% is delivered in face-to-face lessons.
“This allows users to personalize their distance learning experience, and communicate with their peers by email, chat and social networks,” says Federico. “These activities definitely teach students to work and communicate virtually with global teams,” he adds.
But with such flexibility of study, there are concerns that students may lack the focus of someone on a full-time MBA – programs that are known for their intensity.
Some think that the rise of distance and flexible learning poses a threat to the traditional MBA. But Federico believes they are targeting different demographics – the programs are “very different and not overlapping”.
Ashley adds that technology is shifting so wonderfully that both sets of MBAs will now have a similar experience. “That’s what business schools have realized – as tech evolves, there are other ways to present a program just as effectively with the same outcome.”
For Nic, networking on his part-time MBA program has proved to be a powerful asset that will continue to grow in value. “The value of my MBA will grow over the long term,” he says.