Are MBAs a waste of time?

It is much easier to teach management to a trained engineer than engineering to a trained manager.

Along with offers to bring wealth overnight, junk e-mail has taken to delivering invitations to acquire an instant MBA. This phenomenon is a sure sign that the Master of Business Administration has joined those fake university diplomas and religious qualifications being peddled from PO boxes in deepest America.

But even when an MBA is genuine, some people in industry find it less than impressive. As one senior executive recently observed, it is much easier to teach management to a trained engineer than engineering to a trained manager.

What, then, are the alternatives for engineers who want to hold their own when the company’s MBAs start to throw around their jargon? For Alastair Port, area and operations manager with the chemicals company Hunstman, the answer was the Manufacturing Leaders’ Programme at Cambridge University.

He and others who have sweated their way through two years on the MLP – while holding down high-powered jobs – argue that MBAs are too theoretical and driven by texbooks. As Jon Rennie, who runs a plant in South Carolina manufacturing electrical circuit breakers for ABB, puts it, the MLP ’is more hands-on’.

Simon Zamet, executive chairman of The LCH Group, a small furniture manufacturing business, is equally enthusiastic. ’This course immediately stood apart from other MBA programmes,’ he says.

’MBA for manufacturing’

Zamet does point to one disadvantage of the MLP, however: few people have heard of it. MBA courses come in all flavours thanks to the large number available and the numbers of people involved; most people in business are familiar with them. As yet there is a limited choice of alternative courses in the UK for engineers wanting something more firmly embedded in manufacturing, and all have a different label.

One is the Fellowship in Manufacturing Management (FMM) at Cranfield University, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and has awarded 800 fellowships. The FMM accepts around 35 candidates a year. Norman Webster, director of the Cranfield Manufacturing Management Centre, says: ’we regard the FMM as the MBA for manufacturing.’

Recruits have typically spent about 10 years in manufacturing. Around 60 per cent have a manufacturing background, while 35 per cent or so are graduate engineers. Around 15 per cent already have an MBA. They go to Cranfield, says Webster, because ’the vast majority of MBAs don’t really address manufacturing’. Indeed, he says, ’we don’t believe that you can learn manufacturing by being taught.’

For this reason, says Webster, ’the industrial phase is the important part of the FMM programme’. This is the year that students spend in industry, following nine weeks spent at Cranfield on the ’development phase’.

The time spent in industry actually pays for the FMM qualification. Unlike Cambridge’s MLP, few participants on the Cranfield course are funded by employers or out of their own pockets. The university funds the programme from the £42,000 that companies pay for the privilege of hosting a student for the year. This is not simply a case of parachuting someone with fresh management training into the business. Placements have a specific project to complete and are closely monitored and managed by Cranfield.

For this to work Cranfield has to be confident it can place students, who undergo a rigorous selection process. ’We are trying to deliver ’change agents’ to industry,’ says Webster. ’Nearly all the assignments involve change in one form or another.’

A measure of the scheme’s success is that, after their placement year, 75 per cent of ’fellows’ stay with their companies. And many firms are repeat customers.

The Cranfield course, like the MLP, also suffers because it is less familiar than a conventional MBA or even an MSc. This is the qualification on offer from one of the younger engineering-oriented masters programmes, the MSc in Electronic Business Management in the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at Warwick University. This MSc is an updated version of the WMG’s range of technology-management courses that date back to 1981 when the group pioneered the Integrated Graduate Development Scheme (IGDS). Warwick claims this was the first modular course, a model that is now the norm in most universities and business schools.

Filling a void

The e-business MSc, says Mullins, focuses on integrating company processes using e-commerce concepts and technology.

’The course provides an underpinning knowledge of the theory and practice behind electronic-business management and introduces the technologies enabling organisations to change with, and embrace, the emergent e-business world. It fills the void between specialist technical MScs and MBAs, developing a participant’s capability to manage in a technology-driven company,’ he says.

The WMG course shares the requirement of the MLP and FMM that students carry out an industrial project that provides real benefits to the sponsoring organisation. As with the MLP, though, employers fund most participants.

While it is convenient to have a label to attach to your qualifications, a set of solid achievements is more likely to impress employers.

Jon Rennie of ABB enthuses about the changes he has brought about as a result of his MLP. His first innovation was to introduce lean manufacturing. While the subject is a part of the MLP course, Rennie says that he had a great deal of help from a fellow student when it came to applying the methodology into the plant.

Rennie is typical of the sort of person who attends the Cambridge MLP. Its recruits are often further on in their careers than the candidates for Cranfield’s FMM. Older and often already in charge of a manufacturing operation or some other aspect of a business, they go to Cambridge to acquire a mixture of theory and practice. For them the MLP is a way of moving on to the senior layers of management, with company-wide responsibility.

Ripple effect

While students rarely sign up for a career-enhancing course expecting instant business returns, it can happen, as the MLP’s graduates show. But the number of people on the few courses in the UK aimed specifically at engineers in manufacturing barely reaches three figures each year, and some of those come from overseas. Can these graduates really have an impact?

Robin Daniels, director of the MLP, thinks so. It is a mistake simply to look at the numbers involved, he says. ’We are also making sure that it is impacting on the business around the senior manager,’ he explains. The course involves ’strategic projects that can’t succeed unless the students recruit a lot of people back at base’.

Unlike the treadmill of the average MBA, Cambridge, Cranfield and the WMG deliver people who can carry a different message out to a wider community. With luck their ideas will spread like ripples on a pond.

Alternatives to the MBA

Manufacturing Leaders’ Programme (MLP), Engineering Department, Cambridge University

For ’experienced managers’ with ’potential for development to a level where a total business perspective is critical to success’. Likely to be ’graduates with at least five years’ managerial experience and a substantial track record of success’.

Two years with four three-week residential modules (including one 10-day foreign study tour), on-the-job study and a final 15,000-word thesis.

Fees £26,500, in two annual instalments.

Fellowship in Manufacturing Management (FMM), Cranfield University

Typical ’fellows’ are 28-38, who are ’committed to the UK manufacturing industry and demonstrate leadership potential, drive, flexibility and mobility’.

Nine weeks at Cranfield, followed by a ’12-month assignment in a progressive manufacturing company, with focus on knowledge transfer, innovation stimulus and improved competitiveness’.

Companies pay £42,000 for a trainee to work with them for a year.

MSc in Engineering Business Management, Warwick Manufacturing Group

Short part-time courses to a full-time PhD, with eight part-time MScs. The MSc in Engineering Business Management involves 14 one-week residential modules, usually over three years, with assignments ’applying the key concepts to their firm’.

For ’professional and technical staff in technology-driven companies’ with a minimum of five years’ industrial experience and relevant first degree.

Students are sponsored by their companies.