MBA or EMBA?

It is a question I get frequently this time of year. If you are less than five years from your undergraduate experience, the answer is “neither.” Go do something interesting, gain experience and perspective, and then go to graduate school. We will still be here.

If you have been out five years and have an undergraduate business degree, don’t go back to your alma matter. Chances are you will get some familiar professors, sharing many of the same insights as they did when you were an undergraduate. Yes the material will come at you faster and in a more sophisticated manner, but you will get more value from a graduate degree if you attend a different institution. If you have been out of business school ten years or more, the faces and topics will have changed enough that attending the same school won’t result in a redundant experience.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s get down to answering the question at hand. Whether you choose the MBA or EMBA route depends on your prior experience, where you are in your career, how much you can afford to spend, and the type of time commitment you can make in pursuit of your degree.

MBA programs were created to get engineers ready to move into management positions in large scale industrial enterprises. The scope of the MBA has expanded over time, but it is still a primary way people with “bench experience” gain the education necessary to move into general management positions in their industry or profession. Thus, MBA programs stress accounting, finance, management, and marketing skills. This emphasis on operational skills is one of the reasons I discourage business majors from pursuing a MBA shortly after they graduate: they should have gotten these skills from their undergraduate program. As time goes on, new topics and a need to refresh skills make investment in a MBA worth the time and money for people with an undergraduate business degree, but there is little return from rushing into such a program.

EMBA programs were initially designed to “fast-track” managers identified by their companies as “rising stars” into upper-echelon positions. Today many EMBA students are experienced managers looking to change companies or careers, but the curriculum still focuses on fostering strategic thinking and managing change within the organization. Think of the difference this way: A MBA gives you the ability to analyze data and make operational decisions. An EMBA gives you the strategic perspective and knowledge to use the information from operational reports to direct the future of the business in productive ways.

Notice that neither the MBA or EMBA gives you deep technical training in a specific functional area.Two-year MBA programs give students a greater opportunity to specialize by providing tracks, but if your goal is a deep understanding of one functional area (e.g., accounting, MIS), you are better off in an advanced masters program that specializes in your area of choice.

MBA and EMBA programs also differ in delivery formats and cost. MBA programs are offered either in “day” or “evening” formats. Day programs typically require people to quit their jobs and enroll as full-time students with the expectation of completing their degree in one or two years. This is usually an easier choice for young professionals without significant family commitments. Older folks are more likely to choose evening programs, because they allow students to keep their jobs and pursue their degree after hours on a part-time basis. This provides people with better cash-flow, but comes at the expense of extending the time to degree. This is a significant tradeoff. My experience has been that if students don’t complete their degree within three years of enrolling, they rarely finish. Life events get in the way.

EMBA programs compress the time to completion and allow students to keep their day jobs by concentrating classes in a weekend format that graduates students in about eighteen months. Electives are rare. Typically everyone completes the same courses in a fixed sequence. The most popular format is to offer classes all day on Fridays and Saturdays on alternating weekends. You might also have to use some vacation to attend a few week-long segments of the program. It can be a bit like drinking water from a fire hose. Because the courses are concentrated and the students experienced, EMBA classes tend to be smaller and more discussion-based than MBA classes. Students learn as much from each other as they do from the professor and build strong bonds that last for their entire professional career. It is a rich experience that comes with a higher price tag–typically two to three times more expensive than the MBA, although EMBA costs include meals, textbooks, and frequently international travel that are not factored into MBA program tuition. EMBA grads report the payback period can be as little as a couple of years.

Which program is right for you depends on personal circumstance, but I will tell you that I am a big fan of EMBA programs. If you are at the right point in your career, can invest the time and money, and want to build connections with faculty and highly motivated people, EMBA programs are hard to beat.

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Does College Help You Take Risks?

I came across a blog post the other day, from Courtney Johnston:

      In college I did all the right things.  I had a job, did my homework and followed the rules.

     But my college courses failed to teach me one thing: how to take risks towards   making   my dreams a reality.  I’m not even sure college tried to teach risk taking.  Syllabuses and grade scales are definitely anti-risk-taking mechanisms.

 They teach us how to follow rules, not be bold.

They teach us how to do what someone else says, not to be creative.

They teach you how to be comfortable, not to be curious.

I fear she is right.  This issue has been troubling me for a while. We teach people how to quantify, analyze and mitigate risk.  We discuss that people have different degrees of risk aversion and explain to students the risk-return trade-off.  But what we don’t do is teach students to actually take risks in their professional lives.

Frankly, most students already come to us with a conservative mindset. Many parents promote college attendance because they believe it is the safest way to a good life.  It is seen as the minimum risk choice.

Once students get here, we stress skill development, getting things precisely right, and conforming to professional norms.  We tell them what to do in lectures, challenge their ability to provide the “right answers” in exams, manuscripts, and oral presentations, and penalize them with poor grades when they get it wrong.  I fear the message is: “follow others, play it safe.”

But we all know that a key to entrepreneurship (and life) is risk taking.  At some point, we all have to be willing to give up a sure thing in the pursuit of something of potentially greater value.   I have never met an entrepreneur who didn’t tell me a story about how they went to bed one night after striking out in a new direction fearing that their new venture wouldn’t be viable in the morning.

The core of the university experience rightly focuses on intellectual development, but I also want to help students nurture their entrepreneurial talents, among them the willingness to take professional risks.  The challenge is to create an environment that develops and tests for strong analytic, technical and inter-personal skills but also demands that student take risks, that they sometimes fail and that they learn from failure.

Developing an aptitude for risk-taking is one of the reasons I encourage students to get out of their comfort zones.  Leading a student organization; participating in competitions; studying abroad; getting to know people who are different from themselves; are all activities that require risk taking.  These activities can help students learn to adapt and perform in new and stressful situations where the outcomes are uncertain and not entirely within individual control.

But co-curricular activities alone are likely to be insufficient if for no other reason than they reach only a modest number of students.  Those students who need these confidence-building experiences the most are least likely to seek them out.  So we faculty are going to have to figure out ways to create classroom environments that encourage, assess, and give students feedback on their risk-taking propensities.  Developing assignments and valid rubrics that assess risk-taking are part of the answer, but what is really needed is a culture that celebrates this quality through story-telling, incentives and role models.  And we have to create this environment recognizing that many students are not going to be happy about this because they would prefer the safe and comfortable route. So it is important that college administrators develop mechanisms that encourage faculty to engage in innovation and risk-taking in the pursuit of instilling these qualities in our students.

I want the Courtney Johnstons of the world to develop the courage necessary to take professional risks that will help them realize their dreams.  How do we get this done?

The Death of the Textbook

The beginning of the semester brings many student rituals. One of them is buying textbooks. Back in the day, this meant going to the university bookstore which had been temporarily relocated to the student union ballroom and fighting Black Friday-like crowds to hunt down the required books for your courses. If you were lucky, you could find a used copy of the book and save a few bucks. Standing in line at the check-out, you hoped that your bookstore bill didn’t exceed your tuition payment.

My guess is that most students today buy their books on-line and have them delivered. No more standing in long lines. But, I know the cost of textbooks remains a big concern. Some LBS professors have gone with lower cost course packets of proprietary material and have shared the proceeds with student organizations to help fund their activities. Others have experimented with interactive syllabi where all of the readings can be found on-line for free. This works well for some courses, but despite the internet’s vast resources not all academic subjects are covered in sufficient detail with free content.

But make no mistake, the death of the textbook is nearly at hand. Like so many industries that have been impacted by the internet, the business model for this virtual marketplace is in flux. Pay attention, for whatever alternative becomes dominant, it is seriously going to impact your life as a student. Student government leaders get ready, you are going to want a say in what comes next.

At one end of the spectrum is the open source movement. There are some open source textbooks. I know students would love free downloads of course materials but this model doesn’t provide a financial incentive for professors to write course materials. And if I’m an author, I don’t want people changing my prose without my consent. Without someone pushing skeptical faculty to write and adopt these texts, I doubt they will become the industry standard.

States like California and Washington are investing in the creation of open source libraries of classroom materials. The idea is to purchase classroom material from low-bidding publishers for a one-time fee, have up-dates to the texts vetted by faculty experts and the materials made available to all students at the state’s universities. This approach costs taxpayers money and may work for big introductory courses where the savings will come from economies of scale. but it leaves upper division courses in the hands of the publishers. If they lose the big introductory market and have to make it go just on upper division courses, the costs of these products will go up. Without other marketplace innovations, your total textbook bill might not change much and taxpayers will be subsidizing higher education in new ways.

How about having your university buy on-line materials in bulk from publishers (or creating their own) and charging a course material fee to cover the expense as part of your tuition bill? The publishing companies love this idea, which is reason enough for you to fear it. Theoretically, costs savings would come through volume purchasing but this approach also eliminates the used textbook market and creates incentives to hide these costs from unsuspecting students. Replacing publishers with proprietary material produced by the university’s faculty might overcome some problems and provide branding opportunities for the institution, but monopoly provision of products rarely reduces costs to consumers. Nonetheless, some version of this approach remains a likely path forward.

Finally, there is the “itunes” model—a common platform where you can buy individual book chapters ($1.29 a chapter?) or pre-bundled materials and have them downloaded to your device. This model is least disruptive to the industry, gives faculty and students more freedom in choosing materials and should cut costs (no printing, distributing to book stores, etc.). You do need to make the one-time investment in a reader, but prices are falling fast and the new tablets can handle graphs and other complicated images in the same way conventional textbooks do. A similar approached failed before, but the new hardware and wide-spread consumer acceptance of the i-tune model suggests it is a viable model going forward.

The day may soon come when LBS is going to have to make a choice about the form and pricing of class materials. If you have a strong preference for one of the approaches noted above, believe I am underestimating the potential for a true open source solution or have a better business model that what I presented above, leave us a comment. We would be most interested in knowing what you think.

Five New Year’s Resolutions to Improve Your LBS Experience

Ah, the New Year’s Resolution. It is that time of year when optimism and good intentions reign supreme. Most people try to take stock of what went right and what went wrong over the last year, what dreams went unfilled and what shortcomings need addressing. Usually, your significant other can help you with that last one. Goals are then set and promises made, but actions started are rarely completed.

Most people who study this sort of thing, tell us that the key to successful resolutions is to think small, to develop concrete action steps and to remember to take things out of your life to make room for your new activities. Focus also helps. Don’t have ten new goals. Concentrate on the two or three actions that are going to get you to the goals that matter to you most. If you execute your focused plan, small changes can generate really big results.

If you are an LBS student looking to improve your college experience, here is a list of five simple New Year’s resolutions you can adopt for 2012. If some of these activities are things you don’t do, commit to doing one or two:

1. Ask for Help: College is not for the bashful. The biggest mistake most students make is that they are afraid to ask for help. Everyone needs help from time to time. You (and your family) are investing a lot of time and money in your education. You deserve to get your questions answered. So ask. If you find yourself hesitating, cowboy up: check your shyness at the door, approach someone you think can help you and ask them. If they fail to help you, ask someone else. UNLV is filled with people who are paid to help you. Make them earn their pay. Commit to asking for help at least once a week, after a short while, it will become easy.
2. Engage: Sitting idly by waiting to be “discovered” only works in the movies. If you want people to recognize your greatness, you need to get out and show it to them: not on Facebook or Youtube, but in person. Join a student club and be active at meetings. Run for a leadership position. Become a student ambassador. Speak out in class. Or find Dr. Janet Runge and learn how you can compete in the Governor’s Cup business plan competition. These are just examples. There are lots of ways to engage and enrich your college experience. Pick one and make it happen.
3. Study an hour more a week: Remember the blog post where I mentioned the results from the National Survey of Student Engagement that showed that the average business student studies fourteen hours a week? For the typical student, studying just one more hour per week represents a 7% increase. In the competition for better grades, this is a big difference. If you are serious with this extra time investment, it should payoff big. If someone told you grades don’t matter after you graduate, they lied. No employer you want to work for is looking to hire C- students.
4. Create a deliverable you can show a prospective employer to highlight your talents: Employers want to know what you can do with the knowledge you learned in school. Create a portfolio of relevant examples of your best work that illustrate your skill set. Maybe it is a business plan you did for a course, or an excel spreadsheet that performs a particular analysis, or a video of some creative material you put together for the student organization you lead. Just like actors and models have portfolios you should build one to bring along on interviews that contains a concise sampling of your best work.
5. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone: College is about expanding your horizons and finding out where your passions and talents intersect. Self-discovery requires that you try new things. And you need to do them with people who are not like you. So pick one thing that will get you out of your comfort zone and commit to carrying it out for the whole semester. Maybe it is getting to know a professor you think is doing interesting work, or an international student from a country you would like to know more about. Maybe it is teaming with some engineering students to create and market a new product as part of their senior design competition. Or maybe it is working with Dr. Schibrowsky’s AMA team or Dr. Sullivan’s student investment fund. Doing things that get you out of your comfort zone also shows employers you are adaptable and it may just end up taking your career in an unexpected direction.

After you have figured out which of these activities you are going to do, stop and think about what you are going to do less of in the new year. We are all busy people. To fit in something new, we are going to have to get rid of something. What low value activities can you resolve to reduce or eliminate? Watching T.V.? Sleeping in late? Surfing the net? If you are honest with yourself, these will be pretty evident.

So here is to 2012 and the start of a new semester at LBS. Let’s all resolve to make it the start of something big.

Las Vegas 2012

About a month ago, I was approached by Ric Anderson of the Las Vegas Sun to participate in a project that asked various Las Vegans what they thought we could expect for the New Year. His article appeared yesterday in Vegas Inc. Prediction is risky business.  Case in point: The College of Business started 2011 facing a potential eighteen percent budget cut that would result in the termination of more than fifteen tenure-track faculty members.  The situation was so bleak, that eight faculty members decided to take a university tenure buyout and leave the College rather than face a dire future at UNLV.  By the end of the year, the Lee Business School executive team was meeting with Doris and Ted to discuss how we can best use new faculty lines, scholarship money, and community outreach to elevate our national profile.  A tumultuous year like this makes you apprehensive and grateful at the same time. 

What will 2012 hold? If you are an ancient alien theorist, it doesn’t look good: the Mayan calendar ends on Dec. 21, 2012 and some people expect things to get really ugly. If like me, you believe we humans control our destiny, 2012 is likely to be a little better than 2011. We all have to recognize that most of the world, nation, and Las Vegas are in slow climbs back to prosperity.  History tells us that financial crises leave especially long recessions in their wake. I fear that recent news about booming holiday sales and falling unemployment rates are relatively transitory events fueled by early bargain hunting and workers giving up on finding jobs.  Don’t get me wrong.  Things are slowly getting better, but recession fatigue will not fuel economic recovery, real increases in productivity are required and those remain modest for the economy as a whole  And while I support the drive to diversify our local economy, these efforts will prove more valuable in weathering the next economic downturn than helping us get out of this one.  Investments, whether they are designed to diversify our economy or elevate the reputation of a business school, take time to mature. Stephen Brown, Director of our Center for Business and  Economic Research said almost the very same thing, at our December 2011 outlook conference.

The economy will recover, but it will not come back. If you worked in one of the industries that helped make Las Vegas boom: construction, hospitality, or business services you may never see a return to the heydays of 2007/2008. Milkmen, elevator operators and typists are still waiting for their decades-long recessions to end. The vibrant economy of 2014 will be a different economy than the one that left us, with somewhat different drivers, characteristics, and demand for workers.  Real estate agents are giving way to home stagers, travel agents to data miners and medical record clerks to health informatics technicians, to name just a few.  Now is the perfect time to position yourself for the next round of growth by going back to school to upgrade your skills, taking a job to gain experience in an emerging area, building your professional network of peers, or starting a company that meets consumers changing needs.  If you are proactive, 2012 will be the bridge to a much better future.