Mastering business Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Going after a master’s degree in business administration has always helped employees get ahead, but it has become even more important in today’s economy.

“An MBA gives you a good, well-rounded understanding of how a business is composed and how it gets things done,” says Fletcher Birmingham, who leads faculty facilitating graduate business courses at University of Phoenix’s Cleveland Campus.

That understanding makes employees more valuable to their current employer — and makes them sought after by others.

“MBA students are trying to develop better skills or a better understanding of what makes a business successful because they know that it will help them improve their current job performance or better their prospects for another job that may open up,” says Birmingham.

Smart Business spoke with Birmingham about how an MBA helps employers as well as employees.

How can employees benefit from an MBA?

There are a few things that are really helpful. Specifically, in today’s job market and today’s economy, the reality is that you can’t promise job security. There is no such thing based on our current economic conditions. But what you can do is develop job skills that are transferable — flexibility to go to where the work is. If you look at the people, students and employees in the MBA program, it’s the place to learn those skills so that you do have transferable skills, you can be portable and you can go to where the work is needed.

What does having an MBA represent to potential employers?

The good part about the MBA and what makes it so valuable is students can come in and learn a number of real-world experiences. One is to learn the different departments of a company and how they operate, get results and determine what’s important.

So, through their training classes in the MBA program, the students are going to get exposure to all the primary departments of a company — accounting and finance, a course or two that gives them exposure to sales and marketing, an understanding of operations, human resources and law.

Students in the MBA program now have a better understanding of how businesses are organized, probably have a better understanding of what’s important in their role in the company and also, in a bigger picture, how they and their peers have to interact, and how goals are interconnected for the benefit of the organization. So the employer really benefits from this program, because instead of getting departmentalization in which you optimize your performance even if it is marginalizing or rationalizing the performance for another department, employees have a better understanding of the whole system; the whole business works together to get results.

How can an MBA help employees in their current roles?

I like to encourage students to think, ‘At your company, who has this role?’ For instance, if I am teaching a course on maximizing shareholder wealth, that course is focused on finance, working capital and cash flow. So who has the responsibility for taking care of your company’s assets? I like to ask them that question for every class, and then I like to encourage them to keep an open mind to learn about it because they might decide later on in their career that it is a role they may want to take. If it’s a topic you don’t necessarily like or if it doesn’t seem to match your interest, then at least you’ll better understand your peers.

How can employees make the most of their MBA experiences?

When we are talking about assignments and topics in our classes, the faculty likes to look to the students. We ask, ‘What is going on in your workplace today?’ We’re not looking to go into the specifics and break into something confidential. But what is an example that you’re struggling with in your work department that we can bring in here? That way, we have some real-life examples on the table for students to look at and learn from, then take right back so that they have improvements they can connect to right away at work.

They’ve already talked about it in a work context. If they talk about it outside of the work context, they have people who are not involved in this specific issue who have different backgrounds, resources, work at different companies, maybe different industry sectors, who can offer some fresh ideas. The classroom is a good place where we can bring better ideas and better solutions.

How have MBA programs changed recently?

Today’s MBA programs involve more teamwork. Case studies have been the traditional learning model, used to develop a methodology for problem solving. What’s new in recent years is that more and more of that involves a simulation. So instead of reading a 100-page case, you’re doing something that has some simulation aspects to it and you have a team assignment so people are working on this together.

The benefit of the simulation versus the case study is the simulation is very dynamic. As the students reach a decision, they enter that decision in the simulation and the next problems that come up are connected to their selection of choices. It makes it more realistic.