How executive MBA programs evolve to meet the needs of the business world Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2011
How executive MBA programs evolve to meet the needs of the business world

When UCLA’s Anderson School of Management created an Executive MBA program, its faculty members were concerned.

“The suspicion was that somehow the Executive MBA would be a watered-down degree,” says Carol Scott, faculty director of the executive program and professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. “Some were concerned we would relax our admission standards because people who have been out of school for a while might be a little rusty. Also, this was the university’s first program that was to be fully self-supporting. The faculty was nervous about whether we would deliver a quality education or if we would somehow dilute it to keep the tuition dollars rolling in. We didn’t know if employers would even accept an Executive MBA.”

As it turned out, their fears were unfounded. However, the program has evolved in many ways since its inception.

Smart Business spoke with Scott about how and why the executive MBA program has changed since those early days.

How has the program evolved over the years?

The program has certainly been constantly changed and adapted to students’ needs at this stage of their life and career. UCLA has always had a strong theoretical focus, but it has also had a strong connection to practice.

From the very beginning, one of the capstone requirements was a course where the students do what was called a ‘living case.’ We would invite a company in and the class would take on strategic questions for the company. They would then do presentations for the company. Now, that has evolved into the international business project. As international business became more important to all of us, the executive MBA was leading that charge. The final living case became an international situation, where we would invite companies with an international business issue to participate and have the class work on their problems.

There have also been changes in curriculum. The Anderson school has a strong focus on information technology and its use for business. The curriculum has evolved both that way and with an international focus, giving students the ability to see the organization as part of a larger world. Also, the student body has evolved over time.

How has the student population changed?

The program has a very diverse group of people with a variety of backgrounds. We always have entrepreneurs, as well as professionals like physicians or attorneys. The focus of the program has shifted a bit from people who came for some basic functional knowledge to people connecting the course material to leadership principles. Although the character of the students has changed quite a bit, we still have a very strong component of people with advanced degrees in other fields. That has remained constant through the years.

For example, last quarter I had a student who was an extremely well-known scientific researcher. Now he’s trying to figure out how to bring his ideas to market. Being able to marry those people with the business knowledge they need is just incredible.

Many people find themselves in business without a business background. They might have gotten a degree, even an advanced degree in the sciences or engineering, for instance, and found themselves working their way through their organization, ultimately into managerial roles, but had never gone to business school. Many people return to school for that reason.

How do the Executive MBA students differ from the full-time students?

The EMBA students are ready to take what they’ve learned and run with it the next day. When you teach the full-time program, you know you’re teaching the future business leaders of the world, but there will be a significant time lag. You are giving them the key fundamentals to help them, and hopefully will keep them learning throughout their careers, but it’s going to be a while before you see the true impact.

With EMBA students, that’s just not true. You see it immediately. They come back into the classroom with the excitement of having seen something work. It keeps the engine running. I always say walking into that classroom is like turning the key of a Ferrari. You just start up the class and it takes off. We get together as in a lab to see how we can use business knowledge to make their dreams and ideas come true.

How is a change in curriculum considered and how do you determine which direction to go?

People always say change in a university is like moving a graveyard. It happens very slowly and painfully. In my first few years with UCLA, curriculum changes were tortuous. Any potential changes went through many faculty and committee discussions. By the time we thought about it and went through all the machinations, it was often too late for a change to be effective and keep up with the evolving business world. Over time, we, like other businesses, realized that was not going to work.

There are still times when the faculty is not happy about a change because they get comfortable with what they are doing. But we all appreciate that innovative spirit and the thought that the program needs to evolve.

You don’t think about academics as innovative rebels, but there are a few. We’ve been lucky to have them in the right place at the right time.

Carol Scott is faculty director of the executive program and professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Reach her at (310) 825-4458 or carol.scott@anderson.ucla.edu.