Can the generalist MBA survive the heat?

Generalist MBAs lack the sector-specific skills that specialist MBAs can provide and that the job market increasingly demands, says Pierre Ihmle

June 22, 2018
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It was heartening to read Times Higher Education’s recent article reporting that business schools around the world have recorded “double-digit growth” in their MBA programmes and enrolments. The decline in MBA applications over a five-year period was a worrying trend, so to have the Association of MBAs celebrating a second consecutive year of growth in applications is hugely welcome news for the sector.

AMBA has put the recent growth down to MBA providers’ “ability to innovate” and “adapt to the market”. This has not been entirely trouble-free, of course, as there have been reports that institutions such as King’s College London, Wake Forest University in North Carolina and the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business have either dropped full-time MBA programmes or opened without MBA programmes. This isn’t new. Going back 12 years, the London School of Economics decided to offer a master’s in management instead of an MBA and has since added a part-time version to compete with executive MBA programmes at rival institutions.

The debate over the relevance of the MBA won’t go away, despite this apparent upturn. A generalist MBA undoubtedly provides professionals with a sound grounding in management and leadership skills that can be applied to a wide range of business spheres. Students enhance their overall leadership capabilities and business insight by learning key skills such as strategic thinking, interdepartmental planning and entrepreneurial development. However, the criticism of full-time MBAs is that they have not effectively responded to new demands in the marketplace, especially from employers seeking a more specific set of skills, and nowadays having an MBA is no longer sufficient for some industries.

More and more specialist MBAs have come to the fore as a result – think of any industry or sector, and there is probably an MBA for it – and these threaten the future of generalist MBAs. Specialist MBAs are perfect for a professional who is already clear about the sector they wish to work in. The course allows professionals to hone their management skills and apply them to a desired field of expertise. Graduates still massively enhance their business understanding and potential, as with a generalist MBA, but additionally gain an unparalleled understanding of the sector they are most passionate about.

One example is at Les Roches Global Hospitality Education. Les Roches offers a one-year MBA in hospitality management from its Switzerland campus. Within the programme, students are challenged to apply their theoretical knowledge, leadership skills and decision-making abilities to tackle real-world business problems. Distinctively, the programme has two business field trips, to Chicago and Shanghai, enabling students to observe the application of hospitality strategy at leading industry establishments; a business consultancy project, in which students work with top-tier companies to solve a business challenge; and opportunities to participate in conferences, hospitality forums and international business competitions. Students advance their careers in a wide range of hospitality roles.

Also turning the heat up on the generalist MBA is the combined MBA and specialist master’s degree. One example is at Glion Institute’s partnership with the Grenoble School of Management to offer a dual MBA-MSc degree programme. Students obtain a master of science in international hospitality business, a graduate degree that transfers all the necessary skills for managing business operations and people in hotels and hospitality companies, together with the strategic skills of an MBA to help them become leaders. They earn a globally recognised MBA accredited by AMBA, AACSB and EQUIS. The programme consists of one full academic year delivered on Glion’s Swiss campuses, followed by an additional year and two capstone projects on the job.

For the hospitality management industry, our area of specialism, this different academic approach is essential. According to the latest numbers from the World Travel & Tourism Council, the global travel and tourism industry is set to create 100 million new jobs in the next decade. For hospitality, growth in tourism translates into development of new hotel projects on one hand, and the expansion and optimisation of existing properties on the other.

To take on such responsibilities at the highest level and become the future leaders in the industry, students need excellent general management skills and strong foundations in leadership, strategic management, operations management and corporate finance. But they must also possess specialised knowledge in hospitality management. The new dual-degree programme addresses mid-career professionals looking to deepen their knowledge and leadership skills to take the next step in their careers.

So, can a generalist MBA survive? Yes, but actually the figures show that full-time MBA degrees account for a very small number of students at most schools. Generalist business master’s degrees, of which MBAs are a part, make up 15 per cent of the student population at schools accredited by AACSB. For industries such as hospitality management – a specialist MBA or a combined MBA-MSc is a more compelling proposition.

Pierre Ihmle is chief academic officer of Sommet Education, the hospitality education group that includes Glion Institute of Higher Education and Les Roches Global Hospitality Education.

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