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A new global survey found a slight majority (53 per cent) favoured specialist programs while 47 per cent of respondents preferred a generalist MBA. The most popular specializations are information technology, finance and entrepreneurship.Cecilie_Arcurs/Istock

Market-sensitive business schools are sowing a new crop of specialty programs tailored to meet the specific interests of students and employers.

With slow or stagnant growth for the master of business administration – the long-dominant degree in educating generations of corporate leaders – business schools are rejigging content, expanding delivery options and adding new credentials as complements, or sometimes alternatives, to the MBA.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” observes Andrew Crisp, a London-based education marketing consultant and co-founder of Carrington Crisp, of the growing menu of specialties at business schools worldwide. “That speaks to the personalization agenda. The idea that you will have a mass-market MBA with fairly standard components – there are very few of those that will succeed in the future.”

A new report by his firm, based on an online survey of almost 1,300 students in 39 countries, including Canada, found a slight majority (53 per cent) favoured specialist programs while 47 per cent of respondents preferred a generalist MBA. The most popular specializations are information technology, finance and entrepreneurship.

Given the evolving market, business schools need to demonstrate innovation and flexibility in program content and delivery, Mr. Crisp says.

“The world of work is changing,” he notes. “Doing an MBA at [the age of] 29 and thinking that is the end of it is just a preposterous notion. People will need retraining or reskilling or additional skills at 45, 65 and they won’t retire until 75, so what are the things they need and how will the MBA fit into that?”

Typical of the trend is a new specialization in “digital transformation” that will be added in January to the full-time MBA offered by the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston. Built from courses across multiple disciplines, including strategy, finance and organizational behaviour, the specialization is designed to train future consultants and general managers to think across the various parts of a company, not just in one area.

“The digital transformation specialization is changing business as usual,” says Kathryn Brohman, an associate professor and distinguished faculty fellow in management information systems at Smith, and the lead faculty member in designing the new specialty.

“Traditionally, we thought of business in silos; ‘digital thinking’ thinks about business across silos,” she says. “Recruiters are still looking for someone in the silo but the idea that this person can [also] navigate outside those traditional boundaries is crucial.”

A lot of “digital transformations” fail because corporate leaders are ill-equipped to cope with the necessary disruptive impact, she says. But successful efforts can have positive bottom-line impact, she notes, citing a successful partnership between U.S. pharmacy giant Walgreens and a small technology-rich photo-editing service company. Together, they were able to provide seamless in-store service to photo customers, with a boost in revenue for both companies.

“A traditional leader at Walgreens would say, ‘Why on earth would we give away that revenue when we could keep it for ourselves?’” Dr. Brohman says. “Whereas my graduates would say, ‘No, it is modern business.’”

Like recruiters, students are driving demand for specialty options.

At the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business, a new master of management program to be offered next May is for those who have just completed their undergraduate degree (in any discipline), have no work experience and want to add business skills.

“The idea is to give them some career skills and an understanding of organizational dynamics,” Gustavson dean Saul Klein says. Students already have some technical knowledge, he says, but they “recognize they are moving into a business world for the most part they are unprepared for.”

Tailoring programs for those with little or no knowledge of commerce is an emerging strategy that enables schools to recruit candidates who are from disciplines across campus and eager to learn some business fundamentals.

In 2013-14, Gustavson offered one introductory commerce course that grew to six sections by 2017-18, while an introductory course in entrepreneurship offered since 2016 is “consistently oversubscribed,” according to an e-mail from Vivien Corwin, assistant teaching professor at the school. As well, she highlighted the “increasing popularity” of Gustavon’s business minor (a complement to a non-business major), with enrolment of 1,502 this year, compared with 1,381 four years ago.

Staying nimble in the midst of market headwinds is essential, deans say.

“We are seeing big changes in the traditional MBA market where the full-time MBA market is a very tough one,” Gustavson’s Dr. Klein says. “We are really looking at our MBA portfolio and rebalancing where management education is going.”

In a similar vein, the University of Windsor’s Odette School of Business added a specialization last year to its flagship MBA program and this fall introduced new options for undergraduate commerce students.

Introduced last year, the MBA-professional accounting specialization is a 12-month program that combines an MBA degree and relevant accounting courses. Accredited by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Ontario, the program prepares students to write the CPA common final exam for industry credentials.

“Accounting is morphing into what they would call business advisors on top of the accounting role,” says Odette dean Mitch Fields. “With an MBA you are not just an accountant, you are in a better position to function as a business advisor.” Classes for the combined degree are delivered in the evenings.

This fall, Odette added options for undergraduate commerce students entering third year to purse specialties in finance, accounting, human resources, marketing, supply chain and analytics, and strategy and entrepreneurship.

“There is an increased need for students to credentialize and specialize and separate themselves from the pack,” he says. “We are reading the market.”

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