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Not Your Father's MBA

Engineers interested in business, management, and global operations now have many options

6 min read

During the last two decades, traditional MBA programs have given way to graduate degrees tailored to the business world's increasing emphasis on technology, global expansion, and the rise in entrepreneurship. At the same time, new MBA programs are striving to accommodate working engineers' need for flexible class schedules and relevant curricula, as more midcareer professionals enter managerial positions.

"Virtually every MBA program created a technology track in the 1990s," says Bruce Clark, an associate marketing professor at Northeastern University in Boston, which offers a technology MBA program [see sidebar, "A Sampling of Tech Management Programs"]. "They're being designed for people committed to tech careers. People in midcareer, such as engineers needing management training in preparation for a move to a new role in their companies, are the predominant audience for these degrees."

Photo: Vincent L. Long

The result is an overwhelming array of offerings for engineers seeking cross-disciplinary skills to better manage product designs and foster technological innovation. Petersons.com, an education Web site, lists more than 100 engineering management programs. It includes technology MBAs, online MBAs designed to accommodate the hectic schedules of working professionals, and business programs focusing on entrepreneurial and intercultural engineering skills.

The Engineered MBA : Susan Jaques, a working engineer and student at Deakin University's tech MBA program, says distance learning requires organization and focus.

"These programs teach engineers how to bring together different disciplines and practice engineering in a team environment," says Wade H. Shaw, editor of IEEE Engineering Management Review . Most of these tech MBA programs are in the United States, Shaw says, although some European schools are beginning to follow suit.

Choosing a course depends on your professional goals, family, job, other obligations, and finances. Loosely speaking, traditional MBAs are best if you're interested in finance, marketing, and general management. A joint MBA-M.S. program is best for in-depth study of a single science or technology. A technology management degree is ideal if you'll be overseeing divisions or projects requiring a working knowledge of several technologies, and a technology MBA is suitable if you'll be managing a technology company.

"Some of our students start their own businesses, but mainly, they are here to advance within their company," notes Northeastern's Clark. For example, the university's MBA class of 2002 averaged a 30 percent increase, to US $105 000, over their previous annual salaries, and more than two-thirds received major promotions. Although many of Clark's students hold undergraduate and even graduate degrees in engineering, an increasing number have worked in biotechnology, reflecting the growth of that industry and the drop-off in information technology and telecommunications. Many come armed with general MBAs but want more specialized management training.

Such technology-friendly specialization is also evident in the University of Pennsylvania's Executive Master's in Technology Management program, an MBA alternative taught by engineering and Wharton business school professors. It targets students who plan to continue in technology-intensive roles or industries but need to understand strategic issues and develop stronger management skills.

The courses are designed to help students "anticipate and manage emerging science and technologies," says the program's codirector and engineering professor Dwight L. Jaggard. Meeting on alternate weekends, students get a concentrated version of traditional core MBA courses along with classes in several technology areas, from IT and telecommunications to nanotechnology, photonics, biotechnology, and drug discovery.

As the business world becomes increasingly multinational, management training programs are also taking a more global outlook. U.S. business schools have formed alliances, satellite campuses, and joint and exchange programs with non-U.S. universities. These efforts aim to give students the experience of tackling complex business and technical concepts in an international setting.

Sixteen years ago, increasing industrial competition, particularly that from Japan, prompted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to found the Leaders for Manufacturing program, which offers a dual MBA-M.S. degree. Initially, it focused on teaching those with science and engineering backgrounds the fundamentals of manufacturing and operations in a cross-disciplinary way. Nowadays, it also looks at more contemporary issues like globalization and outsourcing. International subject matter and plant tours are becoming a major part of the program, notes director Donald Rosenfield. Many students spend a half-year in overseas corporate internships.

Other programs sponsor visits to non-U.S. universities and companies. This year, Penn students took a 10-day trip to China that included classes at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology and tours of Hong Kong and Shanghai firms. Northeastern, in association with the Reims Business School in France, runs summer trips to Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. A recent trip to Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand featured seminars on how cultural mores affect business deals, and how to raise capital locally and interact with regional government offices and agencies.

How do you teach someone to be an entrepreneur? "Traditionally, universities have not been the best place for teaching students how to start small businesses, be innovative, and leverage basic science and engineering into new products," says the IEEE's Shaw. "It's also hard to find people with enough expertise across the necessary areas to teach." For example, he notes, "in a start-up, you need engineering expertise to make a prototype; management expertise to market and sell the product; legal experts to sort out patents, royalties, and product ownership; and people adept at acquiring funding."

There's an obvious demand for entrepreneurial programs and other hands-on MBA programs. Northeastern's new master's degree in technological entrepreneurship, for example, is designed for students who want to start their own companies. Meanwhile, its tech-MBA program for working professionals encourages students to use their companies' real-life issues as class lessons.

As a Northeastern student, Peter Webb, a principal technical specialist at engineering software firm The MathWorks, in Natick, Mass., drafted an initial design for a program to enable an existing MathWorks program to be used for another application. His adaptation saved the company the costlier task of creating a new program from scratch. A great example of technical activity driven by an in-depth understanding of the business side of a company, the resulting software began shipping this past June.

Deakin University's program addresses the risk associated with manufacturing and product design

Webb, who began his career as a programmer, says, "My technical education had not prepared me for the challenges I'd face as a manager, like reading financial reports, dealing with immigration lawyers, and understanding marketing lingo. After my MBA, I not only knew that stuff, but also how to create and manage an environment where tech innovation and creativity could be fostered. You wouldn't get that from a normal MBA."

Mira Sahney had worked as a research engineer before enrolling in MIT's Leaders for Manufacturing program. Though she knew a lot about product development going in, she says, "You learn only the way your company does it. Management school gives you the chance to learn from case studies and other students' and also alumni experiences."

Engineers with families and work commitments who still want to earn a tech management degree have created an explosion of programs and scheduling options that include weekend, evening, and online classes. Northeastern's accommodation of working professionals was a significant factor in Webb's decision to matriculate there. "It enabled me to keep my job, which is huge if you have a mortgage and kids," he says.

MIT's System Design and Management program, jointly run by the Sloan School of Management and the School of Engineering, is an alternative to an MBA program, and graduates receive an M.S. degree. Geared toward engineers on upward leadership tracks in their organizations, it features distance learning options and live video classes.

Coursework centers on the development of complex engineering systems such as software, infrastructure, and defense products. Students take core courses in systems architecture, engineering, and program management; MBA-style managerial courses; and four technology electives. Each also writes a thesis addressing the engineering and management aspects of a systems-related challenge.

Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, two years ago launched an "engineered" MBA degree program taught by faculty from business, law, science, and engineering. The curriculum was designed with the help of the professional association Engineering Education Australia. Though a traditional MBA program might cover only a product's financial risk, for example, Deakin's program also addresses the risk and liability associated with manufacturing and product design.

Like many MBA programs these days, this one also gives students the option of distance learning through mailed class work and learning guides, as well as access to study groups and tutors via the Internet, videoconferencing, phone, and fax. "Many of our students are in the military, posted overseas or in submarines," remarks Glenda Graham, manager of development for Engineering Education Australia. "This structure gives them maximum flexibility over where and how to study."

"Distance education requires a different approach to learning," says Deakin student Susan Jaques, a senior project engineer with Brisbane Oil and Gas in Australia. "Without classes to attend, you have to be very organized and focused. The subject material is not spoon-fed: you have to be able to take the information you get and figure out what to do next."

Cooperation between academia and industry will become more prevalent as companies continue to streamline manufacturing, notes Dennis Mahoney, director of MIT's System Design and Management program. Five years ago, MIT faculty worked with defense contractor United Technologies Corp., Hartford, Conn., to create certificate programs and workshops for the company's systems engineers. After a successful pilot program, the school now plans to open similar programs with other companies.

Developing complex engineering systems will only get harder in the future, says Mahoney, "given the accelerating complexity of integrating resources, technologies, suppliers, and producers in a global environment." By training managers to be tech savvy, he says, "we can help transform their enterprises."

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