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Managers as students

By Margaret Adolphus

Preparing yourself for the MBA

There was a time when the Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate was caricatured as long on theory but short on practical know-how. Now however, the majority of students – up to 80 per cent on one estimate (Badenhausen and Kump, 2005) – are on part-time, executive or distance learning courses, which means that they are likely to be both studying management and living it on a day-to-day basis.

No one undertakes MBA study lightly and you will probably be fairly clear what motivates you. For many, it's a matter of career progression – a way of getting a good general business education and a more strategic focus that will enable you to be seen as someone who can take on more senior responsibility. For others, the need may be to sharpen existing skills, to extend one's world view and to avoid being pigeonholed in a particular function.

Whatever your motivation, it's important to reflect on the range of management competences an MBA can help develop, for example:

  • Numerical and analytic skills.
  • Written and oral communication.
  • Teamwork, and learning to manage conflict and value diversity.
  • Providing and receiving constructive feedback.
  • Networking.
  • Strategic thinking.
  • Project and conflict management.
  • Selecting relevant and critical information from research.

In other words, it's not just about theory and technique, but about developing yourself as a person.

It's also important to enlist the help of your organization – can they sponsor you, can they offer study leave (the drawback here is that you may be tied to your organization for the duration of your studies)?

There are also other more informal ways they can support you, for example:

  • You will have development needs arising from your studies, what cooperation can you get from your workplace? Will you be able to go and talk to the functional manager of another part of the organization when you study a module for which you have no practical experience? Will your manager be supportive, and give you time to discuss your new ideas and their application? How about your subordinates – can you try out new ideas on them? Mentors can be invaluable in that they provide senior level expertise, but outside the "line" relationship – can such be provided?
  • Will your workplace understand the commitment you have undertaken, and ensure a manageable workload, even if it doesn't provide formal study leave? However you also need to develop the necessary assertiveness skills to fend off additional work – can it be delegated? Is the deadline negotiable?

What is management learning?

As a working and studying manager you need to adopt a particular strategy for your learning. You will need to be a critical reflector, both on your organization and the ideas you come across in your studies.

Being a critical reflector is what management learning is all about. "The learning organization" learns from experience, including mistakes, reflects on practice and is open to new ways of doing things. This is an ideal view and not one that's universal throughout all workplaces. However, there has been a general shift in emphasis from the manager as passive receiver of knowledge, through concern with functional competences, to a new view which sees management as constructing knowledge and making sense of the world.

Sheila Cameron, in her book on study skills for MBA students (Cameron, 2004), uses Kolb's learning cycle as a model. According to Kolb, learning involves repeated stages of experience, reflection, conceptualizing, and acting/testing, with each stage drawing from the previous and influencing the subsequent ones.

This is very much active learning: you will need to not only reflect on links between the theories that are presented to you and your own experience, but also contribute to an ongoing debate as to how experience matches the theory.

Both the workplace and your studies may formalize this reflection process. At work, there is the annual appraisal as well as perhaps review sessions, for example for teams, after particular projects, etc. It is very important here that the climate is blame free. A good MBA course will also provide structured opportunities for transfer of learning, for example study logs, study groups and online blogs.

Reflective learning – new techniques and theories

On your MBA you will be studying across a whole range of subject areas and disciplines. In particular you will learn:

  • New techniques, for example, net present value, which allows you to compare current cost with expected future benefits, or return on investment, which compares actual or estimated returns with actual cost. Here you need to learn the formulae and rules. You also need to understand how they are used and with what significance, and gain practice in using them.
  • New theories, methodologies and models which explain complex reality or provide a framework for analysing problems or issues. Look at the theory or model in the light of your experience. Does your own evidence support the theory? Can the models throw light on the way you do things? What can/can't they account for/explain? Not only will the theories and models be easier to learn if you apply them to your personal experience, but you may also find ways of functioning better at work, or be able to suggest better ways of doing things to your senior management.

However, just as rote learning at this level is inappropriate, so is applying a particular technique just because you heard about it in your class on Wednesday evening. Is this technique the latest, is this theory based on sound research? If there is a chasm between classroom and work, is this because the theories promulgated at the former are old hat or has the latter not caught up with the latest thinking?

You will inevitably find it easier to apply what you learn in areas where you have functional expertise. Remember, however, that you are studying in order to expand your all-round knowledge of business, and aim to acquire a working knowledge of the material for different disciplines and functions – which you should be able to relate to the organization as a whole, if not your particular area. You should also find it easier to understand the language of colleagues!

If you have concerns that your experience is too particular to one organization, remember that many MBAs use case studies as a good way of embedding models and theories, and you will also constantly be exposed to the experiences of others on the course.

Reflective learning – personal development

The MBA will not only give you new skills and techniques, it will also develop you as a person. For example, strategic management is a key part of the MBA and you will learn theories about the analysis of business environments, the understanding of competitive resources and advantage, and methods for choosing appropriate corporate and business strategies. Equally important, however, is to learn to think strategically: to take a long view, and to see things in terms of the company's ultimate goals.

You will also get the opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses, and address the latter within a safe environment. Many people dislike giving presentations, but you can work on this on your course where a poor presentation will only lose you a few marks. You will find yourself changing the way you do things in a whole lot of often unexpected ways.

Learning from others

Modern theories of learning emphasize the importance of the learning that comes from peers, as opposed to "authoritative" sources such as lecturers or academic texts. Your fellow students will be among your greatest assets: you will be with a group of highly intelligent and articulate people, from a range of backgrounds, and you will learn from their experience as well as your own. As most MBAs aim to teach teamworking, you will be placed in a team with whom you will be expected to study and produce assignments for the duration of your course. If you are on a full-time or part-time MBA, you will meet in real time; many distance learning MBA courses facilitate virtual groups meeting online.

Many MBAs deliberately structure teams to be as diverse as possible, even employing special software for the purpose. Learning from people who work in different industries, and even different sectors, is an excellent way of broadening your own horizons and making sure you have experience which is wider than that of your own organization. It is also valuable to find others in your own position, for example if you feel that you are being pigeonholed you will find others with a similar experience.

Projects and assignments

However interesting you find it to read and reflect on particular theories, you will not be awarded your MBA unless you complete a number of projects and assignments, and it is here that you will find your organizational experience particularly valuable as a source of case material.

The project gives students an opportunity to undertake consultancy for their own organization, which can be particularly appropriate if they have been sponsored. Choice of topic is very important – it should be one that's useful to the organization, but which also has sufficient scope to demonstrate your understanding of a range of areas, including strategy.

Beyond the MBA

Business school can be such an overwhelming experience that completion of the MBA can be an anticlimax. But you will have gained a whole arsenal of new skills as well as a network of friends you can meet up with and share common problems.

And, for a good manager, the learning never stops.


Badenhausen, K. and Kump, L. (2005), "Part-time MBA programs take off", Forbes, August 19.

Cameron, S. (2004), The MBA Handbook: Skills for Mastering Management, Financial Times/Prentice Hall.