The biggest challenge for today’s managers and leaders is to understand the ways in which the business world has evolved since the economic downturn and implement new operational strategies to cope with the realities of a changing market. Leaders must also have competencies and skills to anticipate how their strategies may evolve over time in order to stay alive in this increasingly complex and unpredictable world.
The popularity of online executive learning, where students can access study materials, virtually interact with tutors and take online tests, has increased significantly in the UAE as students juggle work and other responsibilities.
However, education experts, say that online study cannot replace the impact of a programme that also offers face-to-face contact. A more recent trend in executive higher education has seen candidates opting for blended courses, which include self-study, web-based training, online or email discussion forums and face-to-face workshops. Studies have also proved that compared to purely online courses, blended programmes, when properly implemented, result in improved learning outcomes and student satisfaction.
In response to the demand for such courses in the UAE, Manchester Business School (MBS) has started offering a part-time Global MBA programme through blended learning. It combines self-study, group work and 250 hours of face-to-face contact with peers and faculties.
“The face-to-face component is critical and [it] is the most significant element of the programme; students benefit enormously from contact with their peers who bring a range of backgrounds, work experience and cultures to the classroom,” says Randa Bessiso, Director – Middle East, Manchester Business School.
Executive education is a significant investment and participants always look for convenience and flexibility to ensure that programmes meet their needs as much as possible. “We are seeing a preference for modular programmes compared to long one-block programmes,” points out Sabine Vinck, Associate Dean Executive Education, London Business School. “We have recently replaced one iteration of our four-week senior executive programme with two two-week modules. Participants are also looking for flexibility in the timing of the programmes. So, we have moved to multiple iterations to cater to businesses that have different cycles. Participants are also keen to ensure that the programmes are relevant to their own business needs. That’s why we tailor topics of our programmes to an individual’s specific circumstances through coaching and consulting.”
As most learners are busy multi-tasking in their lives, Manipal University, Dubai gives its students the flexibility to study during evenings and at weekends with convenient timings that allow them to pursue full-time jobs.
In the post-recession world, business ethics and governance along with corporate social responsibility and social sustainability are the key issues facing businesses and consumers. “Business leaders not only need to adhere to acceptable principles of ethics and corporate social responsibility but they should also demonstrate leadership in these areas. Thus, it is critical that business managers and leaders are exposed to these topics in their study in university business programmes,” says Professor Valerie Lindsay, Dean of the Faculty of Business at University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD).
UOWD incorporates these topics across its business programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. “Business ethics are relevant in international business, accounting, finance, marketing, human resources management, quality management and other disciplines. In each of these areas, we focus on encouraging managers to learn about and practise ethical behaviour and exercise corporate social responsibility in their particular specialist fields,” Prof. Lindsay adds.
Rob Melville, Professor of Internal Auditing, Cass Business School, City University London, agrees and points out that business schools must ensure that the next generation of managers do not repeat the errors of the past by placing profit above principle. At Cass Business School, ethical initiative is led by an Associate Dean for Ethics, Sustainability and Engagement, who ensures that programmes include clear guidance for students to understand the place of ethics in modern businesses. “To ensure that our research and teaching activities maintain a continuing focus on ethics and related activities, we have launched Ethos, a multidisciplinary governance, CSR and ethics research centre, to contribute to this important area,” says Melville.
Job-specific and industry-focused programmes have now become effective training tools for executives. The expanding business landscape in the UAE is helping to stimulate demand for academic programmes that allow students to fast-tack their career development. “We are proactive in responding to emerging labour market trends and our most recent programme additions include postgraduate degrees aimed at the growing media and communications industry and international studies,” points out Peter Hawke, Director of Marketing and Student Recruitment, UOWD. “Soft skills are also core components of these programmes, which give students the knowledge and ability to deal with a range of issues and challenges across sectors.”
Programmes that also provide transferrable skills are always in demand. “All programmes offered for working professionals have components that are constructed after analysing the options available for them, industry trends, and new opportunity areas when they graduate,” says Dr Narayanan Ramachandran, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Amity University.
Along with core courses, universities have begun offering customised programmes aligned to the demands of local industries.
“During a recession, one of the first things to be cut is marketing and training budgets. Now that the UAE is well on the road to economic recovery, we are seeing a marked increase in demand for executive training courses, particularly for shorter customised programmes, which don’t demand as much of a financial commitment as a full length EMBA,” says Ehsan Razavizadeh Head of Dubai Centre, Cass Business School.
Manipal University, Dubai has created a separate space for executive education. “This will be focused towards providing flexible, customisable and industry-relevant courses in various fields, allowing working professionals to gain valuable input that can be applied in their present and future roles. In our mainstream university programmes, we have created newer areas of specialisations such as health-care management and IT,” says Dr S. V. Kota Reddy, Academic President, Manipal University, Dubai.
Cass Business School has seen a surge in demand for executive education from financial institutions that are looking for customised in-house programmes that cover everything from entrepreneurship and investment strategy to Islamic finance, consultancy and results measurement. “Entrepreneurism is huge in the region and students are using the EMBA as a catalyst to escape the corporate bubble and set up their own businesses,” adds Razavizadeh.
Universities have a key role to play in creating opportunities for networking. “We have seen that learners can find the best networking opportunities in the classrooms, with students from a broad cross-section of business sectors and professions interacting on a common theme. This is one of the reasons our postgraduate classes are conducted in the evenings and at weekends, so that professional learners can come together regularly to learn from each other, as well as from their professors,” says Hawke.
Manchester Business School creates opportunities for its students to meet fellow students, alumni in the region and visiting faculty. “As half of our students are residents in the UAE, we need to ensure that they all have the opportunity to broaden their network of contacts. The regular face-to-face MBA workshops in Dubai provide [an] opportunity for this but we also run a guest speaker series, and social events including alumni dinners,” says Bessiso.