Online MBAs are Going Niche

As employer demand changes and new skills emerge, a growing number of business schools are creating specialist degrees, in subjects like finance and business analytics

MBA degrees have long been a way for aspiring senior managers to acquire the generalist business knowledge to secure a place on the board. But as employer demand changes and new demands for skills emerge, a growing number of business schools are creating niche Online MBA degrees for working professionals.

In the UK, England’s Birmingham Business School runs an Online MBA in Global Finance and Banking. Solon Magrizos, director of the program, says that any specialist degree, from accounting to marketing and engineering will make students more employable compared to a generalist program — but only to a certain rank in an organization.  

To advance your career to a more senior leadership position, a diverse set of skills and knowledge is fundamental. “Combining specialist expertise with interdisciplinary knowledge of how a business works is the most productive combination,” he says.

And indeed, his graduates typically move into managerial roles in the same company they were at before, whether at a financial regulator, a consulting firm, or a bank. “Obtaining an MBA helps to break through the glass ceiling to senior management roles at banks and financial institutions,” says Magrizos.

Managerial expertise may be even more important in the current pandemic, he adds. “Leadership and change management are increasingly critical aspects of management during times of economic downturn and disruption of supply chains,” he says. “MBA alumni are likely to be in greater demand as they will contribute to the future resilience of organizations.”

At Nottingham Business School, which is also in the UK, students can take an Online MBA in Data Analytics, which is a high growth area with ample job opportunities.

“Specializing in data analytics to meet the needs of a rapidly changing external environment will of course provide access to careers in this area,” says Julie Rosborough, MBA portfolio lead at Nottingham.

But the holistic nature of the Nottingham MBA sees students develop essential transferable skills which ensure their specialist knowledge can be used for organizational effectiveness. 

Rosborough says niche Online MBAs often attract people without a business background who need general management skills in order to progress in their careers, such as engineers. “Usually, Online MBA students are working in management positions, but gaining the MBA has led to promotions,” she says.

“We are living in a very complex and fast changing world; the ability to combine data-driven decision making with leadership can provide a significant competitive advantage,” she adds. “Many organizations recognize this and are keen to recruit those candidates.”

In Scotland, Edinburgh Napier University’s business school runs an Online MBA in Strategic Project Management and an MBA in Engineering Management. That kind of cross-disciplinary learning can be fertile ground for innovation and creativity.

“That opportunity to enrich understanding through perspectives from different sectors, disciplines and regulatory environments adds tremendous insight that is of value to students’ learning experience,” says head of MBA programs, Luca Mora

An MBA is ‘never niche’

But Mora argues that an MBA is never niche. “It will always provide students with skills in creative problem solving, critical reasoning and strategic thinking, which students apply to strategic business issues, organizational management and the realities of the competitive marketplace,” he says.

Other business schools allow a high degree of customization within their generalist Online MBA degrees. An example is University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, where students can tailor studies to their industry or career interests. The US school offers five concentrations to match employers’ hiring needs: data analytics and decision making, marketing, entrepreneurship, finance, strategy and consulting.

“While a concentration is helpful, it is not necessarily a prerequisite to working in a certain field,” says Brad Staats, associate dean of MBA programs. “Many of our students work in one industry and pursue a concentration in a different area, to round out their business acumen, close a gap in skills or assist with future goals.”

He calls it a “false choice” between niche expertise and general business knowledge. “To be successful in business requires breadth and depth,” he says. “The breadth allows individuals to innovate, make connections and work well with diverse teams. The depth enables individuals to create real value from their specialty. Either by itself limits advancement in the long run.”

Birmingham’s Magrizos agrees. “In the same way you would want a specialist cardiologist to advise on a heart condition, you would need a highly specialist accountant to work with you for a merger of two firms,” he says.  

“However, that very bright accountant might not be the best CEO to lead the new company that will emerge. By mastering a set of cross-disciplinary learning, MBA students are able to think differently and use different lenses for understanding the same underlying problem.”

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