MBA STUDY: To stay local or go west? That is the question

By bne IntelliNews October 31, 2011

Kester Eddy in Budapest -

When a few years into her career and in her mid-20s, Iva Ivanova, like many young professionals, began to feel the need to enhance her understanding of business.

True, she held a post-graduate diploma in general management (along with a first degree in literature and linguistics) from Saint Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia, Bulgaria. But while these formed a good foundation, Ivanova, then a marketing manager with the Bulgarian wing of TBWA global advertising group, reasoned an MBA with a more international flavour would provide a much better grasp of global business in general, and marketing in particular.

Going through the vast array of MBAs available to consider elements such as educational content, affordability and life's practicalities (such as location and maintaining her career), she plumped for an executive MBA (ie. one designed for students with some years of business experience) at IEDC School of Management, Bled, Slovenia. "IEDC met my requirements to the greatest extent. I was looking for a school with great professors and a programme for reasonable money, as well as a modular approach to be able to continue my job during studies," she says.

In addition, Bled is relatively close to her home base, with the important bonus of being "a small, beautiful town," which Ivanova found very conducive to learning. "I think that the atmosphere as a whole is beneficial for the study process. The calm, beautiful nature helped me to concentrate better on studies, was a source of inspiration and good for [necessary] relaxation," she says.

Every year, thousands of young (and some not-so-young) professionals like Ivnanova struggle to decide on whether to take an MBA - and where to apply. For those in Central and Eastern Europe, the decision is typically complicated by more limited financial means and the question of whether to opt for a local or regional school - in all likelihood one with no more than a 20-year history - or opt for a more-established, and possibly prestigious, but much more expensive school in Western Europe or North America.

East or West - what's best?

Surprisingly, despite stern frowns from party apparatchiks at the time, some attempts to introduce modern business education had been initiated at spots across the CEE region even before the collapse of communism (including, as it happens, IEDC Bled - which celebrated its 25th anniversary just last month).

But it was clear in 1989 that such efforts had only made a token contribution to bringing management education up to the standards needed to support functioning market economies. "One study at the time estimated that CEE needed 2,500 properly trained faculty to staff the business schools required in the region," says Milenko Gudic, a director at the Central and East European Management Development Association (Ceeman).

And in the early 1990s, some of the attempts to service these needs - both from domestic and western schools operating at local centres in the region - were of dubious quality.

Partly as a result, business school associations in the region - such as Ceeman, Russia's Rabe and the Baltic's BMDA - began working to raise standards, and now point to what they say is huge progress over the past two decades. (Interestingly, Ceeman's annual two-week IMTA faculty development programme, designed to nurture CEE assistant lecturers, now attracts young western academics keen to benefit from the training on offer.)

But for today's would-be MBA student in Poznan or St Petersberg, the crucial question is: have business schools in CEE developed to match their peers in Western Europe and the US? "It's true that around 1990 there was no [modern] management education in our part of the world, so we learned and are still learning from our western partners," says Virginijus Kundrotas, president of the Baltic Management Development Association (BMDA), and associate professor at Lithuania's ISM University of Management and Economics.

Even so, he argues, the pace of change in the region has been "extremely high," with regional schools also developing their own approaches to local management challenges based on creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation. "Yes, some schools are still lagging. Asked for advice [in choosing a school], I would first ask where this person is planning to work after graduation," he says.

For Kundrotas, the best western business schools (and the best in CEE) are "rather good" in teaching management professional skills, such as processes, administrative subjects, finance, and marketing, and in such areas as quantitative research methods, presentation and social skills. And for someone wishing to work globally, many have recognised brands. However, he argues that western schools are often so focussed on the "right way" of doing things, that "they pay less attention to the entrepreneurial side, creativity, innovations and thinking out-of-the-box," because they operate in stable, rather than in growing, fast-changing economies. "In other words, they do not teach, or to be more exact do not teach enough, how to notice the new opportunities and take the advantage of them," he says.

In contrast, CEE schools have been in the maelstrom of transition for two decades, and are therefore better adapted to "teaching students flexibility, sensitivity and how to question existing procedures and ways of thinking." Hence, for students who want a local or regional career, or for those that "like to think out-of-the-box or have an entrepreneurial spirit, I would probably recommend one of the good local business schools," he says.

For almost everyone, the final decision on a school is a compromise of sorts. Anna Zelentsova, who now works for the ministry of finance in Moscow, wanted to take a British MBA programme to help her international career, but needed to keep working and could not afford the price of regular travel to the UK. She chose to take the Bradford University programme at Kozminski University in Warsaw. She appreciated the diversity on hand. "We had professors and practitioners from different countries including the USA, UK, Canada, and Spain. [We had] some of the best specialists in particular disciplines such as lean thinking and strategic management," she says.

For Iva Ivanonva, the choice of IEDC Bled also exposed her to a wide variety of foreign faculty - the school, though awarding its own degrees, relies on a pool of foreign professors who fly in for each programme.

Nearly two years after graduation, she is now an account manager with the same agency and although the move was not directly linked to her new degree, she has no regrets about her choice of MBA. "It was a very valuable experience, with different study-work situations, knowledge [input] in different fields from very good professors, and a multicultural atmosphere. The school ethos is open, innovative and creative, and the intensity of the study process helps you to mobilise your energy and knowledge, to work in different situations and react quickly, which is often needed in practical business life," she says.

And, perhaps in contrast to some aspiring MBA candidates, rather than providing some sort of energised boost to a more high-octane, big-bucks career, the EMBA has given Ivanova a better basis to assess her life and its aims. "I would say that there is no difference in the work itself. I didn't plan to change my job immediately after graduation, nor did I have expectations that an EMBA meant total change. What has changed is more in my perception of the business processes, and my horizon as a person not only in work but as a whole. I have more confidence, a broader perspective for every business situation and that's important for me," she says.


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