Customization is one of the hottest business trends around. Now business schools are getting into the act, too. Faced with increased competition, B-schools are tailoring entire degree-granting MBA programs to the needs of specific companies.
Nowhere is this happening more than in fast-growing Asia, where more businesses are willing to make the investment. This past June, Thunderbird, The Garvin School of International Management, graduated 25 LG Electronics executives from its custom MBA program. By 2010, the school aims to put 150 LG managers through the program. Next May, the University of Maryland will graduate its first group from Otis Elevator Co. in China. And Arizona State University's program for Motorola (MOT) in China has graduated three cohorts of students so far.
Why choose a custom MBA over a one-size-fits-all executive MBA or a customized nondegree executive-education course? B-schools say a made-to-order graduate business degree meets the needs of fast-growing multinationals interested in developing and retaining local talent. "You can only send so many expats to China," says ASU Associate Dean Buck Pei. An in-house MBA program is one way companies can build up their supply of globally qualified managers skilled in Western-style management practices. Judy Frels, Maryland's director of custom programs, says the MBA degree also motivates employees better than a nondegree training program would.
There are other, real-world benefits. Open enrollment courses usually exclude sensitive company information. Not so custom MBAs. As students participate in class discussions and projects, they absorb business theory while solving company problems. In Thunderbird's LG program, for example, students learn supply-chain management by examining how LG can best distribute $200,000 worth of spare parts to the company's far-flung operations.
Custom programs help B-schools expand their global knowledge, too. Professors get inside information about specific industries and countries that they can bring back to their classrooms in the U.S. And several B-schools have used their custom programs to gain footholds abroad. Arizona State's custom program for Motorola led to the development of the school's successful Shanghai MBA, and the University of Michigan's program for Cathay Pacific Airways has morphed into the East Asia Management Development Center.
Since word of the LG program has spread, Thunderbird has received inquiries from four other companies in East Asia interested in exploring similar programs. With the explosive growth in Asia showing no signs of slowing, custom MBA programs look to be a growth industry.
By Kerry Miller