Sunday, August 7, 2011

To Specialise or Not to Specialise?

I was often asked whether one should specialise in MBA. I had a thought about it; in fact, when I research for my MBA program I want a focus on technology management. I guess for most of us since young, we have been compartmentalise or stream. In high schools, we were either in science or arts stream. Then came university, the major or concentration to go for. As a result, we became specialist or functionlist.

Is that bad? I don't think so. Since the Industrial Revolution and the foundation of management theory by Fredrick Taylor, labour force has been classified into functions with the aim of "the more you do the same thing, the better or efficient you become". That's all right for a start but as you move up the career leader, you become more of a generalist. You manage people, and though them results. You may not know a lot about a particular subject but at least a good understanding. But what you learn is more about inquisitive skills. Asking the right questions and hopefully, these will help you make informed decisions. That's what MBA is about.

Having say that, I see no wrong in specialization for a couple of reasons. Firstly, many of us want to switch from one industry to another. Very often from one technical field e.g. engineering to another e.g. finance or from one for-profit to non-profit, and vice versa. Whatever our choice is we want to have a stronger focus on a specific concentration to give us a more indepth understanding and yet retaining the general management perspective. Thus, you see many business schools are focusing on some concentrations. In fact the other alternative is to masters program (MSc), which has strong, academic focus in a particular field.

Secondly, certain business schools have strong association with certain industries. As a result of the close collaboration and cooperation between the academic and the industry, it formed a natural channel for admission in the industry. For example, if you want to go into finance sector, London School of Business and Wharton should be on top of your list. Naturally, this also means that the faculty members and their research have a high focus in that area which will attract more brains to the schools. Thus, the schools themselves by their own design, are already industry or subject concentrated.

Lastly, specialisation at MBA level is like giving you a higher degree in a different concentration or major from your first. By arming yourself with both a technical degree and work experience, and now with a master degree with a business focus, you could, hopefully, learn new things and apply to your managerial role. After all, if you look at class profiles of any business school, a good 30-40 percent of students from engineering background and wish to pursue a management career.

So, my usual advice is look for an MBA that will bring you to where you want. If there is a concentration that you want, then go for the best school in that area. Of course it would be nice to have the top 10 schools as your choice but if it does not give you what you want or can afford, then using concentration is a good selection criteria. Think about it.

Jimmy Low

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