Thomas MacKay, the assistant director of IT at Christopher Newport University, in Newport News, Va., asserts the authentic business boost an MBA gives to an IT management career. Below, his 10-point argument in favor of earning an MBAs:
1. It gives you credibility with your business peers.
Having an MBA demonstrates your commitment to the business because you've invested the substantial time and energy required to obtain the degree. It shows that you value the business perspective and recognize that the technology you implement, support and develop is intended to enable business activities and is not an end in itself. An MBA also indicates that you've mastered a certain level of knowledge in business management, which gives you the ability and confidence to speak on equal terms with executives outside of IT. Because IT touches nearly every part of the modern business enterprise and because IT managers are increasingly involved in business processes, the MBA adds credibility to your perspective when you're discussing technical solutions to business problems with your colleagues.
MBA PROs & CONs
6 Reasons Why You Don't Need an MBA 2. It teaches you to think like a business person.
As technologists, we're used to thinking in a linear and logical fashion: “If this, then that.” This logical mindset is essential to writing good software, troubleshooting technical problems and managing projects. Business people, on the other hand, tend to think in terms of strategies and value, and human (customers and investors) reactions. The business perspective, by its nature, tends to rely more on estimation and trial and error. The ability to think like a business person is critical for technology managers, especially those of us who wish to position IT strategically within the company. We need to know how to plan, design and build an information architecture that is capable of supporting the business as it adapts to a changing marketplace. Without this business mindset, a CIO is at risk of creating an IT department that is too rigid, too slow or too restrictive to fully support the company’s needs.
An MBA teaches you to look at problems and opportunities holistically. It also provides analytical frameworks, such as risk assessments, cost-benefit analyses and strategic plans, that you can apply to any problem or opportunity you encounter, whether in or beyond IT. The business mindset that an MBA gives you becomes habit because you use those frameworks repeatedly in a rigorous academic environment, and you see how they can be applied in a variety of situations from one course to another.
Top CIOs Who Earned MBAs:
James Dallas, SVP and CIO, Medtronic (Emory University).
Stuart Scott, Corporate VP and CIO, Microsoft (Vanderbilt University).
Thaddeus Arroyo, CIO, AT&T (Southern Methodist University).
Robert DeRodes, EVP and CIO, The Home Depot (University of Texas).
Kevin Summers, CIO, Whirlpool (Duke University).
3. An MBA is your ticket to the inner circle.
Many CIOs are concerned about not having a seat at the table. That's because IT is often regarded as tactical and not strategic, and because business leaders are not usually ready to talk about tactical technology solutions in the early stages of planning any business initiative. If you as an IT manager have an MBA, you're seen as having more to offer than just your knowledge of technology.
Indeed, you do have more to offer because you possess that broad business mindset, and your colleagues recognize your value by asking you informally for your perspective on their problems and formally to lead up committees that aren't technology-related. For example, I recently had a conversation with the associate vice president for auxiliary services at Christopher Newport University. He was trying to determine the best locations for serving lunches to students based on where they lived. I suggested that he might be better off syncing up lunch locations with the places where students had classes around lunchtime. He liked the idea and wanted to move forward with it. We then began to discuss marketing and sales analysis ideas for the university bookstore.
My exchange with the associate vice president for auxiliary services is notable not because my idea was so brilliant, but because the conversation happened in the first place. When you have those conversations with your business counterparts and start offering insight, they will think of you the next time a strategic issue comes up and they'll be far more likely to get you involved in conversations early on. I've experienced that at Christopher Newport University and at my previous employer, the College of William and Mary, where I was asked to lead an effort to develop a formal donor-prospecting process for our fund-raising efforts. This process was a hugely critical component of an impending fund-raising campaign. Even though this process wasn’t technology-based, I was asked to lead it because of the credibility I had as a business person.
4. You will communicate better with your business colleagues.
IT professionals use a lot of jargon as shorthand when we’re communicating among ourselves: RFID and WEP, access points and ACLs, object code, executables and DLLs. Each of the business functions (such as sales, marketing, accounting, auditing, risk management and human resources) has its own jargon, which represents equally complex ideas or processes. In business school, you learn the distinct languages of those functions. You learn, for example, the difference between cash-based accounting and the accrual method, earned value and net present value, suspect and prospect, guerilla marketing and viral marketing, and situational interviews versus behavioral interviews.
When the CFO of Christopher Newport University discusses with me the cost of switching from a cash-based accounting method to an accrual method, I know she’s referring to the large write-off associated with booking expenses and income when they are incurred as opposed to when money changes hands. I understand that this one-time expense occurs because we’d have to book a bunch of expenses in the current year that normally don’t get booked until the next year. And I know this because I learned in business school what the terms mean as well as the implications of each approach. My knowledge of different accounting methods allows me to be an active participant in business conversations. The CFO doesn't have to explain things to me. Even better, I don't have to nod my head as if I understand what the CFO is saying, only to Google the terms later. More importantly, I can use the business function's own terminology to explain to my business colleagues the impact of technology. Using a language with which they are comfortable makes it easier for me to explain technical details to them and to get their support.
Finally, the MBA experience will change the language you use in conversation with business people. Before I got my MBA I’d enter a conversation by asking, “How can we solve this problem with technology?” Now I start by saying, “How does it make sense to solve this problem?” because technology isn’t the solution to every problem.
5. An MBA better prepares you to solve business problems.
We're in the process of implementing credit card processing on campus at Christopher Newport University. When we are discussing the impact credit card processing will have on the general ledger and the reconciliation process, I'm not lost. Because I studied accounting in business school, I can assist with technical and process automation solutions because I know what the university is trying to accomplish, what can be automated, and what needs to be reviewed and audited. Thus, I've made meaningful contributions to this project.
6. You'll learn how to read and interpret business statements.
The MBA curriculum teaches you to understand and interpret financial statements, marketing plans, market analyses, audit reports and business development plans. Knowing how to read a financial statement is important when, for example, you are evaluating a vendor's financial health. Knowing how to interpret marketing plans and market analyses will help you identify a vendor’s strengths and overall strategies to see if the vendor can or will continue to be able to meet your needs. It's also helpful when trying to understand your own organization's operating environment: The better you understand the way your company is moving, the better able you'll be to position the IT department in front as opposed to being dragged along behind. Being in front, on the leading edge of change, is more fun and will make the IT department much more valuable to the company.
7. An MBA can give you an opportunity to deepen your technical expertise.
While working on my MBA, I had to write numerous papers, so I took each opportunity to explore the application of different technologies in business. One time, I wrote a paper on ERP that distilled best practices for implementing the system successfully. This paper helped me get my current job because Christopher Newport University was in the process of implementing an ERP system and needed someone with deep ERP expertise. Both Christopher Newport University and the College of William and Mary have used my paper as an introduction to ERP implementations for staff working on the project.
I wrote other papers on enterprise reporting architectures, on Java’s position in the software development space and on the development of activity drivers in IT for activity-based costing. The process of writing each paper gave me greater insight into each topic.
8. You can apply business school classwork to your day job.
In one class I wrote a paper that investigated the value of training for the IT staff, and I used the research and arguments I developed in that assignment to convince management to approve a substantial training budget for my staff at William and Mary.
On another occasion, I developed a statistical analysis that identified giving patterns across different segments of William and Mary's alumni. In this analysis, I compared different categories of graduates and the frequency and amount they donated to the college. My analysis revealed that alumni who received their undergraduate degrees in business gave with the greatest frequency and donated nearly twice the average amount of other segments of the giving population. This particular group of alums had been managed by a centralized annual fund group for many years, but after I presented my findings, the business school lobbied for and received approval to appeal to those generous donors directly. The result was more fund-raising dollars for the business school and for the college overall. I would not have thought to explore this business issue of fund-raising had I not gone through the MBA process, and William and Mary might not have brought in more donations had I not uncovered these funding patterns.
9. You'll polish your written communication skills.
Because the MBA is a master's-level academic program, you generally have to produce a 20- to 30-page report for each class subject. In my program, the classes were only six weeks long, so every six weeks I had to demonstrate academic mastery of a given topic with each paper I wrote. The ability to research business topics and develop written comprehensive analyses quickly has been enormously helpful to me in my role.
10. You'll learn standard tools for organizing business activity and managing business processes.
Before working on my MBA, I looked at IT as a services organization that executed requests or commands rather than as a function that needs to position itself strategically inside an organization. The MBA gave me the tools, techniques and resources I needed to run IT like a business—things like risk management plans, performance plans, project management methodologies, steering committees, process maps and marketing plans. Since I obtained my MBA, I manage the IT function in a far more disciplined and strategic manner. I understand that my responsibility is to make IT a strategic asset to the business, and I’ve seen that once you start putting those tools and techniques into practice, the business starts to recognize IT as a strategic asset. It’s like a job promotion: You don’t get recognized for the work you’re going to do—you get recognized for the work you’ve already done.
All of these benefits can be attained through other means, other training or other experiences. While the MBA is expensive, requires a big emotional investment and can distract you from your day-to-day work, only the MBA can provide all of the above benefits in a relatively short time frame, in a comprehensive framework and with a lasting credential. I strongly recommend it to all aspiring CIOs.