CIO view: Is an MBA really worth it?

Sometimes just being good at your job isn't enough to persuade your organisation's senior managers that you are ready to join their ranks as a strategy leader, rather than an operational expert. Some CIOs who have made it through that glass ceiling swear by going back to school later in their careers to widen their knowledge of business practice.

Gatwick Airport IT boss Stuart Birrell is one of those who committed extra time to a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and also made use of executive coaching. He's certainly not on his own for doing these things, but his IT leader peers remain sceptical that doing and MBA or going in for executive coaching is worth the time or the money.

Alex Rammal, Head of Information Services at Fujifilm UKis definitely in the camp that extra learning is a big help, even though he voices an almost universal view that it is no substitute for on-the-job experience.

He says: "Completing an MBA can certainly provided me a robust framework to help my decision making processes, whilst also giving me a more in-depth understanding of the wider business world which has been incredibly useful - that said an MBA still can't replace real world experience."

Colourful background
Jane Scott, VP Information Technology at extraction specialist Baker Hughes
is also balanced on the value of extra tuition. She points out that it's a rounded and varied background that has much more value in propelling an IT executive from an operational role into a strategic one.

She says: "From my perspective, an MBA and private coaching can be very useful but are certainly not essential. I place greater value on experience and a proven track record in the work environment itself. Typically that experience will be richer if it is gained in a variety of roles which have allowed an individual to rise to a number of challenges and observe multiple different work styles.

Some IT leaders have taken time out for extra schooling but chosen a more vocational course that also updated their IT knowledge and combined it with wisdom on how to align to the business.

James Fleming, Speedyhire Group IT Director took an Msc in IT & Management, majoring more on the management modules. He says: "I certainly think that some form of post graduate qualification is of use to help develop further thinking and strategic skills. As I had been in industry for several years when I started this it was very useful in learning to construct more developed thinking and arguments into what you truly believed in, and why your thoughts and ideas now superseded writings from papers that were over three years out of date."

Wayne Smith Head of Information Services Birmingham Airportalso took a more focused post-graduate course – a Masters Degree in Airport Management but chose to have it graded as an MSc, being both IT and Airport related. He recognises that often it isn't the course that determines whether the time taken has been worth it, but the attitudes of the senior managers that have the gift of promotion into the strategic executive club.

Smith says: "I have worked for old-school managers who didn't have them and didn't really understand what they meant. So, I guess it will be self-perpetuating in that, if your manager has completed one, then you are more likely to progress as they understand what is involved, otherwise they will not understand and it will be a waste of time."

Standard and Poors CTO for international systems, Jora Gillthinks MBA graduates can fall foul of unsympathetic managers, even if their qualification is recognised, by attempting to reinvent the business in the image of their course.

He says: "Some recently qualified MBA students wish to apply their learning ASAP, I recall that I should include myself in this category, but then come up against organisational blockers as all organisations are not constructed in a similar manner or as described within MBA theoretical material, each organisation has a unique culture that also needs to be studied."

The best use of this training is therefore to treat it like a tool and use it sporadically to solve problems or aid understanding."

Most MBAs also have a missing module, they do not train students in soft skills such as communication or persuasion techniques or negotiation skills leading students to struggle when they attempt to use their new found learning without the necessary soft skills required within a collaborating organisation."

School's out
Then, there are those who doubt the worth of an MBA however it is applied. Centro director Denise Plumpton recognises that CIOs are very much business players and have to acquire the skills to be effective in that environment but this process is better experienced in the business. Taking time out in the classroom may not be cost effective.

She says: "As I don't have an MBA and managed to achieve the ranks of CIO, it's clearly not a necessity. I have had a mentor (different from a coach) who has helped me over the years to work out for myself where I wanted my career to go and then gave me the behind the scenes support to my confidence to get there."

An MBA is a huge commitment in terms of personal study time, employer releasing you and cost. All of these need to be considered when the decision is taken to apply to study; not something to be done half-heartedly. I remain healthily sceptical about the merits."

Mike Tonkiss, head of IT at Neopostis totally sure that an MBA has no value: "No, I don't think an MBA is necessary to become a CIO. I feel that a desire to get an understanding of the business you're working with rather than reading a series of general case studies [has more worth].

Coach class
As for executive coaching, there are supporters and detractors also. Speedyhire's Fleming recognises that we all need someone to bounce ideas off.

He says: "At CIO level there are likely to be very few people in any organisation that truly understand your challenges, particularly from a technology perspective. It is certainly something that I am considering investing in for the next budget year.

This is balanced by Tonkiss' view that any IT leaders worth their salt should already have the executive skills they need to interact with their non-IT peers by the time they reach the post.

He says: "As for executive coaches, again they may be of use for newly promoted CIOs, but for experienced IT professionals they have diminishing value and I would be sceptical of hiring someone who needs to have a coach to support them."

On balance then, the majority of IT leaders that responded to the CIO call on this issue see the value of executive learning outside work – albeit with some healthy caveats.

The other side of the coin is: do employers rate them? Former IT boss and now head of the CIO/CTO practice at executive search company Odgers and Berndtson, Alan Mumby thinks MBAs send a good signal to the organization that the holders have thought about commercial issues at some point. If there is a chance that the CIO might move up into COO role, then Mumby thinks having and exercising MBA training will add weight to the CIO's ability to compete for the role.

Mumby feels the value of coaching is to provide a perspective that CIOs can't get at the coal face, but they need to avoid the crutch syndrome.

He says: "As recruiters we look positively on both, but in both cases the impact depends entirely on the ability of the individual to harness the learning and insight both offer, and we know that some characters just don't get it, and never will, despite such advantages. The development of great people skills still rates our highest attribute sought."

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