The softer side of MBAs

The traditional Masters of Business Administration is still the benchmark academic programme that employers of leadership talent expect. But along with the real world project management experience, communication skills are fast becoming required learning. HRM Asia looks at how programmes are tweaking their content towards the softer skills in business.

When it comes to leadership

When it comes to leadership, there remains a single, universally-recognised qualification that almost all businesses and organisations demand of their highest office bearers. The Masters of Business Administration (MBA) is considered the benchmark of leadership development, and the flagship training product of business schools the world over, whether it is in the US, Europe, or Asia-Pacific.

But that doesn’t mean MBAs cannot or do not change. On the contrary, one of their most favoured attributes is the fact that courses will often change according to the prevailing business environment. As we move into a period of near-constant uncertainty, the standard MBA programme is again updating itself, to take account of the so-called “VUCA” environment – one of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

MBAs are still a vital part of a leader’s continuing development, but most programmes are now updating their curricula to include more soft skills training in particular.  Communication – both listening and being heard - flexibility, resilience, and the ability to deal with people are now just as important, if not more so, than the “hard” skills of financial accounting and business law.

Jacky Bailey, an Australia-based leadership development consultant, says it is now recognised that the ability to deal with people and changing business conditions is key to taking organisations to their full potential and beyond.

“Soft skills like empathy, resilience, communication, and self-awareness are increasingly vital for leaders and their organisations,” she says.

She uses the example of a heart surgeon to help explain the difference between hard and soft skills, and the growing importance of the latter for businesses today. While there is no doubt a heart surgeon has critical skills and experience, and faces a high pressure environment on a daily basis, Bailey says their work is a “known” quantity.

“Heart surgeons have all the facts and knowledge they need ahead of every operation,” she says. “Leaders today are operating in a constantly changing environment.  They need to make decisions based on incomplete information and a host of ‘unknown’ factors.”

It is the softer skills that help leaders to drive those decisions in the now-ever-present VUCA environment.

Soft skills training today

Bailey says soft skills have been part of the world’s leading MBAs for a long time, but other providers are now beginning to catch up. Still, she says there are two very different approaches to offering this training.

Most preferred are the courses that offer some form of experiential learning, she says. This could involve simulations, case studies, or projects: anything that takes students out of the classroom and into the real world environment where business decisions are actually made.

While the theory behind soft skills, and their place in organisations today can also be taught in a traditional, academic setting, Bailey says the value of that knowledge lies in its practical application

Soft skills do not come naturally for many leaders. So having the chance to practice them in a controlled setting is vital. “Having only theory can sometimes actually get in the way of the practice,” Bailey warns.

MBAs in Asia

Practical training in soft skills has become a key component of MBA programmes locally in Singapore and around the Asia-Pacific region.

SIM University, for example, offers a range of specialisation programmes within its MBAs, including two important specialisation options.

The Experiential Project and Management Communication courses are designed to provide that important dimension of business practicality to students’ MBA studies, along with effective communications and ethical reinforcement. SIM University says the courses span the full duration of the MBA programme and includes social outreach initiatives, an integrative report on business ethics, a business simulation exercise, and a series of management communication workshops.

MBA students at SIM University can also undertake its Data Analytics for Decision Making course, which aims to give them a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the process of business analytics. Through this course,participants  gain key skills in turning big data into actionable insights that can be used to improve organisation performance.

The Singapore Institute of Management Global Education offers an MBA programme in conjunction with the University of Birmingham. This programme focuses on the globalised world of business today, and ensures students have an international perspective to their learning.

Also in Singapore, the Nanyang MBA, by Nanyang Business School, offers a globally-accredited one-year programme with a schedule designed to fit around those working full-time. It has a dedicated focus on business in the Asian region, and requires participants to also undergo the comprehensive Leading People Globally leadership course. Students also have option to undertake a Business Study Mission, either locally or in another country.

The National University of Singapore’s MBA features a critical Management Communication module, which is a custom-designed experiential learning initiative. Based in a corporate retreat setting, the module is an intense, but rewarding experience that pushes students to grapple with situations far outside their comfort zones.

Further afield, the University of Hong Kong highlights the growing importance of China to the world economy. Students of its MBA programme complete at least one month of the course in Beijing, as well as nine months in Hong Kong. The last four months of the 14-month programme can be spent studying in Shanghai, New York, London, or Hong Kong.

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