The Debate: MBA Specializations vs. the Generalist Approach

The Debate: MBA Specializations vs. the Generalist Approach main image

MBA specializations, by name or by concentration within a regular MBA program, are increasingly commonplace. But, providing a strong grounding in all fundamental matters of management practice was a cornerstone upon which the qualification was originally founded. The question now is in which we should place more value. Faculty members from HEC Paris and Nyenrode Business Universiteit present cases for both sides in the following debate.

First, HEC Paris’ associate dean of MBA programs, Bernard Garrette, outlines why his school offers a number of routes through which students can graduate with a distinct specialization to their names. In particular, Garrette, argues that such specializations make for easy selling points when it comes to seeking employment. However, Christo Nel, MBA program director at Nyenrode Business Universiteit, believes that, at MBA level, the priority should fall on the generalist approach. Nel says that most MBA students are aspiring to positions beyond that of a specialist, roles which necessitate as much training in the full spectrum of business competencies as possible. Read on for the full debate:

Bernard Garrette, HEC Paris

An MBA with unique specialization opportunities

HEC Paris' Bernard GarretteAn MBA degree is known around the world as the gold standard for leadership and management. An MBA should provide a strong foundation of general business knowledge so that graduates are equipped with the skills necessary to lead from the top with a solid understanding of all business operations.

At the same time, many MBA students yearn for the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of a specific subject matter that can help them focus on a clear career objective and to obtain their post-MBA ‘dream job’. For this reason, MBA students at HEC Paris have the opportunity to gain specialized knowledge through specializations, certificates and dual degrees.

Structured specializations

Most MBA programs are organized in two phases. Students first go through a fixed menu of compulsory core courses, and then move on to a smorgasbord of electives from which they can pick and choose in complete freedom. The customized phase of our curriculum has been carefully designed to maximize the student’s flexibility in accordance to their career objectives.  My view is that students not only need but often prefer to have a program designed around a specific subject matter. It is for this reason that we offer five specializations (entrepreneurship, marketing, advanced management, finance and strategy) that give students a structured curriculum around a particular field of interest. Instead of picking electives at random, all students in a given specialization attend the same set of courses.

One thing to be careful of is the difference between a ‘specialized MBA’ and an ‘MBA with specializations’. Many specialized MBAs are one year in length and only offer courses in a sole subject matter, completely undermining the tenants of an MBA education. Our specializations are only offered after the students have completed the core course, where they gain the general business skills needed to understand all functions of a business.

For example, students in our entrepreneurship specialization focus on entrepreneurial strategy, business development and execution. They also have the opportunity to collaborate with external parties, meet with visiting entrepreneurs and develop their business projects in an environment that stimulates communication and creativity. This organization creates a cohort of ‘entrepreneur-students’ who work jointly on the same projects with the same set of partners. All of them can complement this training with electives of their choice.

Certificate programs

Another option through which MBA students can gain specialized knowledge is to take a company-sponsored and industry-specific certificate program. HEC Paris offers nine such programs, in the areas of luxury brand management, energy and finance and social business for example. Here, students follow a set of interdisciplinary courses that complement their MBA education. Again, each certificate is a consistent set of courses that all certificate students follow.

Dual degrees

Dual degrees are a third way to complement the generalist MBA training with in-depth specialized knowledge. At HEC Paris, we offer the MBA-MSc International Finance (MIF). This program is aimed at those who wish to acquire not only the general management education and leadership skills from a leading MBA program, but also advanced technical knowledge in finance to differentiate themselves from their peers. A combination such as this allows students to fast-track on to senior management positions within finance and consulting and, in the case of our dual degree offering, is much more thorough and complete than a specialized master’s degree.

Our alumni are proud to emphasize specialization and certificate information on their CV and LinkedIn profiles to better convey their specialized knowledge to potential employers and contacts. Not only do MBA students gain a very technical understanding of a specific field but they also leave with an easy selling point when it comes to looking for a job.

Bernard Garrette is a professor of strategy and business policy at HEC Paris, where he has also been associate dean of MBA programs since 2011. He has co-authored numerous articles in academic journals and written numerous books on the subject of successful business management.

Christo Nel, Nyenrode

The argument for generalism…

Nyenrode's Christo NelThere is an old saying, "If all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail!" The graveyards of business are filled by organizations that were run by specialists with the inability to ask the provocative and even naïve questions that well-developed generalists bring to the discussion. Even specialist professional services firms such as large auditing and legal enterprises find that as partners grow to the most senior levels they have to develop the general business and management competencies that their valuable areas of specialization did not prepare them for.

The debate on whether a MBA should be a specialist or a generalist degree can all too easily become oversimplified, and risk being of no use whatsoever. The reality is that even the most generalist MBA programs - or at least the really good ones - have an inbuilt flexibility that enables students to mold their studies to fit their own needs and interests. Likewise, MBA programs that market themselves as specialized contain a set of mandatory core subjects which usually make up the majority of the program.

The argument for a bias towards a generalist program is rooted in the realities of business, and what an MBA is designed to prepare people for. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of MBA students have both the potential and intent to advance their careers and aspire to more senior roles. This is evident in the fact that most of the globally-respected rankings place much focus on career and salary growth. Likewise, those with entrepreneurial interests aspire to grow companies that will, in time, grow to become medium or large enterprises. This lies at the crux of the argument: the vast majority of people who embark upon a MBA do so because they want to advance their careers and grow beyond the scope and focus of a specialist role.

There are many examples of this:

  • The individual whose career has plateaued and wants to jumpstart it
  • The engineer who wants to move into general management
  • The finance specialist or accountant who wants to operate beyond the narrow focus of their specialization
  • The entrepreneur who realizes that broadening their management and leadership competencies is essential to growing their business successfully
  • The son or daughter who wants to prepare themselves for taking over the family business
  • The doctor who wants to manage a growing medical practice more effectively

Though the list is extensive, there is one common theme among these individuals; “I want to grow as a manager and leader so that I can also advance my career.” It is very seldom a refrain of, “I am a good specialist and really want to deepen my specialization” or “I want to become a specialist so that I can further my career as a manager or entrepreneur.”  

Whether specialist or generalist, neither professional is more important to a sustainable business than the other. A business may flounder without superior specialists in various ‘mission critical’ roles but it is the well-developed generalist who is able to weave the capabilities of these various specializations together in a dynamic, successful organization.

Whichever way we look at it, MBA students aspire to the levels beyond specialization. It must be designed so that it provides a solid grounding in business, and prepares graduates to fulfill the dual and often competing demands of having both a helicopter view of the task at hand, while also determining whether specialists are proposing defendable strategies.

By definition, an MBA cannot claim to offer true specialization. Want to be an IT specialist? Do the appropriate engineering degree. Aspire to a role in controlling and finance? Do a master’s in finance and controlling. Marketing? Have a passion for HR? Supply chain optimization? The answer remains the same; find the appropriate specialist degree and, then, when you want to develop a better understanding of how business runs, do your MBA.

The task faced by those people at the more senior levels of decision making are seldom (if ever!) confronted by a problem or opportunity that can be resolved from the perspective of one area of specialization. Every business challenge at the general managerial and strategic level contains elements that cross the boundaries of various specialist fields. A core competence that is required of individuals by employers is the capability to apply an integrative, generalist, approach to view an issue from various perspectives. At such times, even the most ardent specialist needs to put aside their narrower, although deeper, comprehension and embrace the ambiguity and fluidity of thinking that embraces the entire scope of the issue.

None of this argues against the need to design MBA programs that offer participants the opportunity to customize their degree to some extent. But, another way to create the opportunity to deepen knowledge and skills in areas of personal interest is to design the MBA so that it focuses on the well-documented disciplines of problem and work-based learning. This however requires a shift in educational philosophy and practice.

A powerful MBA has the following characteristics:

  • It exposes participants to a generalist, and not specialist, understanding of the entire scope of competencies that are typically represented by the roles that make up a CEO team.
  • It shifts the focus from a largely academic treatment of subjects and instead uses problem and work-based learning processes which encourage and enable participants to apply knowledge to real-life situations.
  • It recognizes that no business problem can ever be analyzed from the narrow perspective of any single specialization area and, in so doing, breaks with the tradition of teaching a multitude of fragmented courses.
  • In the place of courses, it involves participants in integrated practices of management and business which enable them to build a systems and integrated view of issues.

It all supposes a generalist rather than specialist approach to doing an MBA.

Christo Nel is the MBA program director at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands. He is an expert in leadership development and organizational change, and has spent the majority of his career in a range of executive roles at medium to large corporations and NGOs.

Written by Mike Grill

Mike's remit covers content, SEO and blogger outreach. Outside of his work for TopMBA.com, he is an assistant coach for MLU outfit, the Portland Stags.

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The problem lies with the bias that exists in the minds of both the prospective MBA degree recipient and the future employer. In the world of the employer/employee relationship, things are still very much done in the old fashion way where work experience and structured specialisation matter a lot. The MBA is fancied as a top line academic degree with significant practical bearing. But this perception has not really permeated down the entire industry structure. Hence, favouring the structured specialisation approach because that seems to be where the opportunity to earn a return on investment (ROI) still lies for those who make an investment into acquiring the MBA degree. The harsh reality that hits most MBA students when they get to the post-MBA life, especially in their pursuit of their post-MBA 'dream job' is that employers simply want to see a CV that details years of experience in a structured specialisation approach. If you have a background in socio-economic research or ICT, acquiring an MBA simply doesn't smoothen your transition to roles in marketing or business development. That is uncomfortable reality that strikes when the euphoria of the whole MBA studies has passed. Bernard Garrette makes a strong case for the status quo which cannot be ignored because of its potential to determine the post-MBA fate of the student, but Christo Nel argues that, "...a core competence that is required of individuals by employers is the capability to apply an integrative, generalist, approach to view an issue from various perspectives." This should be the mindset that governs expectations from employers of their employees, but the reality is that in practice, this is not the case. Many employers still operate from a "silo" mindset and they are unable to appreciate the need to think and operate outside the box. If the paradigms in employer expectations has actually shifted, then the rigorous emphasise often placed on years of experience as a key requirement for recruitment would have been tempered in such a manner as not to occupy recruitment priorities. Years of experience only means that an employee has attained a level of efficiency in discharging the responsibilities attached to a particular job function, it does not necessarily imply that the employee has also been able to attain a level of creativity that may lead to better ways of discharging the same responsibilities. Creativity and efficiency do not necessarily lie on the same side, as a matter of fact, they are on opposite sides of the spectrum. The generalist approach logically presents the most optimal approach that should be adopted for an MBA program, because in theoretical terms, it provides a much superior argument for what an MBA should contribute to the individual and his employer but unfortunately, industry has not yet matured to this level of expectation. Hence, those who venture to invest in an MBA without following the structured specialisation approach may find that the pay back period for their investment may be a bit more delayed when compared to that of their colleagues who actually followed the specialisation approach.