Monday, November 02, 2009

Choosing the MBA Specialization

Solve this puzzle. How to choose your specialization?

Heres your answer: Marketing is for those who can talk well. Finance is for those who are good with numbers. Operations are for those (who are good with numbers plus) with a manufacturing background. HR is for those who can handle the touchy feely stuff - or those who are bad at maths or non engineers, if you want to be politically incorrect. There is always MBA in IT that is available for those who came from an IT background or those who want to go to an IT company. End of puzzle.

That is the common street talk on the specializations on the MBA circuit. Add minors and majors to the mix and you can think of yourself as a person who has a major ability to talk well and a minor interest in IT, therefore you pick up a Marketing - IT combo. Now, if you can see for yourself how absurd this is, you will know what I am driving at.

What is important to remember is that none of the specializations are mutually exclusive in real life. Which is obvious, considering business is not meant to be mutually exclusive. Anything and everything in an organization and real life is interconnected.

Second, as a human being, who has cleared various tests and reached the doors of the MBA, your ability to learn and pick up any specialization is also a given. Which means, if it was about passing exams and gaining a specialization, you can clear an MBA with flying colours in any specialization. Don't agree. If could you could do so in graduation, why not in post grad?

And then, there are trends. Or call them fads. Organizations see demand going up or down for certain specializations depending on what state of the business cycle they are in, the economy (of their target market) is in. If you wish to cash in on that, don't. Trends will come and go, but both your passion and your qualification will remain.

So, how does one approach specializations?

Many years ago, at an interview for one of Indias most recognized automobile companies, was a line up of eager students, including me. One of us walked out post interview and as it happens, we were eager to know what did they ask him. He said, much to our surprise, 'they asked me about the fielding positions in cricket and I was able to do it instantly'. Instantly, one of the students in the room drew up a sheet of paper, grabbed a friend and having jotted down the positions, started memorizing the fielding positions in cricket. After all that appeared to be the trend. What he did not realize was that the company was basically looking for the level of passion of the engineer when they asked him what his favourite sport was. (Needless to say the guy who drew the cricket fielding positions made it.)

Very often we tend to approach specializations in the same way.

Heres one example. Let us say that you are a Chartered Accountant. So, your grounding in accounts is impeccable. From here, can you become an IT requirements consultant in Finance? Check. Can you move onto marketing financial services or working with potential overseas investors? Check. Can you handle operations in a BPO or a Bank with an added MBA degree? Check Or you are deeply passionate about HR? Check.

Replace CA with any other degree and you will find that it is almost impossible to justify why anybody with any qualification should or should not take up a particular specialization.

Heres a thumb rule. Remember, that the MBA is an addition to your 15 or 16 plus years of what you have already done. So, if you are an engineer or an economics student, the MBA is just the icing on the cake - the cake is what you already have - the sum total of your studies and your experience. Now take a second look at those specializations. And then take a long hard look at your interest and strengths. What do you like to do will answer the former while what you are good at will answer the latter. A combination of these three should ideally lead you to the specializations. If you are in doubt or in a fantasy about the nature of jobs after acquiring the said specialization, please meet a few people who are in the kind of job you long to do and ask them exactly what they do. Beyond jargon, beyond the gloss, beyond the job description, ask them what is the exact work that they do and if that interests you.

So, once again, think about why are you in the race for an MBA. At the end of the MBA what would you want to become and why? It is important to like what you are into, regardless of what your friends are into. It is equally important to be good at your job. By no means does that mean that you can be ignorant of other specializations. And as you work in organizations, you will realize that many are.

So, if you are in for a regular specialization, it is self evident. (If it is not, talk to people you have worked with or know you well or with a professional counsellor - they will help you.) If you have the choice of two, use that choice wisely. Just taking the hottest two together may not be the best message you convey to a potential recruiter - it will not help you masquerade as "either". Think Icing, think Cake.

Now, for the second part of an often asked question. Does it matter?

The answer is a tough one, though I would take a stand here that does not really matter in the long run. Heres why.

Once you enter into a company, the only thing that matters is performance. So, if you a finance specialist, if you perform you get to move higher. If you don't, the person who does, gets to move higher. As you gain in the years, it is important that you broaden your perspective as you go along. And what that means, knowing how the different parts of the business interplay and ensure success. Strategy means holding the different levers like the reins in a chariot so that your business runs smoothly in the right direction. Is that possible for a one trick pony? No.

Heres an exercise. Take a look at a sample size of CEOs (or whatever else is your goal) across industries. Find out what their education/specializations are. Do you see a correlation? Then, into this mix, ensure that you include a mix of large corporates, SMEs, neighbourhood businesses, start-ups in it. See that data again.

My bet is that there will be no correlation (indeed there will not even be a correlation of basic qualification or MBA or anything else).

And if there is, you know which specialization to take...


(This is a draft. A neatly edited version of this made it to print someplace. Will link it when I get the link...)

1 comment:

Kavi said...

Thats some specialisation indeed ! Well, after many years of an MBA and working to climb ladders, the question remains.... about the MBA being anything other than a door opener !