Reflections on the MBT at UNSW / AGSM

A few weeks ago I completed my last exams for my epic Master of Business and Technology course that I started at UNSW in 2006. Such a long time and I’m not sure if I’d known how much was ahead of me whether I would have undertaken it to start with, but at the same time I’m glad that I did. Here are some reflections on the course, the affect on my life and lifestyle, and some of the life changes that came along in that period.

Firstly, I think there is immense value in a Masters level business course. An MBA has apparently been devalued in some people’s eyes in the modern era (exhibit 1, exhibit 2, exhibit 3), and while there is some merit to the main arguments here (that is doesn’t prepare people for either management or starting a business, that it is expensive with too much opportunity cost and that they are too common these days), these perspectives are also too shallow. An MBA isn’t simply a necessary stepping stone into management or entrepreneurial ranks. Like undergraduate degrees, the larger value is in changes to ones thinking, in the exposure to new ideas, different perspectives (from classmates in different industries and with differing backgrounds), and the connections one can make. The emphasis on critical thinking skills means that there is obvious development in that area (just take a student in their first subject and compare to one in their last).

The other perspective to address up front is the notion that replacing an MBA program with self study is effective. The idea that a Personal MBA could replace a formal study program is laughable. Having read the Personal MBA book, I believe there is some value to it (read my review of it for more of my thoughts), however the practice of turning knowledge into critical insight is entirely missing from the self study approach. While I guess there are those self-studyers who can develop the critical analysis skills of someone from a formal study program, and I came across several students in the MBT who had no place being there, there’s no doubt for the majority, formalised study will bring out skills that self study would gloss over.

The MBT program itself is a business degree in the context of technology. The definition of technology in this case is quite broad – definitely one of the characteristics of the program is that it considers sustainability and the environment as important aspects of the covered material, along with culture and society. A further defining aspect is that the program is made to be done part time. Unlike many MBA programs that are best done in an intensive year of full time study, the MBT is best completed while working in the industry. So much of the material references the context of a student’s working life (including being able to easily access people with different areas of expertise). Finally, one could do the MBT completely online. In my opinion, there were aspects of the online study that undermined the overall course (including the horrible WebTeach and Blackboard systems), but these impacted the interaction, not the material itself.

To delve into my reservations about the online systems a little more, I’ll discuss both the good and the bad. First the good: being able to take part in classes from anywhere in the world and at any time of day was fantastic, I can’t argue that. I also appreciated that having the time to consider responses generally led to a higher level of response - people were able to think about their input and research it to a far greater degree than if they had been in a face to face class. The downsides of our online learning is that the MBT program seemed incapable of understanding user experience. The software (whether the archaic WebTeach or the barely modern Blackboard) was always clunky and difficult to use, and the systems were often very slow. Essentially they were nothing like modern web applications, and so while the content was good, I felt the collaboration and sharing of the classes was undermined.

The subjects I did were:

  • Project Management
  • Management of Technical Innovation and Change
  • Information Systems Management
  • Strategic Management of Business and Technology
  • Principles of Marketing
  • E-Business Strategy and Management
  • Accounting
  • Managing Agile Organisations
  • Fundamentals of Corporate Finance
  • Business Law and Technology
  • Fundamentals of People Management
  • Development of New Products and Services
  • Quantitative Business Methods

Of these, I got immediate value out of the project management and marketing subjects, which I completed early on, and in the latter stages found the Managing Agile Organisations and Development of New Products and Services subjects insightful. More skill based subjects, like Quantitative Business Methods and Fundamentals of Corporate Finance aren’t immediately useful to me in a day to day sense, but are good for being able to partake in and understand conversations in those areas. Finally, the capstone subject of Strategic Management of Business and Technology was crucial in bringing many of the learning areas together.

Now, over the years my circumstances changed many times while doing this course. Between starting and finishing I was married, bought a house, had my first and second children and changed jobs at least five times (depending on how you count my freelance/entrepreneur period). In terms of study and lifestyle, the years when I didn’t have children were easiest, without a doubt. Time moves at a different pace when you’re mainly concerned with yourself. The flip side of this is that I had no idea of what efficiency meant before children. So while I potentially had all the time in the world, I was fairly wasteful of this time too. Once children came along, I became vastly more focused and able to churn out good course work in limited time. The benefit of changing jobs was having a good deal of source material for relating to my studies. When you have a number differing experiences to draw on, relating study to work allows more meaningful learning, in my opinion.

Finally, I was able to meet some inspirational people during my studies. These include the mother of five finishing her third degree and already planning her next, the foster parent who mixed study and a demanding social role, and all the people from completely different professional backgrounds to myself.

So, the natural question at this point is: would I start an MBT today, knowing what I do now? The answer is yes. While as a software engineer I was disappointed with the online teaching tools, the teaching and content were first rate, and the emphasis on critical thinking skills pushed this far further than any program of self study could go in my opinion. Further, as a part of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM), the course is well credentialed. But more than anything, I think the best endorsement is that I’m a completely more competent analytical and strategic thinker than when I started the course.