O levels, A levels, degrees… by the time we reach our early 20s, we will have spent nearly two decades packing information into our brains.

But it only takes a few weeks in the workplace to realise that no matter how fact-stuffed your grey matter is, it is no compensation for on-the-job experience.

Despite this, many senior IT executives choose to go back to school and fit studying for MBAs into their already crammed schedules.

We know that IT is no longer siloed from the rest of the business and that IT directors are required to be business people first and technologists second. But do IT specialists really need to study for an MBA to gain this business acumen? Or is an MBA just something that is nice to have?

“I’m leaning toward the idea that it is something CIOs need,” says Ian Baxter, former interim strategic change director at LloydsTSB, who is now responsible for global IT at fund manager company Fidelity.
Changing circumstances

Baxter is on the home straight of an MBA from Bristol Business School. He was already heading up IT for AXA Insurance and was experienced at handling multimillion-pound projects when he embarked on an MBA – prompted by a radical change in the company.

When AXA’s IT arm broke off to become a separate services company, Baxter felt this opened up a Pandora’s box of financial and business conversations that he did not feel confident dealing with. “AXA is a global company and I didn’t feel comfortable on the phone with 20 other people in the company round the world going into details about profit and loss,” says Baxter.

Even though he knew all the terminology and had read the right books, he still felt he needed to study for an MBA to truly perform. “There was business stuff I’d picked up, but I didn’t have confidence about it,” he says.

He found that his work experience meant he often instinctively knew the right answer to problems posed to delegates but was not sure he could prove how he had reached that decision. “My difficulty was I had practical knowledge but struggled with the academic framework,” he says.

"I believe that in posts I went for, it was a definite advantage. For me to take on European IT and business process development, clearly the MBA was a factor"

– Dr Sharm Manwani, Henley Management School

It brought home to him the importance of making IT staff understand the business context of what they are doing rather than just be blinkered by databases and bytes.

As a result, he brought in experts from Cranfield to talk to staff about shareholder value and help them understand how what they do affects customers.

Baxter was so enthused by the knowledge he picked up on the course that he has sponsored and mentored other people to take MBAs – and is now considering studying for a doctorate.

Dr Sharm Manwani was already head of information services when he took his MBA. He found it so stimulating, that he now teaches an MBA course at Henley Management School.

But Manwani did not receive much encouragement from his bosses when he first mooted the idea. “The finance director and managing director said: ‘why do you want to do this – you’re already business-oriented, you’re already ahead of the game?’ And I replied that I’d like to stay that way.”

Confidence boost

Like Baxter, it gave him the confidence to talk the talk. “It provided me with the business skills to talk with the marketing director and sales director in their language about their requirements. It doesn’t mean that you can pass yourself off as an expert but you are talking with them as an equal,” he says.

Although courses do vary, MBAs will cover the basics of finance, marketing, business and interpersonal skills – and technology. One of the downsides of an MBA is that some bits are going to be more relevant to you than others.

However, it does mean that you can “take your problems to school” as Baxter puts it, and get feedback on live projects or challenges. He found this hugely beneficial towards making him think about problems in a new way.

While he does not believe that an MBA is essential to be an effective IT director, Manwani feels it did aid his career. “I believe that in posts I went for, it was a definite advantage. For me to take on European IT and business process development, clearly the MBA was a factor. But it isn’t essential.”

Nigel Dufty, vice-president of IT and supply chain/international for Blockbuster, agrees that completing an MBA definitely affected his career for the better.

He had worked for Unilever as part of his course, which led to a job offer when he completed the MBA. After completing a technical degree, Dufty had quickly begun adding business experience to his IT skills.
But after a few years in industry and working as a sales and product manager, Dufty felt that there were gaps in his business knowledge that needed filling. “I was being pushed into a business situation and being asked to think on my feet,” says Dufty.

“I graduated in 1984 and worked for six years, so felt at that point I had enough experience in business to know that I needed answers to questions.”

This is an ideal age to take an MBA, believes Manwani. You should not be fresh out of university – without the business experience to apply the theory to, and if you take it later on you may already have too many other responsibilities. “I think that your late 20s, early 30s is the right age. The best time to do an MBA is when you have gathered experience in one function and have reached a stage where you want to engage business and interpersonal skills,” says Manwani.

"“It’s very difficult to take a year or two out in mid-career but there are people who need to get business training”"

– Robin Barrett, director, Orbys Consulting

But Robin Barrett, former IT director of American Express and now director of Orbys Consulting, is sceptical whether the payback an MBA offers merits the considerable time and effort required to study for one.

“An MBA is overkill for what CIOs need,” says Barrett. “It’s very difficult to take a year or two out in mid-career but there are people who need to get business training. I believe about six weeks of basic business and accounting would enable CIOs to effectively communicate with the rest of the business team.”

While many large companies have their own internal leadership programmes, it is hard to find commercial courses that fit the bill. Dufty also wishes there were MBA top-up courses available.

A different view

Barrett does not have an MBA. Early on in his career, in the 1970s, Barrett was accepted to study for an MBA at Harvard and MIT.

Without sponsorship, he figured the cost was too great and was advised that it would not make a difference to his career. “My boss said that you were tracked according to the results you bring in – you won’t get on any faster because of an MBA,” says Barrett.

“The major issue facing CIOs is they feel they are not accepted as a member of the business team. In many cases they have no right to be, because they don’t have the business understanding a CEO or an FD has in areas such as investment strategies and managing cash flow. It is very important CIOs acquire these business skills.”

CIOs need to think about the business and its role from a different perspective. “The best CIOs in the world are able to have easy conversations with the rest of the business and there won’t be an item of technology on the agenda at all.”

Manwani believes that studying for an MBA can really help some people achieve this, particularly given the changing status of IT in the business. “IT directors are on top of the service and technical issues, adept at managing projects. They are now moving into business processes and business change. If you get into that, you need a deeper level of understanding about how business functions,” says Manwani.

You do not need an MBA to be a modern CIO. Just as you do not need one to become a CEO or finance director. It is a personal choice, not a career one.

Dufty remembers advice given to him before his course: “Don’t do it for the money, because it’s five years before it pays off – if at all.”

But from his own experience – and from seeing people he works with return from studying – he is convinced of its worth. “You can see people who go on a course and come back with a different view of the world,” he says.

Completing an MBA takes considerable time and commitment. It will mean less time in front of the telly or down the pub and more time reading, researching and writing essays. And that is on top of one of the most taxing day jobs around.

“Someone told me, it was the divorce degree,” quips (a happily married) Baxter. So be warned.