The recession has brought fresh opportunities for CIOs as more businesses turn to IT as an engine for recovery and growth. But defining and articulating the proposition to the board may be a challenge that some CIOs still struggle with and leadership training could offer a helping hand.

In the US, an MBA has long been recog­nised as a milestone to senior leadership and there’s a growing appetite for further business study in the UK. The Association of Business Schools (ABS) reports spectacular growth in students taking postgraduate qualifications and MBAs.

Business and management courses have seen a 94 per cent rise over the last 14 years: MBA students number around 32,000 with around a third studying full-time, a third part-time and a third by distance learning. Around 2500 students are registered on executive MBA programmes.

But MBAs are expensive, and the investment in time may be even more of a consideration for the over-busy CIO than the cost. However, an executive MBA can be fitted around a day job without having to take a year out, and more business schools are ­offering shorter, customised leadership programmes.

Professor Joe Peppard, director of Cranfield School of Management’s IT Leadership Programme, describes his course as an incubator for aspiring CIOs. Adrian Ford’s story, below, appears to be an endorsement of the format for those wanting quick results and without the appetite or purse for a full-blown MBA.

Our series of interviews with senior IT executives illustrate a variety of available business education options — and more importantly, the return on their investment.

1 The quick win
 - Adrian Ford, European IS manager, Church & Dwight UK
 - School: Lancaster University Management School
 - Course: MBA full-time, one-year (2008)
 - Cost (current): £25,000. Self-funded
 - Previous job title: contractor

What was your motivation?
One hundred per cent career progression. The economic climate was a key factor: firms were starting to lay off contractors at the start of the recession. As a contractor I had focused on project management and business­ change, and I had worked through a series of mid-sized businesses, rolling out projects and change.

Why this course?
Because I was funding it myself, the course needed to be intense and over as quickly as possible. As I had no financial support, price was a key factor. I costed every element of different MBAs and Lancaster was absolutely the top as far as price per ranking point was concerned. Its proximity to my home in the North West helped affordability, of course.

What’s the ROI?
I calculated the MBA would pay for itself in approximately three years. My strategy was that given the difficult economy, I would stick to my skills set and go for a bigger and better job. That has been 100 per cent successful as I took a job as head of IT for Europe with pharmacy products supplier, Church & Dwight, in March 2010. The CIO who hired me also has an MBA, and it was ­undoubtedly a point in my favour.

Any other collateral?
Now, I’m better able to plan for the longer term and scope IT for the direction of the organisation, including which suppliers to choose and how to spend budget. My deeper knowledge of different functions helps my communication; I feel much more comfortable having a conversation with a marketing director for example as I have a better understanding of those needs. One of the biggest takeaways of the MBA has been the marketing component that I can bring to my IT role. I proactively gauge customer satisfaction and use that to improve and market the service I provide.

2 The aspiring CEO
 - Ingrid Cronin-Knight, head of business delivery, Gen-i
 - School: Henley Business School
 - Course: flexible learning MBA, three years, part-time. Just completed.
 - Cost: £37,000. Plus annual travel costs to the UK of £1000. Self-funded.

What was your motivation?
Three reasons: I wanted to gain confidence presenting at board level; I wanted to round out my legal and accounting skills; and I wanted a formal business qualification. Based on my career­ goal of aspiring to be CEO, I thought it essential to have a well-recognised business qualification.

Why this course?
I wanted an international qualification. Henley has a great reputation and the distance learning structure really works for me — it gives me the flexibility to manage around my demanding weeks. The structure of Henley’s programme content resonated for me: it focuses on coaching you in managing the organisation, making business choices and making a difference. The time commitment ranges between 10 and 25 hours a week depending on when assignments are due. I find this load manageable as up until two years ago I played first-class international cricket, which required a similar commitment.

What’s the ROI?
I was just named New Zealand Computerworld IT Manager of the Year. I believe that my MBA contributed to me winning the award as it rounded out my ability as a manager to make trade-offs and decisions and improve connecting the delivery of ICT to underlying business performance. I have already received five different job ­offers since this acknowledgement. I work for New Zealand’s largest publicly listed telecommunications company. With distance learning this year I was able to attend all the lectures for my first year in June. When I arrived back in New Zealand I put the content of the course to use straight away by working on two business transformation programmes. These impacts have gone straight to the bottom line of the company, with savings achieved through reduced consultant fees and improved capital efficiency through faster turnaround on projects.

Any other collateral?
It’s given me a greater appreciation of contextual factors which influence project and business success: a broader appreciation of different stakeholders’ viewpoints and a wider understanding of the people, oper­ations, process, project, technology and finances of the organisation.

3 The IT leader
 - Vince Walsh, head of IT, Avon, Continental Europe, North Africa & Middle East
 - School: Cranfield School of Management
 - Course: Leadership Programme (2006)
 - Cost: £7950 (8.5 days), employer-funded
 - Previous job title: head of applications, Allied Bakeries

What was your motivation?
My boss and I identified this course as a great tool bag. I’d already qualified for a management diploma at Bristol University but career-wise, this course struck a chord because I was at the bottom rung of senior management. The Leadership Programme is aimed squarely at developing people for the top leadership positions in IT. It was generous of my boss because he must have realised it would gold-plate my CV.

Why this course?
The course runs over 18 months and is delivered in three-to-four-day modules on the Cranfield campus. I liked the mix of models, tools, technique and real examples and case studies. They brought in lecturers who were practitioners in industry rather than academics: that was important for me.

What’s the ROI?
After completing the course, I stayed a year at Allied Bakeries and then moved to McDonald’s where I was head of business systems. It was a bit of a sideways move but it was great experience at a globally recognised brand. After two-and-a-half years there I took my current role at Avon.

Any other collateral?
One module on understanding your own personality and the politics of an organ­isation provided me with a broader knowledge of the ecosystem of the business, if you like: how to understand the stakeholder­ group and to how to pitch to and communicate with these individuals. At Avon, one of the systems I’m responsible for implementing is a suite of Internet applications and tools for our sales representatives. I know how to translate the IT-speak into the important messages for the country managers. Not only that, I understand how important it is to take their feedback to the technical teams to ensure we deliver a world-class product.

4 The entrepreneur
 - Sam Liang, founder, Salience
 - School: London Business School
 - Course: Full-time MBA over two years (2007)
 - Cost: £100,000 (tuition fees plus living costs), self-funded
 - Previous job title: senior testing engineer, Business Objects

What was your motivation?
I needed a strong business education and, just as important, it was time out for me to shape and refine my business ideas.

Why this course?
I’m a Chinese-born Frenchman and have international exposure engraved on my background. However, studying in London gave me the opportunity to learn from other­ international course delegates and dig deeper into how business is done in Egypt, Russia and Africa, for example.

What’s the ROI?
My sole objective was to start my own company and I have achieved that. However, if you’re talking hard figures, then I would hope to recoup my costs within five years.

Any other collateral?
I learnt a lot about myself. I didn’t realise that I was perceived as a very stable person, and also that different people perceive presentations in different ways. In France, you explain everything in great detail and then get to the conclusion. My international peers gave me the feedback: "You take too long to get to the point". Now I tailor presentations to the audience. I have an engineering background and preparing for a commercial role really pushed me outside my comfort zone. I learnt a lot from cold calling for various assignments. This customer-facing work prepared me for an interim role — consultant for homecare firm, Cerner Corporation — before launching my own company.