Construction has frequently been criticised for its lack of leadership. At last, an MBA has been tailor made for executives who want to get on in the sector. Stuart Shepherd reports
IT USED to be the case that exper ience counted for everything. The best lessons for any aspiring construction manager were to be found on site. The rule applied whether you came up through the tools, did professional exams or made your way via university.
Like it or not, though, times are changing. The increasing scale and complexity of many modern projects, the level of finances involved and the need to work alongside more and more par tners in both the design and build phases call for a better business brain than ever before.
Any other industry would respond to such a challenge by sending its bright young middle managers on an MBA, giving them and the company a more competitive edge. But MBAs have acquired something of a bad name in construction. The qualification has become synonymous with a passport from the muck and grime into something a bit more savoury. Like finance perhaps.
But a remedy to this conundrum could be at hand.
Manchester Business School Worldwide (MBSW) and CITBConstruction Skills, in consultation with institutions such as CIOB and RICS have developed a new internationally recognised MBA for construction executives. If their claims for the course are borne out, the qualification will do more than just prepare the CEOs and directors of the future with the skills to succeed. It should also keep them tied to the industry.
'The course is designed for those professionals at the top end of the sector who are considering management as a career path rather than further qualifications in their own speciality, ' says Professor Graham Winch, programme developer and now course director. 'Candidates must have at least three years' experience in a posit ion that calls on them to exercise initiative and decision-making responsibilities.'
The first intake - a group of 16 including several construction directors, three participants from the Middle East and 'clientside' local authority members - began their programme of studies in January this year. They will go on to spend th ree to three-and-a-half years participating in modules that ref lect a mix of more traditional MBA themes - Marketing Strategy, Financial Management, etc - and those specific to construction - Creating the Built Environment, Procuring Assets and Services, Managing the Construction Firm and Working Collaboratively.
An equally important feature, one that answers the problems that day-release courses always used to pose, is the way the course is delivered. From its Manchester base the Business School runs a set of twice-yearly intensive workshops that complement a programme of distance learning. This gives students greater flexibility when it comes to fitting reading and assessment preparation around their work and family commitments. Core texts, on-line forums and study guides all form part of a broader support network.
'Raising the quality of education for the management and leadership of construction has been an issue for some time and was there in the Latham and Egan reports of the 1990s, ' says Professor Winch. 'These concerns, the accessibility of the course at a world-class centre and the backing of CITB all go to make the MBA for construction executives a very attractive market proposition.'
Construction, of course, does not operate in isolation and the company that wants to succeed needs to know how best to address the priorities of its business partners.
'An MBA gives construction professionals the tools to interact more successfully with the wide number of clients, regulators and stakeholders involved with the modern project, ' says Working Collaboratively module director Nuno Gil. 'That becomes increasingly important when you look at jobs like Terminal 5 at Heathrow. Even a subproject there, such as delivering the main terminal building, comes in at somewhere around £1 billion of construction and design, a sum bigger than many companies. Experience can teach you a lot, but you really need the skills an MBA brings to convert potential leaders from across the disciplines into fully formed professional managers.'
The course aims to supply students with the right analytical tools and perspectives to deal with the principle challenges that each sector of the indust ry th rows at them. They exam ine how buildings can help clients create better businesses, the effects that information sharing in the supply chain has on behaviour and how to generate profits while cultivating clients.
Professor Winch says: 'It is not for us to advocate model solutions. What matters is knowing how to perform under different types of contract, where or where not to apply lean management principles and how to adapt resources to meet design changes. The modules enable students to conceptualise experiences and develop their thinking and leadership.'
The job of persuading the corporate side about the benefits of an MBA for construction executives is still on. Fifty per cent of those students on the first run of the programme enjoy employer sponsorship.
'No matter how much you research your product, ' says Professor Winch, 'you can never really predict how the market will react. But h igh-quality cou rses sell themselves.' If uptake for the course increases, MBSW, the global brand of Manchester Business School, will be in an ideal posit ion to look at offering workshops across international centres that include places like Dubai and Jamaica.
On the domestic front, the position of this industry-specific MBA looks strong. 'There is bound to be a big uptake across const ruct ion of an independently accredited cou rse like th is.
Lots of execut ives will look to it in the futu re, ' says Roadstone Recycling managing director and first-intake student Gary Cook. 'Companies are good at picking out graduates, but when the time comes to develop them on to director level there is a big black hole that internal training and placements can only fill so much.'
In giving his wholehearted recommendation, Mr Cook does, however, strike a small, yet fam iliar note of caut ion. 'The only danger is that it could open a lot of doors in other companies.
The challenge remains to convince const ruct ion bosses that the course will encourage employees to stay as a more valuable member of their staff rather than clear off at a moment's notice.'
Manchester Business School Worldwide is also setting up a regional learn ing hub in Dubai, to assist in the promot ion of its MBA for construction executives and other distance-learning MBA programmes. For more information on MBSW's courses go to: http: //www. mbs-worldwide. ac. uk/
THE MBA for Construction Executives is the third of a series of profession-focused, distance-learning programmes offered by Manchester Business School Worldwide.
The course comprises 12 modules, eight traditionally or ientated to business themes and fou r specif ic to construction. Students normally study two-and-a-half modules over a six-month semester, combining study at home with an intensive six days of workshops. Face-to-face contact with lecturers during workshops amounts to 25 hours per module, which compares with 30 hours contact for the conventional MBA.
Students are advised that they will need to complete about 15 hours of reading and research per week, but experience shows that this tends to happen in peaks and troughs to meet demand. Written assessments and open-book exams are used to test how the theory is being processed.
With 12 modules behind them - it typically takes 30 months to get to this point, but students can take up to f ive years - students go on to complete a personal project and an industrial group project. This stage normally lasts six to 12 months.
The cost of the full programme is £13,200.
Matthew Carroll is a project manager at Malcom Reading & Associates: 'The company has a lot of involvement managing construction projects for publicsector clients.
'With five years' industry experience, this course complements my professional learning and rounds off my understanding of business priorities. It is already helping me give more measured and intelligent input and build better links between local authority clients and developers. The first six months have been a testament to the balance and structure of the course.'
Gary Cook is the managing director of Roadstone Recycling: 'With a business studies degree and years of practical experience in construction behind me, the MBA will help me smarten my act up in modern managerial techniques.
'Being in John O'Groats one day and Land's End the next meant I could never attend traditionally taught courses.
'The convenience and flexibility of Manchester's distance-learning programme makes it possible.
'The workshop lecturers are of a very high standard and the course has the right balance of core business values and constructionspecific modules.'
Tom Kapapa is a chartered surveyor with John Doyle Construction Ltd and was the winner of the RICS MBA for Construction executives scholarship competition: 'I had been thinking of doing an MBA for a while because competition among surveyors is getting tight and it seemed like a good way of raising the bar.
'With the scholarship, I could bring those plans forward.
'The course assignments get you applying principles and theory to a business that you are already familiar with.
'The successful construction leaders of the future need the strong grounding this course offers.'