John Branch: Teaching MBA skills to the working executive
John Branch, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a man of many other qualifications and activities, gets around globally to the point where he probably has enough airline miles or kilometers for a first free trip to the Moon.
Fortunately for the SSE Riga, he came though Latvia in the early 2000s, got “hooked” and has been coming back since to teach mainly in the school’s Executive MBA (EMBA) programme.
Affiliated at the time with the Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, John came to the Baltic countries with a study group of students interested in how Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were preparing for accession to the European Union in 2004.
“One of my tactics when I'm going on these study tours is to contact the best business school in each of the countries and offer to do a guest lecture for its students in return for them help organizing company visits or perhaps organizing some guest lectures from its professors. So that's what I did. I did a guest lecture for the EMBA programme when I was there in Latvia,” John recalls, speaking by Skype from Michigan. Things worked out well and, as John puts it “Wouldn't you know it, years later, I'm still going as a visiting professor in the EMBA programme in Riga.”
What distinguishes the EMBA from an MBA is probably in the word “executive”. Those taking the course are both working company managers (executives) and students at the same time. Full-time MBA students, while often having some business experience, have left the day-to-day world of business (or sometimes public administration) to complete the degree and then return to their careers with new qualifications or moving in a new direction.
EMBA: For mid-career executives who work while learning
“Typically, a full time MBA is taken by students 27, 28 years old because they are planning to make the switch from a functional contributor to a more general manager. You have somebody who's an engineer, rises up in the organization as an engineer and at some point realizes he or she doesn't want to be an engineer anymore but, but wants to be a manager perhaps of the engineering department take more general function,” John explains. The EMBA is pursued by “people who have advanced in their careers and are higher up in their organizations. They're often 40, 45 even 50 years old, but they do not have a formal education in business and economics. The EMBA is typically geared towards those folks, toward people who are more seasoned executives but could use the skills from an MBA which they didn't take when they were younger,” he says.
While full time MBA studies are just that - five or more days a week in classes and study groups- the EMBA is built around people who still work at their jobs. “Most EMBAs are organized on weekends, often once per month, usually about 20 to 24 months in duration,” John says. This is how it Is done at SSE Riga, though some schools offer largely or entirely online courses.
More international students from a spectrum of industries
At SSE Riga, the EMBA programme started with mainly “local” students - managers working in Riga - but has gradually expanded to serving students from the two neighbouring Baltic countries, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and others who travel to the Latvian capital for lectures and study groups. “When I started teaching in the EMBA programme around 15 years ago, the vast majority of students were from Latvia and most of them were indeed living in Riga, very few traveling from other regions. Surprising, because, Latvia is not a very large place, but back you didn't even get students from Cesis or Jelgava, for example. However, we've started to see the composition shift,” John recalls.
In recent years, he says, “we have seen more international students, many of them based in Riga. A couple of years ago we had a great Chinese student who was working for a transportation company who happened to be based in Riga. Increasingly, we're also seeing a number of students from the other Baltic countries. And then we also get students who fly in from Minsk, St. Petersburg, Moscow and even Stockholm.”
Asked whether there is a “typical” SSE Riga EMBA student, John says “there is no typical student. Executives are coming from across Latvian industry. You have folks from the brewery industry, you have them from the national energy company. You have them from telecoms companies, small manufacturers, people who have their own companies. When they're coming internationally, they are from larger companies, or large multinational companies which have operations in northern Europe. Their age ranges from early-30s until 50s. And the industries - services, industrial, consumer oriented, are literally all over the place. That's the value of the programme, that the participants are exposed to problems across a variety of industries and indeed a variety of countries.” This, he says, means that the participants are also part of the teaching process for each other, bringing current real-world experience to the issues and cases examined in an MBA programme.
Course focus moves from e-commerce to enterprise digitalization
The content and focus of EMBA teaching has changed over the years, the University of Michigan professor says. “if I go back to my own full time MBA, which I completed in 1993, the super-hot topic at that time was globalization. Everybody was talking about international. We went through a period in which corporate social responsibility and business ethics was the hot topic. Everybody was talking about that. We had the early onset of e-commerce in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today digital transformation is the hot topic. Everybody's talking about it,” he explains.
While e-commerce was largely about sales-oriented interfaces for products and services, digital transformation also goes into the internal processes of enterprises and even addresses issue such as innovation and new product and service development based on the data and analytic processes developed in a digitally transformed company. One example, John says, is that “in the past, e-commerce for a forestry company would have been how can we develop a website to inform people that we have that we have wood products. Now you could also imagine a forestry company in Latvia going to the next step, how can the Latvian forestry supplier link into the operations of its customers and do just in time delivery, develop new products using artificial intelligence based on the recall and quality problems which the customers are having at a furniture factory.”
For those unsure if they want to take the limited time and effort for a complete EMBA programme, SSE Riga offers a “mini-MBA” as a sampler of the more extensive programme. “The mini MBA is an open enrollment programme. It's two weeks in length. And it is a programme which has done jointly between the university of Michigan and SSE Riga,” John says and notes that “we've had a number of students for the full EMBA who have come as a result of taking that two-week mini MBA. I think they've been very impressed with the teaching quality.”