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Singapore: The city of Manchester boasts two club sides—one that has dominated the English footballing scene for the past two decades, and the other that has finally emerged from the shadows to be a global football powerhouse. In 2014, Manchester City cruised to their second title in three years, while holders Manchester United, acknowledged as the world’s most popular football club, finished sixth, their lowest position since 1991. Two years ago, a survey by Manchester United claimed the club had doubled its global fan base to 659 million, and close to half of these supporters lived in the Asia-Pacific.

For Nigel Banister, chief global officer of Manchester Business School, the connect most Asians have to Manchester extends to more than just football. “Because of these two clubs, the name ‘Manchester’ now relates to success on a global scale—this link to our city definitely helps the University of Manchester as we expand across the globe," he said.

In an interview with MintAsia after opening a facility in Singapore’s Central Business District for the school’s MBA programme, Banister drew several analogies between Manchester’s football clubs and business management.

Manchester City’s new owners in Abu Dhabi and their limitless wealth have enabled the club to buy success by assembling a galaxy of top footballing talent. After buying out the club from Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s exiled former prime minister, the emirate’s royal family has spent over $1 billion in buying players and paying their salaries.

Yet, Manchester United, under Sir Alex Ferguson (who retired at the end of 2013 after 26 years at the helm and 13 English league titles), preferred to build its squad from scratch by bringing in young players, who provided a steady pipeline of talent for years, as against buying superstars for instant success.

“The Manchester United way of building a team is applicable to all businesses and companies. There are many companies that nurture and grow their talent in-house like (supermarket chain) Tesco. But in business, you also assemble a team—buy performers and integrate them like Manchester City did—and also win. There are many successful companies which have been formed by mergers and acquisitions. Both models can be equally successful under the right kind of leadership," Banister said.

Manchester United’s performance last season provides valuable lessons in succession planning and leadership transition, he said.

A year after Ferguson stepped down, many experts agree that the legendary manager should share the blame for United’s failure last season, as he had left behind an ageing squad, had failed to plan for the day when he would no longer be at the helm, and had also erred in choosing David Moyes—who had never won any silverware or had experience in managing a big side—as his successor.

Ferguson’s final act proved to be a failure as Moyes was sacked before he could even complete a single season under his six-year contract.

“If you trace major commercial organizations, then transition from a hugely successful leader is often fraught with difficulties. Again, if you consider Tesco, look at what happened to the company after Sir Terry Leahy left (in 2011). Leahy was one of our students from the University of Manchester. Tesco has been unable to continue that success."

“Succession planning is obviously very different and difficult issue if it is a people-based operation like Manchester United. My goodness, one has to be very clever to foresee what could have happened. All we can hope is that as a Manchester United supporter, this time we have got it right. My youngest son is 19, and until last year he had hardly seen Manchester United lose," Banister added.

A mathematician by qualification, Banister, who graduated from the University of Birmingham in 1971, spent the first half of his career in information technology (IT) with different companies that serviced the finance sector and built back-offices for investment banks. He then did stints with companies that provided trading platforms for banks and other financial institutes before becoming the technical advisor to the London Stock Exchange.

Banister’s move to head UK’s National Computing Centre (NCC) in 1990 eventually led to a late career shift towards education. The NCC was founded in 1966 by the UK government to encourage computer usage, and the early 1990s saw the government stepping aside to bring in professionals from outside to run the organization.

“From there I moved to the education sector. The reason was the NCC has two sides to its business—technical consultancy, and it was also meant to be leading the way in terms of education, primarily in the IT industry, to ensure that particularly in the UK, the right courses were developed by universities to prepare people for entering this sector," he said.

“I took a longer route to move into education—initially, I did work related to doing courses delivered online and then found my way to the University of Manchester, where I’ve been for the last 10 years. My role is to professionalize off-campus learning for our business school and build a network of global centres...," Banister said.

Over the last decade, he has helped Manchester Business School establish seven centres, from Shanghai in Asia to Sao Paolo in South America, making it the largest provider of business management courses for a UK university.

Banister says a large part of his day is spent managing strategic activity across the different global centres. A significant part of the time is also spent visiting the centres, and he acknowledges the skills required to lead business schools are fast changing.

“In the past, the focus was purely on academic background and academic achievements. It’s very different now and those working in the business education sector come from a range of backgrounds and bring a range of professional and specialist skills to the organization, such as management, marketing and finance," he said.

The last decade has also seen a slew of American and European universities expand operations to Asia that are often subsidized by local governments. But with some schools choosing to go back and shutting their branches in Asia, the continent is also witnessing a debate on whether the subsidized model is sustainable, and if the faculty of these institutions, which are often not based full time at the satellite campuses, can maintain the same quality as in their main centre.

“It seems a reasonable arrangement in some cases if governments subsidize international campuses, as long as they give back by helping grow national capacity. However, it is difficult to get mid-career research-active academics to work at overseas campuses, which must throw some doubt on comparative quality. But these initiatives are brave attempts to develop new models and so should in general be applauded," Banister added.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Singapore is becoming an educational hub but does it have a disadvantage because after a costly MBA programme, the country does not provide the job opportunities that you would have had, if you did a similar course in the US or Australia. Many Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nation) students who come here to study—do they have job opportunities?

No, they do not if they stay back here. To some extent, the UK can be an example—its economy is not growing at a fast pace and many MBA students there will not be able to find jobs in the UK. But people will still go to the major MBA schools there. Students from outside will keep coming to the UK to study. In the globalized world, the opportunities will be outside for the best students. So, coming to Singapore to study will be for the reputation that its institutions have, which are better than the schools in their home states. Those who come here to the good schools will be marked out as candidates for jobs in the whole region, and not just Singapore. There will be education hubs and Singapore is well-placed.

Has MBA education lost its way? There is a lot of debate today on how the faculty at leading business schools are excellent at academic excellence and with their research, but understand very little about the realities and practicality of doing business. Many today say the scientific model of an MBA course does not equip students with the skill sets required to excel at work places. What should be the balance between scientific rigor and practical relevance?

It is topical at the moment, but this has been a debate right since the early days of business schools in America. The history of this debate in America saw that top schools decide if they had to come down on the academic rigor side or on the practical side, and in the end they decided that the overall balance must be on the academic side. Top schools decided that was the way to go, while not discounting the practical side—there has always been tension between the two sides in business schools. It is probably swinging back now to have a little more of the practical element—certainly, MBA courses are aligned more closely with the executive education side, where quite often experienced practitioners from the corporate side are the ones teaching these courses. In our school, we have two ways of encouraging this—first, we encourage all our staff to spend 20% of their time carrying out consultancy with companies and government organizations to keep their skills current—that keeps them in touch with real businesses. Secondly, we employ a project-based method in our MBA courses—students do live projects with companies supervised by our faculty. This means they are effectively working like consultancy groups on proper projects—we do that all over the world and lots of companies are involved. There is always this ongoing tension to ensure that our students have enough practical elements. Certainly, for the course we run in Singapore for part-time executives, we put a lot of practical elements into it along with the academic rigor. This is called the Manchester method of teaching and learning by doing. Many schools have gone through phases of implanting this. We are 50 years old next year—the Manchester method come out of the work done during our formative years. We hope our MBA students become good business leaders and, therefore, there has to be a good dose of reality in the courses.

What are the major shifts in MBA education that you have seen over the last 10 years?

Several big shifts. Probably the most outstanding one is globalization, and this has struck home to all major schools that their courses have to become global in many senses—what you teach, who you teach it to, where you teach and who you network with during the course. So many major schools now send their students to out of field treks to visit companies. We set up centres across the world—it allows us to cater to both part-time and full-time students and also helps some students take part of their course in a different centre or country. There is a big focus on career services in terms of ensuring that your graduates can find the right path—if nothing else, at least get good returns on their investment on the time and the fees they spent. Increasingly for Western business schools, the best career paths and job opportunities are not necessarily in the West, but in emerging markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America. There are far more opportunities for students to progress faster in their careers in these places. We are increasingly being able to offer career opportunities on a global basis to our students. There is also a shift towards part-time programmes, and this is related to companies sponsoring students and recognizing that part-time programmes are of equivalent quality these days. There has been a continuous growth over the last 10 years in terms of part-time courses even as there has been some stuttering in terms of numbers for the full-time courses. It is probably true that globally, part-time courses have offered better recruitment opportunities, and this will probably continue as people want to take their courses sooner in their career and finish them faster. Traditionally, US full-time courses were two years long, while European courses were a year long. Even Singapore’s leading universities now offer the one-year MBA. All US schools are looking at redesigning their programmes to have a shorter option—this is another factor that people designing courses have to bear in mind. Going forward, there will be a mixture of part time and full time, where people can choose to do some part of their course on a full-time basis, the rest on part-time basis, or even in some other country—even transfer of credits between universities and institutions may be possible. Third factor is technology as it allows part-time courses to be more effective. It enables universities to have simulation programmes, allows students doing similar projects across the world connect to each other—things have changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years.

Does an entrepreneur need an MBA? Whether the MBA is a one-year course or two, can leaders be created in a classroom?

Of course not. Look at Bill Gates. But may be 50% of new enterprises fold within two years and an MBA should give an entrepreneur a far better chance. There is no simple answer to whether leaders are born or made but business schools can improve the chances of success for those with aspirations of leadership. Instead of learning only by experience they can learn from others, too.

Can technology make business schools irrelevant—most research papers are available online and many academic journals which one goes to a university to read are also available online or can be bought over the internet. There are many events that offer similar networking opportunities as one would get at a business school. Students can use the internet, social media and platforms like Linkedin to build better and larger networking circles than what a business school traditionally offered them. Is it possible that in the next 10 years, technological progress can put an end to schools such as yours—everything you specialize in today is almost available online.

This is a compelling argument. I think that to some extent you will be able to replicate a lot of what we offer in our schools in the online world, and much of this will also be freely available. However, I think that top business schools are very innovative, and the way we are able to access and integrate and provide value-added experience will continue to develop. With the pace of technological change, ten years later, we will probably be carrying out most of our projects online, but this will only provide better opportunities to our students, the people we know, than the ones we have never met. Therefore, I think, in the future, there will still be place for doing things face-to-face—but the blend will change and a number of things will be virtual. It may be that people will come to a business school and will spend a lot more time outside during the programme. Ten years later, people will still be coming to business schools and doing top MBA programmes—these courses would have changed and developed by then—it may become more to do with networking, interaction with CEOs. While many online things will be accessible to everyone, some things will still be exclusive to business school students—those that are privileged to small networking dinners with CEOs and learn from those opportunities.

Will future MBA programmes teach students coding? In future, it may be very vital for CEOs and top executives to understand the basics of technology and learning to code could help them grasp the dynamics of changing technologies better. More often, when companies miss the technology curve, or fail to make upgrades in time, or delay buying new services and software, it is because their top management don’t understand or get technology or have not kept pace with it. Will MBA schools evolve where students are also taught technology?

No, I don’t think so. Because the young people coming through, they don’t learn IT as a separate subject anymore, but everyone does it. As these people come through to MBA schools, everyone will know and be doing IT anyways. It will be just like everyone can operate a PC today—everyone will know basics of technology and would have done some coding before. I don’t think it will be taught as a separate subject. I see the point, but the technical knowledge that people have will develop anyways.

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