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Special Report – It’s not just about the numbers

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So you’re a CA(SA). You’ve studied for years and you’re a highly qualified professional with lots of workplace experience to boot. Why on earth would you consider adding a notoriously expensive and demanding MBA to your already impressive qualifications? Well, for starters, you’d be learning to apply management concepts, enhance your consultancy skills, advise businesses on strategic plans and business models, beef up you leadership skills, and – most importantly – network with a bunch of other ambitious, hardworking careerists representing a range of industries.

Becoming a chartered accountant opens the door to a vast range of exciting career opportunities in every sector of business and finance, so it’s not hard to understand why the CA(SA) qualification continues to dominate the accountancy profession in South Africa.

There are those who’ll tell you that CAs(SA) have been known to be a little disdainful of those who have not travelled the arduous route to this revered qualification. After all, CAs(SA) are in constant demand. They are recognised for their professional standards, technical competence, and absolute accuracy.

Perhaps that’s why they have the edge: they rise further and faster into more diverse and important roles in organisations than many of their counterparts. Their value is known and appreciated to all in the companies they are employed by. Moreover, CA(SA) is an accounting qualification that is recognised worldwide. Few other careers offer the mobility that this qualification does.

A CA(SA) can take on the role of a trusted business advisor who makes high-level decisions aimed at driving business growth, improving profit margins and increasing market share for either their clients or employers. Many have also shown their mettle in the demanding world of entrepreneurship, becoming highly successful business owners and innovators. Much of this success is attributable to the solid foundation in finance, economics, and management information systems that the qualification provides.

KEEPING UP IN A FAST-PACED WORLD

Why then is there an increasing number of CAs applying for entry into Master of Business Administration (MBA) programmes? The short answer is that earning an MBA qualification is especially important in challenging economic times. Thomas Robertson, dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, summed it up nicely when he said that the MBA is one of the best tools a businessperson can have because it not only gives you an advantage in the global marketplace, but it also teaches you to be adaptable in an economy where career-switching and constant change are the norm, not the exception.

Closer to home, Professor Cecil Arnolds, graduate school research director at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Business School, concurs: “A CA qualification is a well-respected qualification in the job market. It is specifically focused on the training of high-level accounting and financial management professionals. The MBA qualification, however, covers a full spectrum of business functions: marketing, strategic management, organisational behaviour, leadership, operations management, human resources management, management economics and business research. For this reason, the MBA graduate will attain a much more comprehensive and holistic skillset of management competencies. That’s why we recommend that CAs sign up for an MBA course as the programme can provide them with a powerful combination of managerial competencies in addition to their accounting and financial management expertise.”

One of the benefits of an MBA programme is that it allows you the flexibility to explore your options and provides you with the training you need to change careers. On the other hand, if you’re fulfilled in your current line of business, the MBA degree can prepare you to move into a managerial position within your field.

Professor Nicola Kleyn, deputy dean at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), says that the institute’s analysis of admissions data shows a growing number of CAs applying for entry into the MBA programme. “Post-MBA interviews with CAs(SA) suggest that whilst their CA(SA) qualification gives them a strong ability to manage a firm’s finances in the context of shareholders and a financial regulatory environment, the focus of the MBA on the greater business environment, leadership and management, as well as corporate strategy, are important elements that they needed to make the transition from finance to general management.”

THE BATTLE OF THE BUSINESS DEGREES

Stephanie Budlender, a business consultant at SGB Services and a CA(SA) who also has an MBA, says it’s worth remembering that obtaining the qualification CA(SA) is a means towards an end and not the end in itself. “Acquiring additional knowledge through continuing professional development or further qualifications is one of many options open to a CA(SA),” says Budlender. “The qualification provides solid and sound grounding in the financial and accounting management skills that are required in business, as opposed to an MBA, which provides wider business skills. I believe that CAs(SA) should complete an MBA if they want to acquire greater business skills in addition to their financial skills set. This adds value for themselves, their employer and the economy.”

CAs(SA) can benefit most from an MBA if it’s completed at the right stage of their career. Those who have a level of relevant experience that makes them suitable for an executive role are in the best position to complete an MBA. On the question of career advancement, the completion of an MBA demonstrates you are not only commercial in thinking, but a self-starter and achiever who not only wants promotion, but is prepared to work hard to achieve it.

CAs(SA) who are also MBA graduates largely agree that an MBA does not make you a stronger candidate for promotion if you do not have the right level of experience, with some noting that the best time to undertake an MBA is when you’re either about to head into a management position, or working towards one.

“The MBA certainly makes a difference to the CAs career prospects,” says Arnolds. “The CA who has taken the time to complete an MBA degree will have more knowledge on, for example, marketing issues such as consumer behaviour, business strategy including international strategy, and the management of people, including in-depth understanding of human resources management and organisational behaviour. This enhances their career prospects well beyond the realm of accounting and financial management.”

Kleyn cautions that CAs should be clear on the career track that they wish to follow before deciding on an MBA. “The MBA qualification is not as relevant as it could be to a CA(SA) who wants to become or remain a deep specialist in their organisation. If, however, they are looking to lead and manage the business, obtaining an MBA from a good school will significantly enhance the success of their transition to a leadership role.”

Shaun Rajab, a CA(SA) and MBA graduate who is currently operations director at PCS Consulting, says he believes employers the expectation that they are recruiting a resource who is well-rounded and more than “just a chartered accountant”, because they have an in-depth understanding of the business environment as well. “I have always been of the view that should a potential employer have the option of recruiting a CA(SA) or a CA(SA), MBA, they would choose the latter – it’s a value for money investment.”

Rajab is outspoken about his view of the two qualifications. “The discussion should not be a comparison between a CA and an MBA qualification, since the CA qualification is undoubtedly superior, but rather whether the degree enhances the professional capacity of the CA(SA).”

Kleyn says it’s definitely not a questions of either or. “The MBA is a master’s degree that is designed to extend undergraduate and honours degrees. The CA(SA) is a superb qualification that is a testament to an individual’s capabilities in the financial, accounting, auditing and risk management arenas. However, it’s not intended to qualify a person to run a business. Courses on accounting and finance are a relatively small component of the MBA curriculum. CAs(SA) who believe that the MBA is a duplication of their qualification don’t understand that the focus in the MBA is on strategy, leadership and holistic thinking.”

IT’S ABOUT TIME

Studying for an MBA degree is certainly no picnic – there’s a reason that the MBA has earned a reputation as ‘the divorce degree’. Arnolds stresses that an MBA requires a lot of commitment and self-discipline on the part of the student.

“Until 2014, the standard MBA has consisted of about 13 core modules along with three or four elective modules,” Arnolds explains. “The timeframe to complete these modules was six trimesters running over two years. Following this, there was a third year as well, for the electives and a research project. In 2015, when the new MBA kicks in, candidates will be required to complete the programme in two years. This will require even more commitment in terms of time, focus and effort.”

Budlender was operating her own business, providing tax and financial consultancy during the period she studied towards her MBA. “I enrolled for a part-time programme and I had to devote up to four hours a day to attend lectures after work, with a further four or more hours a day to study and complete assignments. A lot of time and effort is required to complete an MBA, but I found my CA(SA) qualification a great help.”

Peter Cramer, senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s College of Accounting, says his MBA broadened his outlook, as he was previously almost wholly technically focused. “I found the learning process, with the focus on group work with people from many different disciplines, incredibly stimulating and beneficial. But it was a huge amount of work. I was fortunate that my wife was understanding and supportive, as was my employer. It is an extremely difficult and demanding programme to complete when there are competing or conflicting work and personal pressures.”

There’s loads of consensus from the people we canvassed on this issue. “Working and studying at the same time requires an enormous amount of time and energy,” says Rohit Desai, partner at Ramathe, Desai, Bhagat and Jeena Chartered Accountants (SA). “Doing an MBA part-time requires a minimum of four to five hours per day. Hard work, dedication and a very understanding family are the minimum requirements.”

Rajab’s approach to his studies was an interesting one. He did a detailed investigation into the merits of obtaining an MBA as well as the ‘ranking’ of the different MBAs that are available to prospective students. “On the merits of obtaining an MBA, the general response from prospective employers was, ‘nice to have, but not essential’, which I assume still holds true in the current economic environment,” he says. “Based on this I scouted around for the least demanding programme, having been made aware of the high stress levels associated with studying towards an MBA. I identified the course offered by the Edinburgh School of Business of the Heriot-Watt University, which is self-study based, similarly to Unisa, as the best option for me. While complete commitment, motivation and dedication is required, a self-paced programme means you can study and write examinations at your own pace, which eliminates much of the stress factor associated with other MBA programmes. However, with this does come a financial cost, because fees and study materials are subject to the high, fluctuating rand-pound exchange rate. But if you want to enrich yourself and enhance your skills, while minimising the pressure and the demands on your life, this is a good way to go.”

 

WHAT ABOUT THE MOOC WAY?

Through free online courses from the world’s top universities, ambitious and disciplined types can skip class and get an MBA online – at virtually no cost.

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave, you’ll have heard of MOOCs – massive open online courses that can be accessed globally over the Internet and which are all the rage right now. In September 2013, the University of Pennsylvania’s Ivy League Wharton School began offering first-year MBA courses online for free through Coursera, one of the most popular MOOC platforms, which partners with top universities around the world to deliver courses to hundreds of thousands of students. Wharton’s offering makes it possible to get much of its MBA course content for free. The courses in financial accounting, marketing, and corporate finance duplicate much of what you would learn during your first year of an MBA, and there is also a fourth course in operations management, completing what Wharton calls ‘the foundation series’.

Along with five existing electives, which include subjects like gamification, the global business of sport, and microfinance, the new offerings make it possible to learn much of what students in Wharton’s full-time MBA programme learn, and from the same professors.

All four courses in the foundation series are six to ten weeks long. Each consists of a combination of pre-recorded lectures and interactive features, such as discussion boards that allow students to ask questions and get answers from the professor or an assistant.

Importantly, the MOOCs are not watered-down versions of Wharton’s on-campus classes. In fact, some professors at the school are using the MOOC content in their own classes, asking students to watch the lessons beforehand so that class time can be used for discussion – a practice known as ‘flipping’ a class.

For a fee of $49, students in all four courses can receive a verified electronic certificate indicating that they’ve completed the course requirements.

The courses are no replacement for the typical MBA programme with its immersive on-campus experience, career services, and alumni network, but they do provide a great way to way to find out more about what you can learn from an MBA and to decide if you want to take it further. Of course, you can simply use the experience to add to your knowledge.

By the end of 2013, more than 700 000 students in 173 countries had enrolled in Wharton MOOCs, and additional courses are in the pipeline. More large universities are getting into the MOOC game, and where MOOCs were once frowned upon, it looks like they may well become accepted as part of traditional degree programmes in the future. Whether or not that happens, however, there’s nothing stopping anyone from taking the world’s best online courses for free. ❐

 

The ten most under-rated reasons why you should get an MBA

In an article in Forbes magazine, hedge fund founder and managing partner Eric Jackson said there were several underestimated (and really interesting) reasons for doing an MBA:

  1. The chance to stop and reflect on some big business issues
  2. The chance to make some lifelong friends who will accomplish great things over their careers in business
  3. The chance to realise how little you understand about the world
  4. The chance to learn about how to get a bunch of high-strung, Type-A personalities to work together as a team
  5. The chance to think about the global economy and not just your little world where you used to work
  6. The chance to interact with professors who will really challenge you
  7. The chance to go listen to as many accomplished executives when they come to talk at your school
  8. The chance to refocus yourself
  9. The chance to learn about managing people
  10. The chance to learn how to get up and string a few sentences together

Author: Monique Verduyn