The case for employers providing professional development services to their employees is a strong one. Though Chinese companies have traditionally looked at training as an individual activity or as a reward for good performance, business leaders are now realizing the link between training and enhanced company performance, said Joshua Kobb, Director for International Development and Strategic Partnership for HEC Executive Education.
Not only does such training increase productivity, it also improves morale and helps bind employees to companies. This is particularly true in China. On the one hand, many Chinese graduates lack practical experience and skills. On the other hand, Chinese employees tend to be particularly appreciative of employers who provide them with such opportunities, compared to many Westerners who consider such training a chore.
Accordingly, a number of training programs aimed at getting local hires up to snuff have appeared in China in recent years, usually non-degree, custom in-house training provided by specialized corporate education firms.
However, employers can also choose to subsidize their employees’ MBA degrees at academic institutions, or in some cases, cooperate with a university to design intensive business curriculums designed with employer specifications in mind, delivered on site.
While the distinction between formal degree programs and corporate training programs is blurred in some areas, there are significant differences. Standard corporate training programs are usually cheaper and targeted at one specific problem. Dannan Hodge, business development and training manager at Jett, a company that specializes in professional development services, said many non-degree in-house training programs in China these days focus on the practical realities of dealing with clashing inter-cultural office environments.
Jett’s Lead2Succeed in-house training programs cost roughly RMB1,000-2,500 (US$146-365) per hour per training group, depending on the type of training and preparation involved. But no matter how you price it, it’s far cheaper than subsidizing an academic degree for an employee.
Companies looking to cultivate individual leaders from within employee ranks may prefer an Executive or Global Executive MBA program (EMBA, GEMBA). Roughly 27 of these schools affiliated with foreign universities exist throughout China, although the number is in constant flux as schools regularly set up or close. EMBAs and GEMBAs focus on larger business and economic interests, and are mainly taught by international faculty, with an international student base, said Kobb.
"In a global economy you need to have an international outlook," said Tom Peterson, director of USC Marshall Global Executive MBA in Shanghai. "Not only do they learn to ask questions, but also where to look for their own answers. However, an EMBA is not for everyone."
Most students are mid-career company lifers, with a substantial amount of business experience behind them. The average age is 42 for HEC EMBA students, as opposed to around 30 for a traditional MBA. Firms send their employees mid-career to make them more effective within the company and more internally mobile. They also return to work with dozens of new contacts gleaned from networking with other students and faculty.
"An EMBA student is not looking for a short-term mobility tool," said Kobb.
Most GMBA and EMBA courses are designed to accommodate students who are continuing to work throughout the program. HEC’s EMBA program is made up of 13 sessions of four days per month, meaning employees only miss two days of work per month. Most training sessions are held in local hotel facilities.
While GMBA and EMBA programs are aimed at senior employees, companies can send promising junior employees for MBA training.
Some company leaders may balk at the prospect of enrolling an employee in a program that would take him or her away from the office for up to two years, but still want employees to take some core content. To serve this market, companies such as TW Allison are creating "mini MBA" programs and in-house business curricula offering intensive courses of between six and eight days spread out over the course of a month or year.
TW Allison’s mini MBA, launched this June, is aimed at training senior management in leadership, sales and marketing, business development, finance and communications, according to senior account manager Joryi Tan.
Such programs may seem to compete more directly with academia, but calling an intensive business program a "mini MBA" is pure marketing. If an institution sells an education program that doesn’t result in an accredited MBA degree, the product is corporate training. The same goes for schools that offer custom, non-degree programs.
Although such programs seem convenient to employers, USC’s Peterson warns that the focus may be too narrow. There is a groupthink aspect to in-house MBA curriculums. Students’ peers are also their coworkers in such programs, and given that there is only one paying customer, the school is under pressure to tell the company what it wants to hear in terms of results.
"This is not going to breathe fresh life into your company," Peterson said.
Jett’s Hodge has further words of caution: Before making the significant investment of putting an employee through a degree course, company leaders should consider what the employee might do next. It is possible that he or she might use the degree to jump ship to a better position with a different firm.
Another problem with intensive or in-house MBA courses is time, said Peterson. Absorbing information takes a substantial amount of concentration, and retaining it takes repetition and review. If a course is crammed into six months or a year-and-a-half, how much learning is really going on?