Students investing in an MBA rightly expect something more than what the core curriculum promises. Along with picking up the theory, technical knowledge and soft skills which constitute the key elements of the course, they are also looking to develop their personal networks and explore new career possibilities.
Conscious of that, overseas-headquartered business schools which offer programmes for students based in Hong Kong are therefore stepping up efforts to create contacts and give practical assistance.
In most cases, they find the natural starting point is to strengthen links with the alumni community, bringing past and present students together. And doing so often has two additional benefits: it helps faculty members keep in close touch with the latest developments across the business spectrum and it provides a conduit for senior executives to pass on their experience as guest lecturers, programme advisers, or mentors.
“We have started organising events in Hong Kong to connect current students with alumni and will continue to build our MBA community,” says Robyn Gleeson, director of career services for the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at the University of New South Wales. “There is a shared sense of experience among like-minded individuals who are at different levels and working in different industries. This encourages people to talk and can act as a catalyst for new career opportunities.”
While ostensibly social occasions, such events are clearly seen as a platform for change. Students can get a feel for what life is really like in other sectors and start to weigh up more deliberately the pros and cons of a possible move. What subsequently develops is up to the individuals, but at least they have the added assurance that goes with access to the advice and ideas of a wider circle of acquaintances, many of whom have faced similar decisions and challenges a few years back.
“We find the bulk of students are using the MBA as a transition and see it as a way of broadening their options enormously,” Gleeson says. “Usually, they are looking to go into more of a management role. The programme gives them the ability to make that step, or even be a ‘triple jumper’ changing country, industry and role.”
To ensure students feel comfortable at these events and come across well, AGSM makes a point of teaching techniques for networking. These include knowing how to read a room and start a conversation, anticipating who will be there, being up to date on current events, and having something to contribute on likely topics of discussion.
“We run workshops for the entire class and one-on-one consultations if anyone wants extra help,” Gleeson says. “Our approach is to give students the tools to take their careers to the next level. In networking situations, it is important to be interested and interesting, and ready to listen and help other people who want to be introduced. That leads to stronger connections which, evidence suggests, can increase your chances of landing a next opportunity by 40 per cent. ”
Deborah Biber, country manager for AGSM Hong Kong, adds that the MBA can be seen as the start of a lifelong relationship with the school, fellow classmates and alumni.
Robyn Gleeson (left) and Deborah Biber.
“On one level, you are coming into contact with people of influence, learning about their industries and their worlds, and seeing how business works,” Biber says. “Everyone recognises the need and value, but networking also becomes a catalyst for change in the community and the family. That’s why we are now replicating in Hong Kong what AGSM has been doing in Australia and offering more support for students through contacts with alumni.”
According to Chris Marshall, associate dean for international development in the University of Sunderland’s Faculty of Business and Law, US-based schools have generally led the way in terms of cultivating alumni links, but others are now catching up.
“For MBA students, there is the spontaneous individual ability to [keep in touch], but the institution can also give extra help,” Marshall says. “For us, the first step has been to raise our game in terms of knowing where graduates are going and what they are doing. From there, we have been able to create a social agenda, which builds the course’s identity and helps to feed knowledge about today’s business world back to the next generation.”
Sunderland has been organising alumni events in Hong Kong for the last six years and, where possible, current students are also involved. On one side, it is a chance for executives to stay up to date with changes and priorities in the way business is being taught – and perhaps contribute to that too. On the other, it gives students a clearer perspective on what employers are looking for and where alternative career paths may lead.
“A university business school is not just about teaching and research; it is also about translating knowledge into practical solutions,” Marshall says. “Our aim is to ensure a two-way flow of information which strengthens the sense of partnership and opens up another view on business life for both students and alumni.”