Companies hiring MBA graduates are increasingly looking for candidates with strong soft skills, a report published by QS last month reveals. And this should serve as a wake-up call for MBA candidates in Asia. Students from this part of the world attending business school often don't take soft skills as seriously as they should. But saying that soft skills are increasingly important does not mean that hard skills - marketing, finance, and IT - no longer matter. It is simply assumed by companies that MBA graduates will be strong in these areas, so interpersonal skills, communication skills, strategic thinking and leadership are what are needed to give candidates a competitive edge. Students in Asia, where about half of the respondents to the survey were located, have traditionally been strong in hard skills and weak in soft skills, says Ross Geraghty, managing editor, TopMBA.com. 'MBA programmes globally have taken this demand on board, and many top business schools are attempting what can be a tricky balancing act - shoring up MBA's soft skills while, simultaneously, trying to firm up the traditional knowledge that MBAs will need,' Geraghty says. 'After all, a great communicator with little idea of financial models is going to severely limit their job opportunities when leaving business school.' Many MBA candidates in Asia fail to appreciate the importance of soft skills, looking upon the effort spent developing them as a waste of time. 'According to recruiters, too many business school graduates hit the job market lacking the demanded skills that go beyond the qualification,' Geraghty says. According to Nigel Banister, CEO and chief global officer at the Manchester Business School Worldwide, two of the biggest trends over the past couple of years are growing globalisation and the consistent growth in part-time programmes. 'Basically, MBA programmes tend to be countercyclical, with full-time programmes doing well when economies are doing badly,' Banister says. 'The reason is that people tend to come back to school when they see the job market as being more competitive to help their career chances. Because of the economic circumstances in many parts of the world, top business schools have been flooded with applications for full-time programmes over the past couple of years. However, the underlying trend has been towards part-time programmes, and that has continued [during the recent economic downturn].' In terms of globalisation, MBA programmes are doing more than using an increasing amount of case studies and examples from different parts of the world. They are also recruiting more actively from overseas, and more and more business schools are forming partnerships of various types with institutions in other countries to bump up the cross-cultural experiences of their students. Anyone in Hong Kong wanting to pursue an MBA is spoiled for choice. All of the local universities have multiple offerings. Some are taught at their own campuses, others in town locations. There are part-time and full-time programmes. Some put more focus on global or regional issues, others play up their strong ties with the mainland. An array of programmes is also offered by overseas business schools, which generally fly in professors to teach specific modules. Once you have determined that you want to do an MBA, the first step is to ascertain your goals. Then you should come up with a short list of potential programmes that will best help you realise them. Then you should compare and contrast their strengths and weaknesses. 'Prospective students need to be clear as to their motivation,' says Professor Richard Petty, associate dean, Macquarie Graduate School of Management, whose courses are administered by the Hong Kong Management Association. 'Why are they studying? They need to have the time and the determination to see their studies through to completion. This will take at last a year. Those who are not motivated, who don't have clear objectives, and who are not prepared to sacrifice for success, should not consider taking on additional studies.' When choosing an MBA, it is important to consider the programme provider's reputation. You want to find a programme that meets your needs. But you also want to emerge with a degree that will add value to your r?sum? in a marketplace that is highly competitive. 'Applicants should be aware that most employers of choice, certainly most multinational or global firms, know where different MBA programmes stand in terms of quality of education, and they tend to hire from MBA programmes known for their high educational standards,' Petty says. 'MBA schools are certainly mindful of this, and they accept students into their programmes based on an assessment of how well the applicant will fit into the MBA programme, and the school, as well as factors such as academic achievement, career success to date, and a sense of broader corporate and community responsibility.' Hong Kong's tertiary education market is robust. Many of the world's best business schools have a presence here. 'Students expect opportunities for career growth and for personal development as a consequence of doing post-graduate study,' Petty says, adding that managers today need a global outlook and a qualification that is globally portable. An MBA can provide an opportunity to switch careers - especially if a particular specialisation has been followed. 'The MBA has changed over time and will change into the future as the business environment changes, and as new management systems, techniques and technologies emerge,' Petty says. Joining a programme with chances to take part in cross-cultural exchanges can add considerable value to the MBA experience. 'Students [from Australia] report that they learn a great deal from the cultural exchange that they get from studying in Hong Kong, as well as the benefit of the choice in deciding where to study,' Petty says.