For most executives, reality bites after a few years in the workplace. By this point, they have a good appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses; they can see how organisations function and what it takes to get ahead; and they know that, these days, anyone with genuine hopes of climbing the corporate ladder must have all-round management skills, and an understanding of business around the world. This explains the continuing popularity of master of business administration (MBA) programmes. By focusing on what happens and what matters most across the spectrum, from finance to marketing, ethics to strategic development, the qualification is an effective short-cut to the next career level. Course content is one thing, but the basic aim is not to fill students with information, facts and formulae. It is to broaden horizons, so that individuals have the frame of reference and analytical skills to run a company and operate with confidence in a global business environment. "We encourage students doing our part-time programme in Hong Kong to take workshops in at least two other cities," says Christopher Higgins, regional business development consultant for the UK-based Manchester Business School Worldwide. "By definition, the MBA is a general qualification, but we also want to create a diverse cultural experience, as well as giving knowledge and skills," he adds. The overseas options now include Manchester, Singapore, Shanghai, Dubai, Miami and Rio de Janeiro. And the course is flexibly structured and paced to allow for these international assignments. Usually, it is completed in two-and-a-half to three years but, recognising the pressures working people face, there is scope to extend. Typically, Higgins notes, applicants in Hong Kong are middle to senior managers, representing a range of industries. They have an average of eight years' work experience. What also unites them is the desire for a career shift, whether in terms of faster progress, a wider remit, or being able to start their own business. "A good MBA gives an international mindset. It develops the skills to make decisions under pressure, and come up with the best outcomes when different factors are impinging," Higgins says. "It would be impossible to get all this in a company setting; we see the people on our programme go through tremendous change." One obvious result is greater self-assurance. Another is the confidence that comes from being taught by professors who are leaders in their field and knowing that course content is continually moving forward. Recent additions include topics such as new media marketing, as well as ethics and responsibility. Online components now complement classroom sessions, group discussions and three-day workshops taught by professors from Manchester. And extra tutorials are available if students need support with particular assignments or in the build-up to exams. "We add courses and update elements every semester to keep things fresh and relevant to business today," Higgins says. "We also connect students early into an alumni network which can help them find the positions they want." His advice to candidates weighing up different MBA programmes is to consider their own needs very carefully. Objective criteria such as cost and ranking come into it, but the more subjective aspects - alumni feedback, time commitments and employer's support - also play a big part. "Look at the flexibility," Higgins says. "A course with a global footprint means you can transfer to another centre if your job moves you elsewhere." Professor Didier Guillot, director of the OneMBA programme offered at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's faculty of business administration, suggests the balance between theory and practice is a key consideration. In many organisations, an MBA is still seen as the "passport" to higher levels of management, but in business everywhere, applied knowledge counts the most. "Our programme is designed to help executives understand the realities of global business and apply the right tools to ensure the success of their enterprises," Guillot says. Students - and their employers - want what is relevant for modern business and to be presented with up-to-date ideas that have immediate application. An MBA course can't ignore the underlying theory, but, nowadays, the focus has to be on action and implementation in a global context. "This means [seeing] the similarities and differences within, and across, regions and markets," Guillot says. "We [do] this by tapping into the knowledge of colleagues and institutions all over the world." Indeed, the 21-month OneMBA programme is designed and run as a partnership between five leading institutions on four continents. This makes it possible to stay closely in touch with what is happening in all the important economic areas, and to make sure students have an up-to-date understanding of how both developed and emerging markets are evolving. "We adapt and [react] to student feedback. Having more than 20 nationalities in every cohort provides a wealth of information [for] aspiring global business leaders," says Guillot.