Professional Masters: A choice for practicing managers

Wednesday, 23 June 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Education is expected to prepare us for change, but educational institutions are often slow to change. This paradox creates a disconnect between educational offerings in the form of degrees and what learners need to survive and thrive at work. 

If indeed the degrees from universities and institutions of higher learning are disconnected from realities of the workplace, as eloquently reviewed by Prof. Ajitha Premasiri, why is it that the demand for such degrees has not declined? In my view as a higher education faculty and administrator for over 25 years, the answer lies in value of paper: often degrees work as signals of a general intellectual capability of its holder, as evidenced by that person’s ability to gain admission to a prestigious institution, rather than as a signal of the holder’s capability to do a job or perform in a role.

Prof. Premasiri’s insightful critique of the state of current MBA programs, (and by no means the critique can be limited to MBA programs), includes quotes from Prof. Henri Minztberg. I was one of the team that worked with Prof. Mintzberg which launched the, now well-established, International Masters for Practicing Managers ( In my work as one of the Directors of that program in the early 2000s, I was guided by a simple principle that Prof. Mintzberg laid out: Organisations need managers, not MBAs. The IMPM admitted only working managers. Admission was based on quality and length of experience, not paper qualification. Average age of the class was over 35. Curriculum was organised around themes instead of functions. Management of inter-organisational relationship was a theme as were managing the self and managing in a context. 

The work with the IMPM has had a lasting impact on how I think about management education to this day. In its simplicity, the lesson was, for me, that managers are motivated to learn if the learning helps them solve problems at their work. Crafting curricula and delivering it in engaging and creative ways are means to achieving the basic goal of helping managers learn so that they can do their jobs better.

Viewed this way, the audience for MBA programs divides itself into, at least, two categories: those who have the relevant work experience to know what they want in order to do their jobs better and those who are younger with less experience for whom the MBA is a place to sharpen their intellect and demonstrate their keenness to join the world of managerial work. As can be expected, any attempt to straddle these two categories in the same classroom, with the same curriculum and pedagogy leaves both dissatisfied. The classroom itself becomes ineffectual as a place for discourse and discussion which requires a level platform of experience. Diversity in participant profiles is desirable based on the nature of their experience but not on the length and depth of such experience.

About a decade back, the then President of the Asian Institute of Technology, who subscribed to the idea that education for professionals such as practicing managers should be rooted in practice and help learners address their workplace problems and performance, conceived of the idea of a Professional Masters. A one-year master’s program, he argued, would leverage on participants’ experience, focus the curriculum on their workplace needs, cut out the general courses that all MBAs include as a part of the ‘required’ courses portfolio and help managers learn while continuing with their work. It would not be called an MBA because it was not. It would be called a Professional Masters because it was a master’s degree only for working professionals. The idea had a lot of similarities with the IMPM and I was one of the first volunteers to launch and run a Professional Masters. A decade later, AIT is proud of this educational innovation it helped pioneer and serve the learning needs of practicing managers in a practical and economical way.

Practically, how is a Professional Masters different from an MBA? I take the example of AIT’s Professional Masters in Banking and Finance as an example. Banking is a profession. Banks are a business. Banking needs managers, as much as any other industries do. But being a manager in a bank requires an understanding of economy, industry trends, competition, regulation, technology, risks and above all a strategic thinking capability that can help bank managers navigate their banks through changing business environment that the industry operates in. 

Some of these changes are rapid and that imposes additional demands on managers to manage organisational change and quickly. This also links to the managers’ personality traits and gaps therein, which need to be filled to effectively, to lead such change. It is not difficult to see how industry specific many of these issues are and how a general-purpose MBA would do little to help equip bank managers to tackle their industry specific challenges and, in the process, carve for themselves a place as a valued member of their organisation’s management team. 

AIT’s lessons from its experience with Professional Masters is very clear: learning about management requires a depth of understanding of the profession/industry/domain. Some of the breadth that MBA programs provide are sacrificed in favour of the depth. But the choice is left to the learner. The learner’s question becomes: Do I invest in an education that helps me become master the intricacies of a profession/industry/domain or do I invest in a general-purpose MBA that keeps my choices open to jump across industries building on functional credentials such as marketing or finance?

A final note on the AIT journey through this educational innovation. Any attempt by a general-purpose institution of higher learning such as AIT to serve the interests of managers in a profession/industry/domain would be ineffectual without partnership with reputed industry bodies who carry the knowledge of history, practices and trends in the industry. In Sri Lanka, AIT is honoured to be in partnership with IBSL. This has been a partnership blessed with synergies through two-way flow of knowledge and people. The eighth batch of the Professional Masters in Banking and Finance will be run in Sri Lanka will be run in partnership with IBSL.

And how will it be delivered in the midst of uncertainties resulting from the current pandemic? Here again, AIT has been innovative and created opportunities from this crisis which will link Sri Lankan participants to their regional peers in multi-mode form of delivery. I am available to discuss this and other aspects of the program. Please do write in for a conversation. This is a time for managers to make informed choices about their higher 


(Dr. Sundar Venkatesh is a faculty in AIT’s School of Management and Director, Professional Masters. 

He can be reached at [email protected].)


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