Not all MBA degrees are created equal, and not all MBA students expect the same out of an MBA program.

That’s as it should be. After all, a young undergraduate new to the business world will have different aspirations to a mid-career banking industry manager. An entrepreneur will expect different outcomes to a senior manager in a nonprofit. And a distance learning online MBA student who aspires to building a business in their regional town will have different expectations to an MBA student whose goal is to travel the world with their work.

They may not appear so at first glance, but Master of Business Administration degree programs are as varied as the individuals who take them on.

Part of the unique nature of an online MBA program, or a face-to-face, on-campus MBA, has to do with the chosen focus of the educational institution or the business school.

Some MBA programs, for example, have a focus on international business, targeting their coursework and networking opportunities towards people and organisations whose work crosses borders. Others, such as executive MBAs, focus entirely on issues faced by very senior managers in corporate environments.

For example, The JCU Online MBA Global has a strong focus on data-driven decision making and business analytics.

It’s important for prospective students to make themselves aware of the varying focuses of different MBA programs. While that focus is not always under the control of the MBA student, all potential students should consider which business school is the best cultural fit for their desired future.

Customise your MBA program with specialisations

What is under the control of the MBA student, no matter where they choose to study, is the choice of specializations.

MBA program specialisations can be used to customise the business degree to the unique needs of the candidate. This means a certain amount of coursework will directly benefit the aspirations and career goals of the student as they study full-time, part-time or at their own pace online.

Not to be confused with ‘electives’, an MBA specialisation is typically a themed package of core or elective units that can be taken to offer the MBA candidate greater knowledge in a particular area.

At Southern Cross University (SCU), for example, the SCU Online MBA offers four specialisations. They are:

Accounting

The online MBA Accounting specialisation, SCU says, “…delivers the critical skills needed to effectively analyse business management and processes. You will gain a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of business law, financial performance, profitability and solvency, enabling you to create viable solutions to a range of business needs.”

Units additional to the 14 core units include:

  • Business accounting for managers
  • Business and corporation law for managers

Health Services Management

This specialisation, SCU says, “…teaches you how to effectively apply principles of strategic management and planning to a health setting. Learn to deal with internal and external impacts, like funding cuts, internal restructure or a change in government. You may be from a health background, looking to build your general business and management skills, or maybe you come from a non-health background and want to lead change and innovation in a healthcare setting.”

Units additional to the 14 core units include two of the following four:

  • Healthcare professional portfolio A
  • Leading change in healthcare
  • Principles and practice of clinical accountability
  •  Strategic health management

Information and Knowledge Management

This specialisation, SCU says, “…teaches you how to strategically plan and effectively execute your firm’s digitisation initiatives and knowledge management activities and projects.”

Units additional to the 14 core units include:

  • Managing digital enterprise
  • Strategic knowledge management

Managing and Leading People

Finally, the Managing and Leading People specialisation, SCU says, “…will develop both your business know-how and practical skills – with a focus on people – to advance your career or build your own business. You’ll examine contemporary management and develop solutions to complex commercial situations through the prism of the fast-paced, ever-evolving global digital economy.”

Units additional to the 14 core units include:

  • Organisational change and development
  • Human resource management

Built-in MBA program specialisations

Often an MBA program’s coursework focus influences the choices of specialisations on offer.

For example, James Cook University’s (JCU) Master of Business Administration Global (MBA Online) gives a clue to one type of specialisation in its title – ‘Global’.

As already mentioned, one focus of the JCU online MBA program is data-driven decision making. But the course also encourages MBA students to think with a global focus, ultimately leading to an MBA graduate who has skills better suited to the increasingly globalised environment in which many businesses operate.

In this way, the entire MBA program specialises in a particular theme. While it still offers a general and powerful education in business, much of the coursework is approached from an international business perspective.

And so out of the 12 core subjects, while there are no electives, the MBA program is already shaped toward a few different specialisations.

‘Global Perspective and Strategy’ units include:

  • Multinational corporations and international markets
  • Marketing strategy, analytics and development
  • Corporate strategy
  • Corporate finance

‘Data-driven Decision Making’ units include:

  • Data analysis and decision modelling
  • Information management and analytics technology
  •  Data information: management, security, privacy and ethics

And the final collection of units, under the theme of ‘Organisational Leadership and Management’, include:

  • Management and leadership skills
  • Venture capital and entrepreneurship
  • Business Innovation and technology management
  • Business consulting

These built-in specialisations are known as ‘nested qualifications’. Their value is that together, in groups, they make up Graduate Certificate (four subjects), Graduate Diploma (eight subjects) and Master of Business Administration (12 subjects).

 

MBA: generalise to specialise

The Victoria University Business School’s online MBA is structured for the student who wishes to enjoy senior management opportunities across a rich and varied range of roles, organisations and industries.

The specialisation, in this case, is general management. It is a specialisation that produces a well-rounded business manager capable of performing in a broad variety of roles and environments.

The powerful set of 11 core units includes such essentials as:

  • Strategic management and business policy
  • Marketing management
  • Financial analysis
  • Strategic human resource management
  • Organisation change management
  • Art and practice of leadership

While more structured and less niche than the JCU online MBA, the Victoria University MBA program suits the prospective student looking for a broader, all-encompassing accreditation. In that case, it is also a specialisation of sorts, as it suits the student seeking a more general and broader business degree.

In Victoria University’s 100% online MBA, the choice, or the equivalent of an ‘elective’, comes at the end with the 12th unit, the Business Research Project. In this case, as an individual or in a group the MBA student can choose a consultancy-based task which, while it must be approved, suits a specific area of interest.

MBA specialisations: different strokes…

According to the Princeton Review, a tutoring organisation that helps prepare school students for university entrance tests – mainly in the US and Canada – the nine most in-demand MBA specialisations are:

  1. General management – a variety of management skills applicable to a broad range of business situations
  2. International management – for those who aspire to work overseas, within multinational businesses or within a supply chain that crosses borders
  3. Strategy – the fine art of making excellent business decisions
  4. Consulting – working across a number of client groups, sharing and developing skills and knowledge that is increasingly valuable to business
  5. Finance leadership – perfect for a management career in the finance, banking, accounting and insurance arenas, and more
  6. Entrepreneurship – the thrilling world of startups, taking an idea and making it a reality
  7. Marketing – promoting products and services, ensuring their success through excellent communication
  8. Operations management – planning and managing projects and production, logistics and supply chains, to ensure an organisation meets its strategic goals
  9. Information technology (IT) or technology management – much more than just computer systems, this fast-growing specialisation is all about user experience, data-driven insights and customer experience design.

Of course, there are many more specialisations in the MBA arena.

They might be in traditional business management roles such as human resources, information systems or finance. They might be in broader areas of skill utilisation such as project management, business strategy, risk management, supply chain management or change management. Specialisations could be split across sectors such as engineering management, healthcare management or tourism management. MBA specialisations can also apply to levels of experience or types of business, such as executive MBAs, known as EMBAs, and MBA programs that focus heavily on entrepreneurship.

Amazingly, some MBA programs drill their specialisations down into what might be considered extremely niche subject areas. This is sometimes a response to heavy demand from local business interests.

For example, the Adelaide Business School, close to such respected wine regions as Clare Valley, the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra, offers a Master of Business Administration (Wine Business).

The MBA coursework, the Adelaide Business School says, offers MBA students “a deep understanding of the global wine industry’s unique commercial environment—from historical and cultural influences, to import/export regulations and consumer preference drivers, a thorough working knowledge of viticultural and winemaking principles, highly advanced strategic thinking skills, the ability to see the bigger commercial and societal picture and make decisions with a truly global outlook, high-level problem-solving, analytical, critical thinking and self-reflection skills, outstanding management capabilities in critical business functions, including finance, accounting, economics and marketing, and extensive industry and professional relationships and networks.”

As niche as this course might seem, the global wine market is worth over US$423 billion. Any company looking to improve its business strategy and boost its share of that market would be well advised to encourage their people to earn a specialised MBA. There is a highly compelling argument for the worth of such a course not only to the graduate, whose market value will be significantly boosted, but also to the business itself that will boast a powerful new level of skill and knowledge.

And so, MBA program specialisation is a vital consideration when researching MBA options. When thinking about the cost of an MBA, online or on-campus study, university reputation and rankings, be sure to also consider how an MBA specialisation might help you reach your career goals.