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Chiefs opt for DBA to broaden their horizon

The DBA, or doctor of business administration, has been gaining in popularity over the past decade, particularly in Asia-Pacific, according to Professor Matthew Lee, director of the DBA programme at City University (CityU).

One reason, he says, is status. Chief executive officers and the corporate high-flyers are looking beyond the now ubiquitous MBA to sharpen their minds and distinguish their skills.

But for Lee and academics like him, and for the growing roster of DBA alumni, the degree's key success factor is that it has established a position at the confluence between two previously divergent streams of thought: the disciplines and abstractions of academic research, and the profit-driven imperatives of applied business management.

"There are a lot of senior executives today who already have their MBA, but want to take their learning further. Prior to the DBA, they would have had to do either another masters, which is primarily instructional coursework, or a PhD, which is all academic research. The DBA focuses on research, but it must have practical applications in business management."

CityU's DBA students are primarily CEOs with an average  15-20 years' experience. Some  80 per cent work for multinationals, the remaining 20 per cent for regional or local listed companies, including those on the mainland, where CityU has just established an exclusive tie-up with Shanghai's Fudan University.

All the students have MBAs. Some already have second master's degrees. Typically, they have already accomplished a lot professionally. Their companies are running well on a day-to-day basis. Now they want to take a step back from operations and focus on long-term strategies. On the grounds that all CityU DBA students already know how to run a business, the coursework focuses on introducing them to the tools of the academic trade instead.

"We need to teach them the theories, principles and methodologies of analytical research," Lee says. "It is a different world from the one they are used to, and without the ability to fuse academic skills with their own experience and methods, they will almost certainly fail."

Adapting to the minutiae of academia and maintaining motivation are the biggest challenges for the students. They are encouraged to choose research topics that have relevance to their own industry.

The carrots of tangible improvements for their own business, together with leadership in their industry, can prove excellent motivators when morale and energy levels go off the boil.

According to Lee, more than 90 per cent of CityU's DBA students complete their doctorates, and even those who had to abandon their long-term strategic reflections to deal with the more immediate challenges of the financial crisis have now all resumed their studies.

DBA programmes from the highest-ranked business schools worldwide tend to place the same emphasis on original research in a practical business context.

There is, however, no established curriculum standard for the DBA and, Lee warns, the composition of courses and classes can vary considerably from school to school.

"In many countries there is a requirement for professional academics to have a doctorate degree to advance their careers, so there are DBA programmes with a much heavier basic instructional element which attract younger, less-experienced students." CityU's DBA is part time with a nominal three years duration, although this can normally be extended to a maximum of six years. It costs HK$500,000 for the programme.