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5 things to know about an MBA in production or operations management

This type of MBA degree can provide solid preparation for management and consulting jobs, experts say.

© (Getty Images)   A curriculum in operations management focuses on how companies can create compelling products or services in a cost-effective way.

By Ilana Kowarski, U.S. News & World Report

When a business specializes in selling a product or service to consumers, that company typically must maximize quality and minimize price in order to thrive. The leaders who have expertise in quality control and cost-reduction strategies and oversee the process of making a product or performing a service are known as business operations managers.

An aspiring MBA candidate with an analytical mindset may want to consider an MBA program with a strong curriculum in production/operations management, which focuses on how companies can create compelling products or services in a cost-effective way. This field is related to a discipline known as logistics or supply chain management, which centers on how companies distribute their products or services to consumers and what they can do to increase the speed and lower the expense of the product or service delivery.

Both production and logistics MBA courses require students to use mathematical models to solve complex problems, and each of these types of classes is typically housed within a business school's academic department of operations. Operations is an academic subject that focuses on how to establish effective processes, both on the production and distribution side of a business, and experts say this subject is essential for MBA students to master.

"Operations are critical to ensure firms' ability to deliver value, thus lying at the core of all firms' strategies," Soo-Haeng Cho, an associate professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, wrote in an email.

Experts say that an MBA concentration or specialization in this area allows students to compete for a wide array of jobs, including not only positions at manufacturing companies, but also jobs at consulting firms and startup ventures. According to experts, it also provides solid preparation for general management positions.

Because of the increasing importance of innovation in business, skills in production-oriented operations management are highly marketable, experts say. Students with these traits are capable of helping the world's most creative companies like Apple and GE build new technology.

A key lesson taught in production or operations management courses is how to manage a company's "innovation process," says Elliot N. Weiss, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Weiss says that the goal of an operations manager is to encourage continuous improvement of business processes and constant refinement of the company's products.

"One of the things we say is 'fail early and fail often,'" he says. "Rather than spend two years in your office designing something and then seeing it doesn't work, keep going out and iterating back and forth."

Weiss emphasizes that operations managers are experts at "systematizing new product development." Production or operations management MBA programs tend to appeal to students who enjoy troubleshooting and who like the thrill of discovering new inventions, he says. "I think it appeals to people who like to solve problems, who like to make things and who like to... see tangible results of what they do," he says. "It's very much hands-on."

If you're considering pursuing an MBA degree focused on production or operations management, here are five factors experts suggest keeping in mind.

An excellent program teaches how to manage people, not just how to crunch numbers. "Many people might think that you're just dealing with things and machines, but really it's all about the people," Weiss says. That's why MBA students with a focus in production or operations management should be sure to take courses in organizational behavior and leadership, he says.

Thomas Roemer, executive director of the Leaders for Global Operations program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, says that aspiring operations managers need to know how to effectively advocate for their product and process improvement ideas. In order to implement a vision for a company's improvement, an operations manager will typically need to "create buy-in with both senior management and labor," Roemer wrote via email.

A key indication of a high-quality production and operations management curriculum is if it includes project-based learning opportunities with real companies and actual executives who need assistance, Roemer says.

A solid curriculum will offer training in artificial intelligence, machine learning and business analytics. A good production or operations management curriculum will include lessons in mathematical modeling and data interpretation, because manufacturers collect a treasure trove of data when they create products, Roemer says.

"Everything is measured all the time, and there is a wealth of data there that we need to start exploring," Roemer says.

A top-tier MBA program in this discipline will discuss intellectual property issues. Bill Elkington, the chair and president of the Licensing Executives Society, a professional society for business leaders at companies that are creating unique technology, says a production or operations management curriculum that doesn't discuss intellectual property is incomplete. Understanding how to protect trade secrets and shield original business ideas from competitors is a key component of being an effective operations manager, Elkington says.

"It's important to realize that 80 percent of the equity value of a publicly traded company today is in intellectual capital," he suggests. Elkington argues that the future of a typical company "depends on the safeguarding of... [its] intellectual capital."

A degree in this field offers abundant career flexibility and can lead to a high salary. Elkington says a common misconception about production or operations management careers is a concern that pursuing these jobs will lead to lower salaries and more limited career options than specializing in money management disciplines like finance and accounting.

"I think MBA students think that finance and accounting is where they're going to make the most money and... operation and production is where you're going to make the least money, and that's not so," he says.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average operations manager in the U.S. earns more than $120,000 per year. Elkington says that prospective MBA students should understand that jobs in this production or operations management are "just as potentially remunerative as other fields that they can concentrate on in their MBA program."

Elkington emphasizes that training in operations management has applications in numerous industries and jobs, and stresses that this type of training is useful for aspiring C-suite executives.

Specializing in this discipline can allow you to have a positive influence on society. Roemer says that business operations managers are among the individuals within a company who are the best equipped to ensure that the company has ethical and sustainable business practices. "You are the ones who can actually improve the world and move us forward," he says.

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Career Advice: 5 things to know about an MBA in production or operations management
5 things to know about an MBA in production or operations management
This type of MBA degree can provide solid preparation for management and consulting jobs, experts say.
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