Leading executives in mid-career have diverse reasons for taking the DBA (doctor of business administration) programme at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU). But certain themes commonly recur.
These include a wish to conduct in-depth academic research on a topic with practical implications for their own business or industry. But there’s often a strong desire, after perhaps 15 or 20 years in the corporate world, to broaden one’s personal horizons, find fresh perspectives, and take on different kinds of intellectual challenges.
For student Alan Wong, who began the DBA in September 2013, a key motive was the need to “look into the future”. As director of business development in Asia for GP Acoustics International, he operates in an ever-evolving market where new technology and changing customer expectations can have a major impact on production, sales, and profitability.
“A big part of my job is to plan ahead and shape corporate strategy,” says Wong, whose company mainly manufactures and distributes high-quality speaker systems for home use and commercial use. “Taking the DBA has helped develop my analytical thinking and research skills, which can then be applied in my day-to-day work. I had reached a point in my career where I wanted to learn more in a formal study environment and, in doing this, was inspired by my boss who is a graduate of the CityU DBA.”
Before committing, Wong spoke to the professors to get a fuller understanding of the basic course content and curriculum. The initial phase includes classes on research methodologies, preparing research proposal, and academic writing, as well as workshops and seminars for knowledge sharing and update on diverse business topics.
Along the way, students have regular meetings with supervisors to discuss the direction and progress of their research projects. Group get-togethers, which usually include DBA candidates from different years, afford an opportunity for spirited debate, as well as mutual support and encouragement.
For his thesis, Wong is focusing on innovation in SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises). He says he has already carried out an extensive review of the related literature.
Previous research has clearly identified areas like the composition of top management teams and their orientation towards innovation and entrepreneurship. But with help from companies in various industries, Wong wants to go a step further by looking at organisational capabilities, dynamic learning, and the different types of innovation that can result.
“Understanding what it takes to innovate is crucial to SMEs,” Wong says. “In Hong Kong, they employ about 50 per cent of the private sector workforce, so helping them stay competitive is vital for the businesses themselves and for the overall economy. In a company, you need an entrepreneurial orientation, so staff at all levels must think creatively about what they can do differently, so they can find new ways to solve old problems.”
Unsurprisingly, Wong found that much of the recent literature featured US or European case studies. He aims to fill the gap by contributing research and conclusions based on data from Hong Kong and the mainland, and also by identifying a correlation between firms’ approach to innovation and their broader performance.
Wong meets his supervisor at least once a month to ensure he is making progress, and likes to engage in debate about practical methodologies, and the theoretical aspects of his work. In 2014, he joined a special study tour to the University of California, Berkeley. Taking advantage of the chance to attend courses offered as part of CityU’s MBA programme, he took an elective on international organisational behaviour, partly to refresh knowledge and reorientate the academic mindset.
Careful time management is essential to combine a demanding study regime with work and family commitments. Wong says the secret is to establish a routine and, as far as possible, stick to it.
“I study with my kids,” he says. “When they are doing their homework, I work on something for my thesis. That way, I keep making progress, and I should get everything finished within four years.”
His advice to others considering the CityU DBA is to discuss it in detail with family members, so they are fully aware what will be involved, and also to regard it as both a physical and mental challenge.
“I now exercise more often than before,” Wong says. “You have to take care of yourself and stay healthy to enjoy learning and get the most out of a programme like this.”