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Targeted M.B.A.'s Take Aim at Defense Spending

Business schools are training defense executives through industry-focused graduate programs.

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Absorbing budget cuts while maintaining the integrity of your product is a difficult task in any industry, but when potential cuts total $500 billion and your product is national security, the challenge amplifies.

"Quality and mission assurance are important to a magnitude more than any other industry," says Andy White, director of the Aerospace and Defense (A&D) M.B.A. program at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville. "We have to improve the business processes and efficiencies in order to maintain the level of security that America has come to expect and require in a very threatening world."

By teaching classic business concepts such as accounting, logistics, and supply chain management to leaders from the Department of Defense, as well as the corporations and small business tasked with supplying and supporting the defense industry, White says UT—Knoxville's A&D M.B.A. program can help the military operate more efficiently.

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"If we can help our students and research sponsors improve their business practices and processes, then we're ultimately playing a small but important role in improving national security and making tax dollars go further," White says.

While pinpointing potentially wasteful spending is helpful in a classroom environment, addressing it amid a bureaucracy defined by complex supply chains, billion dollar contracts, and production schedules that span years can be tricky, says John Kirkpatrick, a technical manager with the U.S. Army who recently completed UT—Knoxville's A&D M.B.A. program.

But when Kirkpatrick identified potential cost savings upward of $8 billion in the Defense Department's contract and acquisition process via his M.B.A. research project, he managed to turn some of his theoretical solutions into real-life process improvements.

"To see it practically applied has been a huge benefit," says Kirkpatrick, who took steps to improve planning, communication, and tracking of defense contracts and acquisitions in his workplace. "By applying tools learned through the program and mentorships, we were able to see direct results through cost savings or affordability."

UT—Knoxville's College of Business is one of a handful of business schools offering M.B.A. programs tailored to the needs of the defense industry.

[Get five tips for choosing an M.B.A. concentration.]

Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management has been training comptrollers—accountants within the Department of Defense tasked with managing spending—since 1952. The National Defense Executive M.B.A. program at George Mason University in Virginia teaches business concepts to defense executives via a 15- to 21-month program available online or in person.

The yearlong executive M.B.A. program at UT—Knoxville was born out of an advisory committee made up of defense industry players from the U.S. Air Force, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, among others, says White, the A&D M.B.A. director.

"Someone mentioned, 'Wouldn't it be neat if there was a program somewhere where A&D organizations could send their high-potential leaders, and they could study alongside each other?'" White says.

Eight months later, UT—Knoxville started the first class in what quickly developed into a full-fledged executive M.B.A. in 2004.

Enrolling leaders from all sides of the defense industry—military, large corporations, and small businesses—brings together a diverse group of students who learn as much from each other over pizza as they do from their instructors, White says.

Hearing how a classmate from Delta Air Lines approached a supply chain issue inspired Janis Wood, deputy director of the 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City, to look at her own processes differently.

[Learn about aerospace and aviation M.B.A. programs.]

"It really makes you challenge how we look at costs in the government," says Wood, who completed her A&D M.B.A. in 2005. "Are we really making good decisions, or are we making short-sighted decisions? I want to make sure we're looking at it right."