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(South China Morning Post) -- Every other Thursday after work, rather than go home to her family in Plano, Texas, Dannellia Gladden-Green drives to the Omni hotel in Richardson, seven miles away, and cracks the books for her MBA course the next day.

Much of the discussion in the classroom, she knows, will focus on the activities of a single company, Texas Instruments, which happens to be her employer. That is because Texas Instruments worked with the University of Texas to create a special MBA curriculum for its up and coming managers.

Ms Gladden-Green, 34, a trained engineer with a doctorate in electronic materials, says the classes are giving her a keener understanding of basic business principles. She hopes her degree, which she expects to earn in December, will enable her to move from her present position as a marketing manager to a more senior position.

"I come from a technical background and there were a couple of things I wanted to get from the program, such as strategic thinking and business acumen," she said.

"Ultimately, I want to drive the strategic direction of an emerging business."

Texas Instruments is an early player in a fledgling trend: the customized MBA. While only a handful of such programs appear to exist, corporate education experts predict they will become more common.

"We are seeing a huge uptick in interest in these programs," said Jeanne Meister, executive director of the New York-based research firm Corporate University Exchange.

Aside from its educational value, the customised MBA offers corporations another carrot for luring and retaining talent -- a priority these days as baby boomers retire and corporations face a looming management shortage.

"To become the employer of choice, we have to be very aggressive in offering educational opportunities to our employees," said Jay Wetzel, who retired this month as vice-president and general manager of General Motors Technical Centres in Michigan. GM's North America engineering division plans a new joint technical degree program beginning in January that will include a GM-customised MBA from Indiana University.

Rather than simply reimbursing their employees' tuition costs for a standard executive MBA, companies are finding that collaborating with a nearby business school to create a program tailored to their industry and markets is well worth the extra cost. But no one expects the practice to sweep the country.

Only major corporations with big work forces can afford it, and even their programs are likely to be limited in size and duration.

"I don't think you're going to see hundreds, but 25 or so of these programs will spring up" over the next few years, said Philip Zerrillo, graduate dean of the University of Texas at Austin business school.

Companies typically send managers to weekend classes at a nearby university, as Texas Instruments does. A few, though, sponsor Internet courses. Honeywell International in New Jersey, began a pilot Internet program for 15 students in September 1999 with Capella University, an online school in Minneapolis.

Intel, in Santa Clara, is taking a mixed approach. Starting next month it will fly business professors from Babson College once a month to five Intel locations in Western states to teach courses to more than 30 employees.

Other course work will be handled over the Internet. Tuition for each employee for the 27-month program is $52,500.

"Babson is going to gear the homework towards the needs of Intel," said Alan Fisher, the company's manager for extended education programs.

"Instead of having homework, they'll have real work to do. It is not only an opportunity to learn, but an opportunity to problem-solve for Intel."

Texas Instruments, based in Dallas, began thinking about its own MBA program four years ago. The company knew it had great engineers, but also that it was going to need a lot of people with business knowledge to lead it in the future, said James Szot, who oversees the effort for his company.

Members of the first class began their studies in January 1999, and 49 graduated last December. The second slate of students numbers about half that.

First-year courses in the basics of accounting and finance are fairly general, but second-year electives chosen by Texas Instruments are more closely tailored to its own activities. That enables students to become de facto consultants to their own company, with a professor as adviser.

"Each team is assigned to work with a sponsor in Texas Instruments to examine a real business issue and come up with some recommendations," Mr Szot said.

"Those can be pretty powerful."

Ross Teggatz, 37, a design engineering manager who graduated with the first MBA class, says the courses changed how he does his job.

"In the past, I would design a part and if it didn't sell I'd blame the marketing people," he said.

"Now I understand that I have to design the part to help it sell."

Another benefit of such exclusive programs is that they allow executives at the sponsoring company to influence the curriculum and even become involved in it. Take Deere & Co, a maker of farm equipment and machinery. Last fall, it collaborated with Arizona State University to begin a customised MBA programme that combined the traditional classroom with the Internet. When the students studied economics, in addition to hearing from the professor, they were able to click on a video of Robert Lane, the chairman and chief executive, and hear his economic views and his thoughts about Deere's markets.

The benefits of such a program to employees are fairly obvious. They get to work towards a degree without giving up their jobs to advance their careers.

To make sure the programs do not become too insular, some companies open them to employees from non-competing companies. From the start, Intel will include five such people.

"We have a concern for our proprietary information but also a concern not to inbreed the culture," Mr Fisher said.

A more prosaic reason for inviting outsiders is to fill slots. Texas Instruments opened this year's class, its third, to an employee of Cadence Design Systems in San Jose. Eventually people from other high-technology companies will be included, Mr Szot said.

(c) 2001 South China Morning Post

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