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Interview with Prof. Dr. Frank Piller on the Executive MBA

What is special about the Executive MBA at RWTH Aachen University?

Prof. Dr. Frank Piller: On the one hand, it is the combination of technology and management. A number of programs are committed to this, but there is hardly a business school that can draw on such technical expertise and innovative capacity as RWTH Aachen University, one of the elite schools for the next generation of German engineers.

On the other hand, the Executive MBA at RWTH Aachen offers small learning groups and a very intensive supervision ratio – and this with a high flexibility for the participants to combine the EMBA studies with work and family. We thus offer a personalized study program at the intersection of technology and management.

Are there any particular key areas in your education? What are the Innovation Ecosystem Labs all about?

Prof. Dr. Frank Piller: Like most Executive MBA programs, the Executive MBA at RWTH Aachen University starts with General Management modules that lay the foundation for successful management. Similarly, there are a number of modules in leadership and other personal skills (e.g. negotiation techniques, risk management, intercultural skills).

For more in-depth learning, there are four Innovation Ecosystem Labs, each of which immerses participants in different innovation ecosystems for a week. In a mix of lectures, but especially during visits to companies, startups, universities and tech incubators, participants learn about various topics (such as decision-making with artificial intelligence, digital business, the future of manufacturing) from a completely different perspective. In addition, these four intensive weeks, spread over the 18 months of study, offer once again intensive opportunities for exchange, networking and “learning from each other” – perhaps one of the most important aspects of an Executive MBA.

How is the program offered? Is there any online content?

Prof. Dr. Frank Piller: We do not offer a pure online EMBA, but rely heavily on blended learning. The basic skills we address can be taught well and flexibly through specially produced instructional videos. We have already built up a great deal of expertise in this area since 2012 – which was also reflected in a top 3 ranking for our faculty at the end of 2020 by the CHE ranking organization in terms of the digital transformation of teaching (among more than 65 German-language business faculties and business schools).

But management in practice means social interaction and dealing with people. That’s why each module also includes an average of two days at RWTH Business School, where the content is deepened and applied in case studies and intensive exchanges of experience between participants.  The program also begins with an intensive week at RWTH. As an additional benefit, the Executive MBA at RWTH Aachen expands the network of both participants and lecturers. The composition of the student group reflects the diversity of the industrial working world. It enables an interdisciplinary exchange on a personal level and trains a change of perspective. The small groups allow close contact with the lecturers and the team. The environment of the new dynamic RWTH Aachen Campus also offers the opportunity to experience real technologies up close and in an application-oriented way.

(If you’re interested in an online-only program, check out the “M.Sc. in Management & Engineering in Technology, Innovation, Marketing & Entrepreneurship | Part-Time“, editor’s note)

What is the focus of digitization in your degree programs?

Prof. Dr. Frank Piller: Digitization or digital transformation has long been an important topic in all our degree programs. In many companies, even despite all the acceleration caused by the pandemic, there is still a long way to go, especially when it comes to building new business models and not just operational excellence. But digital transformation is not an end in itself. That’s why our lecturers often integrate the topic in the context of their modules, e.g.: What does digitalization mean for the marketing mix? What opportunities do digitization and AI offer for the research and development process? The aim is always to give participants an overview of the basic patterns, strategies and design approaches of digital transformation. In the process, they are given a feel for the demands on leadership in a corporate world shaped by digitization.

How are theory and practice linked in the program?

Prof. Dr. Frank Piller: Always, I would prefer to say! Because the essence of an Executive MBA, in contrast to the basic degree programs at RWTH Aachen University, is that it is aimed at experienced professionals who primarily want to improve their own skills as managers and thus improve both their own professional success and that of the organization which they work in.

Therefore, the content is designed in such a way that it always allows for direct reflection with the professional context. Here, the investment in the course often offers a direct “return on investment”. Our participants tell us time and again how they were able to directly apply tools and concepts from the EMBA in their daily tasks.

Another important driver is the discussion and exchange between participants. This exchange of experiences also opens up new perspectives: “How did you do it in your company?” This creates cross-industry innovation, as I would call it as an innovation researcher.

Finally, it is the master’s thesis that, in a team of usually three participants, combines the study content with a concrete practical task at the end. The EMBA work has already resulted in entire new business units and many improved processes or procedural models in industry. A large number of startups have also been founded.

(For more on our most recent example, see the interview here, editor’s note).

How does the Executive MBA support professional and personal development?

Prof. Dr. Frank Piller: In at least three ways, I would say:

1) The EMBA at RWTH prepares participants for a career in general management, i.e. combines professional expertise with higher management tasks in the company. This is achieved by teaching a mixture of technical, methodological and personal skills. The program is demanding, but really gets you ahead.

2) An EMBA program offers plenty of opportunity for personal reflection and opens up new paths. Time and again, our graduates reposition themselves professionally after the program, because they have become acquainted with new options or have been offered new ones. This can be in the same company or in another organization.

3) The personal network has grown strongly – often with friendships for life, but in any case with many professional contacts in other industries and functions. Through the intensive collaboration, but also the exchange during the Innovation Ecosystem Labs, relationships are formed that go far beyond a LinkedIn contact.

And I am sure that each of our participants still has a very personal fourth aspect of how the EMBA program at RWTH has helped him or her progress!

Would you like to learn more about the content and benefits of our Executive MBA? You can find further information here:

Prof. Dr. Frank Piller im Portrait

Prof. Dr. Frank T. Piller
Institute for Technology &
Innovation Management;
academic director
of the Executive MBA
of the RWTH Aachen