MBA vs. Master's in Information Management: What's the Difference?

A woman sits with her arms crossed over an open book while in a classroom setting.

Information management and problem-solving go hand-in-hand, and both benefit from strong, capable leadership. Professionals who are passionate about information as an asset and want to lead efforts to leverage its power may consider both the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and the Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) when seeking out advanced education.

Both degrees are highly respected and support careers in overlapping business areas such as data analytics, consulting and project management. According to the Graduate Management Admissions Council's 2020 Corporate Recruiter Survey, most recruiters are confident that MBA holders have versatile skills and are strong strategic thinkers. Meanwhile, demand for experts in information management and information systems implementation is increasing, driven by the rise of information management as a distinct discipline. Employers recognize the benefits of hiring MSIM graduates in a business landscape where emotions and intuition, rather than data, still drive 50% of all decisions.

However, even though graduates of both degree pathways are in demand, they are not interchangeable. MBA programs create managers capable of generating value across a spectrum of business competencies through lock-step programs with often scripted curricula and learning experiences. MSIM programs, on the other hand, are more flexible and develop highly skilled specialists equipped to fuel organizational innovation, decision making, and drive productivity using people and processes, as well as teachnology. Some information management master's programs, including the University of Washington Information School's Master of Science in Information Management, offered online, go further and emphasize ethics, strategic leadership and social good in the curriculum. These programs teach students to manage information not just for profit but also for society's betterment.

Choosing the right academic pathway for you may not be particularly challenging once you've read this far. But if you're still unsure whether you belong in an MBA program or a master of information management program, this guide can help. It dives deeper into the purpose, focus and benefits of each degree.

What is an MSIM?

To understand the value of a master's in information management, you need to know what information management is.

The Information Management Body of Knowledge breaks down information management into six critical knowledge areas: business benefits, business process and information, business strategy, information systems and information technology. Broken down that way, information management looks like a combination of IT and business intelligence. However, it involves much more. The purpose of information management is to aid decision-making and "create value for individuals, organizations, communities and societies."

Information management involves the generation and application of information to reach organizational objectives. It encompasses the infrastructure that collects, manages, delivers and stores information, and the processes for collecting, storing, managing, distributing and archiving it. Information management is also concerned with guaranteeing the quality of information, the value of information as an asset and the strategies that shape information-focused activities.

Professionals in this field are increasingly responsible for integrating equity, inclusion and social consciousness into information management. Without ethical standards, information bias can contaminate information, perpetuate discrimination and undermine the value of data.

Interdisciplinary information management master's programs such as the UW Information School MSIM, offered online, dive deeply into the structure, processing and delivery of information. Students from various academic and professional backgrounds enroll in master's of information management programs to hone crucial technical skills, in-demand managerial skills and their understanding of social and ethical issues in information management.

Who typically pursues a master's of information management?

The iSchool MSIM, offered online, attracts early- and mid-career professionals who want to become information leaders. The program has Early- and Mid-Career tracks, as well as accelerated and traditional options, and is highly customizable to align with students' career experiences, interests and goals. It is accessible by design to individuals from all disciplinary backgrounds.

While most universities treat the MSIM as a technical degree, programs typically don't exclude students without established technical skills. At the University of Washington, the MSIM prerequisites do not include required majors or specific work experience. Applicants simply need a bachelor's degree from any discipline. The UW Master of Science in Information Management, offered online, builds comprehensive bridge courses into the MSIM curriculum that teach essential prerequisite technical skills, opening the technical specializations — Data Science and Business Intelligence — to more students.

Some master's of information management candidates have professional or academic backgrounds in analytics, data science, computer science and information technology and titles such as business analyst, database designer, digital marketing coordinator, information systems specialist, IT specialist, program coordinator and research coordinator. Others come from fields outside of tech and enroll in the MSIM program to gain foundational information management skills. They may work in marketing, finance, biotech, health care, public administration, education or research. They share a desire to solve organizational challenges with information and have a net positive impact on society.

Is information management a technical discipline? Yes, but the information management skills commonly taught in MSIM programs complement those used in social science and humanities because careers across disciplines have become data and technology-driven. Accomplishing ambitious goals in any field is difficult without a comprehensive understanding of how to manage and leverage information.

What does the MSIM curriculum cover?

The typical master's in information management curriculum includes interdisciplinary coursework covering business, the humanities and technology. In core courses, students learn to solve organizational problems and critically analyze processes across all areas of information leadership. They also study the role of ethics and social responsibility in information management.

Four courses make up the core curriculum in the UW's MSIM program program: Analytic Methods for Information Professionals, Management and Strategic Leadership, Policy and Ethics in Information Management and Foundations of Information Management (waived for Mid-Career track students). MSIM candidates then complete up to two specializations out of three options — Business Intelligence (BI), Data Science (DS) and Program/Product Management and Consulting (PPMC) — by choosing electives.

Many on-campus MSIM programs incorporate residential learning opportunities into the curriculum. In lieu of these, online students in the UW's MSIM Early-Career track complete a three-course Capstone sequence. Early-Career Accelerated track students complete a one-course sponsored project or internship-based practicum. Mid-Career track students are welcome to complete a practicum, though it's not a graduation requirement. Students across tracks tackle real-world class projects and hands-on work, 100% online.

What skills do master's in information management programs develop?

MSIM graduates can transform data into actionable organizational insights and identify the human impact of information systems and management processes. They have technical skills related to business intelligence, data wrangling, data modeling and visualization, database development, information warehousing, IT strategy, machine learning, network analysis and programming. They also exit the program with managerial skills related to ethics and policy, problem-solving, professionalism, social responsibility, strategic leadership and systems thinking.

Mid-Career track alum Michelle Eten enrolled in the UW MSIM after earning her MBA to develop skills that would enhance her career in retail digital marketing. Specifically, she wanted to learn more about customer database management, project management and technology development leadership. "I wanted to augment my knowledge of developing business strategy with more technical skills that would enable me to make a greater impact in developing digital customer experiences," she said of her motivations.

What careers can a Master of Science in Information Management support?

Most MSIM jobs fall into one of the following categories: managerial roles, strategic oversight roles, technology roles, analytical roles and/or consulting roles. Typical job titles include advisory consultant, artificial Intelligence engineer, business analyst, business intelligence engineer, data analyst, data engineer, data scientist, product manager, program manager, project manager, security analyst, security consultant, systems engineer, technology consultant, user experience designer and user experience researcher.

Many UW graduates see immediate professional benefits in the form of new positions, promotions or more significant leadership roles in their organizations. Eten, for example, accepted a new position as Vice President of Digital Retail leading a North America eCommerce business shortly after she earned her information management master's degree. Recent MSIM graduates working full-time reported earning an annual salary of about $105,000, and many also reported receiving additional compensation in the form of bonuses, stock or options.

What is the 10-year outlook for information management jobs?

Data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests employers will create jobs for information management professionals more quickly than the average across occupations, adding 53,000 new jobs for information managers in the coming decade. Those numbers point to solid growth in the field, but BLS projections may ultimately underestimate future demand given the exponential growth of information creation.

Humans already create quintillions of bytes of data daily, and the rate of data creation increases year over year. Demand for qualified information management professionals will likely soar as organizations look for new ways to gain competitive advantages with data.

What is an MBA?

Business administration is a broad discipline encompassing everything involved in the art of management. Strategic leadership is essential in business settings because organizations have many moving parts. Leaders must have a deep understanding of the people, processes and resources required to meet organizational goals and how they work together.

The MBA is an internationally recognized graduate program in business that develops skills required for careers in administration and management. It is a highly versatile credential that can lead to managerial jobs in sectors as diverse as finance, technology, entertainment and health care.

Traditional MBA programs equip graduates to work in many fields because people, resources and project management fundamentals don't change. There are also concentration-focused MBA programs — so many that some people regard the MBA as not one degree but many. Popular MBA concentrations include finance, Big Data, health care management, operations, strategy, supply chain management and entrepreneurship. Some universities offer information systems and information technology management concentrations.

Who typically pursues an MBA and why?

The Master of Business Administration is one of the most popular management degree programs in the United States. American institutions award about 200,000 MBAs each year, and some people assume this degree is a one-way ticket into the c-suite. Realistically, it isn't. While many CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have MBAs, most MBA graduates don't become CEOs. Instead, they leverage their business management expertise to compete in crowded markets, transition into more senior management roles or switch careers. Some MBA candidates have extensive career experience in other fields such as health care or energy and pursue this degree because they want to join the ranks of administrators.

What do students in MBA programs study?

MBA courses typically delve much more deeply into subject matter than bachelor's-level business courses. Most Master of Business Administration programs teach advanced management fundamentals from a generalist perspective. Coursework typically covers accounting, business analytics, entrepreneurship, ethics, finance, leadership, macroeconomics, microeconomics, marketing statistics and operations.

Most traditional MBA programs have fixed curricula and may deliver classes in a lockstep format where all students take the same core courses. Concentration-based MBA programs are sometimes structured the same way, though it's more common for students in these programs to choose from among several specialized courses specific to their concentrations.

Most full-time MBA programs require students to complete at least one internship. Some full-time and part-time MBA programs also build domestic or international business residencies into the curriculum.

What skills do traditional MBA programs develop?

MBA students gain the skills to step into managerial positions, launch businesses or work as consultants. These skills align closely with the core course content of most MBA programs, which cover topics such as accounting management and operations management.

Beyond fundamental management skills, MBA programs teach action planning skills, communication skills, decision-making skills, general management skills, interpersonal skills, networking skills, people management skills, performance optimization skills, problem-solving skills, strategic thinking skills and vision development skills. Leadership skills are also a core focus of most MBA programs and some build leadership coaching into the curriculum.

What careers can an MBA support?

There's no typical MBA career pathway. MBA graduates can create strategic plans, develop marketing frameworks, drive revenue growth, launch and run companies, leverage the power of data, manage teams and departments, optimize business processes and oversee corporate finances.

MBA graduates work in every sector, from agribusiness to manufacturing to technology. They have titles such as brand manager, business analyst, controller, data analyst, entrepreneur, finance manager, financial analyst, management consultant, marketing manager, market researcher, operations manager or venture capitalist.

What is the future outlook for MBAs?

The BLS doesn't track employment projections for MBA graduates, but information about professions where MBAs are common can provide insight into the outlook for graduates. For example, the BLS predicts the number of openings in management occupations will grow by 9% between now and 2030. Employers will create more than 900,000 new jobs, and many of those will be geared toward professionals with MBAs.

What are the most significant differences between MSIM and MBA programs?

The most significant difference between business administration and information management master's programs is focus. MBA programs teach business management and entrepreneurship, while master's of information management programs teach strategic information leadership. This is an important distinction because, while some MBA programs do offer an information management concentration, these still typically devote the majority of the curriculum to general business administration coursework.

The students in the typical MSIM program will also be quite different from those in the average MBA program. MSIM programs such as the UW Master of Science in Information Management accept early-career professionals without prior experience in information technology or information management. MBA programs often require that applicants have significant professional experience in business. Students usually have established careers.

Student outcomes also vary significantly between these two programs. While professionals with MBAs and MSIMs can become data analysts, consultants and managers, information management master's holders are more likely than MBAs to end up in technical and technology-focused roles related to information architecture, information security and knowledge management.

One final differentiating factor that may make the MSIM the more attractive option is price. Typical MBA programs can cost anywhere from $70,000 to over $100,000. The UW MSIM, offered online, costs much less, regardless of your chosen track or whether you live in-state or out-of-state. In 2022, the Early-Career track tuition cost about $60,000, the Early-Career Accelerated track tuition cost about $37,000 and the Mid-Career track tuition cost about $33,000. In-state and out-of-state students pay the same tuition.

How to determine which degree is right for you

According to one Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) student survey, most prospective graduate students consider at least three MBA and business master's program types before making their final decisions. Given how different these academic pathways are, you likely have some inkling by now which degree aligns more closely with your aptitudes, interests and goals.

While it is possible to transition into strategic roles in information management with an MBA plus professional experience, an MBA program won't give you the specific skills and knowledge to critically analyze processes and resolve challenges across all areas of information management for your organization.

If you're comparing the MBA and the MSIM because you want to be a part of strategy development and rise through the ranks into an executive role, both degrees can help you meet your goals. If, however, you're also driven to understand how people, technology and processes come together to turn information into insights and the human impact of information systems, the Master of Science in Information Management will likely be the better fit.

Learn more about the MSIM, offered online, at an upcoming enrollment event or apply online today.