A globalised MBA can come in a host of different wrappings

Tom Welsh
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GLOBALISATION, both as a buzz word and as a practical reality, is informing business education everywhere. But the way in which schools have responded to this demand is very different.

MBA programmes widely trumpet their global reach. International business requires executives and managers to appreciate cross-cultural sensitivities, to understand localised priorities, to have broad networks, and to realise that the situation on the ground is never quite how it seems from London.

But to many potential students, the wealth of programmes, electives, school collaborations and international consultation exercises will seem overwhelming, especially when all MBAs seem presaged and prefixed with the same jargon. If all schools are global, why do they go about it in such different ways? How should a potential MBA student pick through this morass? What is advertorial and what is highly original? Globalisation may be happening, but how should it affect what students demand from their MBAs and their business school?

MBAs are designed to prepare and educate the future business leaders, executives and rainmakers of the world’s greatest companies.

As such, schools are constantly innovating and adapting their programmes to fit the needs of a changing business environment, and competing with each other to attract the very best potential candidates.

One innovation is the number of schools in Britain, Europe and North America either launching collaborative programmes with each other, or signing official tie-ups with universities in the developing world.

Vlerik Leuven Gent, a Belgian management school, has had a partnership with the China Centre for Economic Research at Peking University since 1998. Called the Beijing International MBA (the BiMBA), it was launched by Dr Justin Yifu (now chief economist of the World Bank). According to Bruce W. Stening, dean of the BiMBA at Vlerik, it provides “Chinese grounding to complement existing MBA programmes.”

Stening explains that the benefit to students of having a specific agreement with a domestic Chinese school is three-fold. Firstly, students are “exposed to ideas from a wider range of professors.” They have access to both experts in European business and academics with Chinese expertise. Secondly, “they develop global perspectives based on personal visits.” Going to China gives them practical experience of how business works in a rapidly-growing country. Thirdly, students build informal relationships with other students. “Strong institutional support” prevents these relationships from wilting before they’ve flowered.

But official, institutional relationships are not the only kind of global contact to be had. Many programmes also offer international electives from British-based schools.

Roy Batchelor, associate dean for MBA programmes at the Cass Business School, says that how courses deal with the international perspective will differ based on location and situation. “We don’t have to struggle to put an international dimension to what we do.” Cass’s location in the City, and its connection with leading multinational businesses in London, gives it an inbuilt advantage when it comes to preparing MBA students for the challenges of globalisation.

Rather than having formal relationships with other schools, which Batchelor thinks is probably more necessary for “provincial universities, or for business schools in cities without London’s global ties,” Cass offers various programmes that encourage its students to think in an international perspective. For example, students are taken to emerging markets, where “they do a period of consultancy with a company in that market.” The rationale behind this is not just building connections or seeing how things work somewhere exotic, but jolting and shaking students “out of the cliches of globalisation.”

This last point is crucial. Internationalism in business education is more than teaching the ability to work in one of the many global cities similar to London. It’s about developing an understanding of how business works outside these cosmopolitan centres, and how this might affect how an executive approaches a problem or carries out a change. Batchelor highlights Cass’s tour to South Africa – it enables students to “look at and understand how to lead change in the middle of hazy political, economic and social environments.”

The glamour of travel is obvious, and the comparative rise and fall of various national economies translates this glamour to business. But there is also attractiveness to domesticity, even for MBA students.

Stephan Chambers is MBA director at the Said Business School,part of the University of Oxford. He suggests that “there are lots of different models for business education, and they’re all legitimate.”

He recommends breaking down the benefits attributed to globalised education and seeing if these advantages apply to schools which don’t have institutional arrangements with foreign universities. The results can be revealing.

Regarding diversity and global networking, for example, Chambers argues that Said “imports that diversity, in the form of students, rather than exports the students to a diverse foreign location.” Said’s typical cohort is about 85 per cent non-UK born. This is significant because the biographies of an MBA student’s peers are just as important as the biographies of his or her professors. “MBA students get as much from their fellow cohort, in relation to globalisation, as from the academics.”

Similarly, although internationalism is a useful objective, MBA students mustn’t forget that educational diversity is more than about who you’re learning with, or where you’re learning. “Oxford is special because it’s Oxford. Our MBA students have access to an entire fabric of educational culture without having to change the wallpaper.” In Chambers’s view, the interdiscipliniarity of Said is just as important as Oxford’s global reach.

Global ties, the chance to travel, and international expertise are all invaluable to any MBA education. But how these things are delivered doesn’t necessarily matter. More important is the school’s rationale behind its provision, why it has chosen to provide them in the way it has, and what that provision’s character says about the school and its priorities.

Globalised learning may open up opportunities the world over, but the buzz words and the jargon don’t always change the fundamentals.