Unless you’ve been living in a cave, it’s been hard not to notice that China is on its way to becoming the world’s top economic superpower. This means Western companies have been queuing up to take advantage of the new markets it offers, with varying degrees of success. Business schools have also been eager to get involved, either by educating China’s next generation of managers and professionals or by teaching overseas students how to deal with the opportunities its rapid development presents.
However, China is moving faster than anyone could have predicted just a few years ago, throwing up a new set of challenges to Western organisations and the business schools that seek to guide them. “The first phase of change, dominated by international corporations, may already have come to an end,” says James Darlington, who heads the Chinese operations of recruitment specialist Antal, which has been working in the country for more than a decade. “What we’re now seeing is a whole raft of successful companies founded and built by local entrepreneurs. And their ambitions aren’t restricted to domestic markets – they want to get out onto the global stage. For Westerners it’s no longer just a question of working out how to come to China, but how to deal with China coming to you.”
Many of the higher-ranked MBA programmes use case studies looking at the Chinese experience and seek to bring the country’s culture and business methods to their classrooms through the recruitment of Chinese students. However, a growing number of schools are taking the view that the only way to understand how Chinese business works, on its doorstep or yours, is to embrace the dragon as closely as possible. And that means studying in China itself.
The first to put this approach into practice was the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai. Set up in 1994 with the support of the European Foundation for Management Development, it has one of the highest-rated MBA programmes on the Pacific Rim and attracts nearly half of the MBA student body from outside China. It’s been followed by other West-East partnerships such as the Beijing International MBA programme (BiMBA) between Belgium’s Vlerick Leuven Gent and Peking University. But while CEIBS and BiMBA are success stories, other institutions have found China every bit as diﬃcult as their students and corporate clients. US schools Fordham and the University of Maryland, for example, entered the market with some fanfare only to exit
in a relatively short space of time. “There are a lot of diﬃculties inherent in making a partnership between two very different cultures work,” says Vlerick’s Bruce Stening. “You have to choose your partner very carefully, be prepared to negotiate on points of difference and make sure that the calibre of teaching is consistent across the board.”
Other schools argue that the most effective place to learn how Chinese business works, on its home turf and internationally, is at the meeting point between traditional capitalism and the Hong Kong version. The OneMBA, an executive MBA programme run by a partnership of five top schools –CUHK in Hong Kong, EGADE in Mexico, RSM in the Netherlands, Kenan- Flagler in the US and FGV in Brazil – uses the city as one of its ‘global residencies’ where the local faculty and students provide an insider’s view of both the immediate and mainland business environments. For John Buglass, a business strategy consultant at Shell Global and 2007 OneMBA graduate, the programme offered an opportunity to face real-world challenges, such as managing cultural differences, in the Asian market. “From my Asian teammates, I learned that a company such as FedEx has a totally different operating environment and business model in that part of the world,” he says. “The programme brought to life how a global company has to adapt its business model to local business environments.”
For international business schools, however, the next big opportunity may not be in preparing Westerners to deal with China, but in readying Chinese professionals in how to exploit new markets in the West. “Despite their commercial success and fast growth, Chinese businesses are still at a relatively early stage of development,” says Haico Ebbers of the Europe China Institute at Nyenrode in the Netherlands. “The challenge is therefore how to get their middle managers to adopt strategic thinking as the norm. There is still a prevailing attitude that one can deal with a problem when it arises rather than looking for ways to stop it happening in the first place.”
For Vlerick’s Stening, it’s the soft skills of Chinese managers and professionals that business schools need to address most urgently. “A lot of Chinese companies operating overseas still use local managers because they know they don’t have the experience of leading and motivating outside their own culture. And this is where business schools can play a major part in China’s foreign development, by equipping Chinese managers with the tools they need to manage businesses and the people who make them work in the West.”