East-West partnerships can bring huge benefits to business schools, but choosing the right partner is crucial.
The demand for formal business education among mainland managers and professionals has gone hand in hand with the country’s status as a world economic power. But whereas in the past when candidates have been willing, even eager, to travel to the West to satisfy their need for an MBA, in recent years the appetite has steadily grown for more local study options. Why? Because the career and entrepreneurial opportunities available outside the country, which used to hold so much appeal, now seem to pale in significance compared with those emerging on the mainland itself.
For a number of American and European institutions, the logical reaction to this shift in geographical emphasis has been the development of programmes and even full campuses within the mainland. Harvard Business School, for example, has recently chosen Shanghai as the location for its first overseas facility. Duke University is similarly planning a campus in the same city. And both the Olin School of Washington University and Kellogg have established well-regarded executive MBAs through partnerships with Fudan University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Another successful example of intercontinental co-operation is the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai. Set up in 1994 with the support of the European Commission, the school now runs one of the highest-rated MBA programs in Asia-Pacific.
But such achievements are by no means ubiquitous and other ventures have not proved quite so resilient. The exit from the market of both Fordham University and the University of Maryland, for example, suggests that some United States schools have found that the mainland can pose unexpectedly formidable challenges. So what exactly separates the winners from the losers in this potentially lucrative and prestigious arena?
Bruce Stening, of Belgium’s Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, is responsible for the Beijing International MBA programme (BiMBA) that the school runs in partnership with Peking University. According to Stening, too many Western schools plunged headfirst into partnerships with mainland universities in the 1990s and early 2000s in the belief it would be a guaranteed route to substantial profits.
“What was not understood at the time was the difficulty inherent in trying to make a partnership work between two very different business cultures, and there have consequently been many failures,” he says. “However, we have learned a lot since then and now understand that for such a partnership to work you have to choose your partner carefully, be prepared to negotiate on points of difference and make sure that they are able to offer teaching of the same calibre as your own.”
In Peking University, Vlerick has partnered one of the top academic institutions on the mainland – perhaps one of the key reasons why the relationship appears to be working so well. Stening believes that if the partnership can be made to work, the long-term benefits to both institutions can be huge, and not just in purely financial terms. “While we are able to offerinstitutions can be huge, and not just in purely financial terms. “While we are able to offer students and faculty the benefit of a completely different business and teaching perspective, we are also being given the opportunity to teach and shape the next generation of Chinese businesspeople.”
French business school EM Lyon has gone an ambitious step further with its entry into the mainland market. Its global entrepreneurship programme aimed at the pre-MBA student is in partnership with Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and Babson College in the US. Over the course of a year, students study at all the partner campuses, beginning in France and ending up in the US, giving them exposure to business methodologies and cultures in key European, Asian and North American markets.
That gives the schools major logistical headaches. “We have three schools working together in different time zones, with different cultures and traditions in the classroom,” says programme director Frederic Delmar. “This is our first year actually running the programme, but our fourth year of preparation and co-operation. You have to really get to know your partners to make something such as this run smoothly, and that means a substantial investment of time and effort from everyone involved. But it is effort that really pays dividends in the programme itself.”
A veteran of international business school partnerships, Mike Hall is director of the EMBA- Global Asia Programme at the University of Hong Kong. Working with two partners, London Business School in Britain and Columbia School of Business in the US, he empathises with Delmar’s comments about the effort needed to make an international partnership run smoothly. “Time zones play havoc,” he says. “We have conference calls around the programme itself, marketing and admissions three times a week, and always at nine in the evening or even later. And I get to sit in on all of them.”
His view is that, despite the challenges faced by both local and overseas partners, the continuing demand for programmes that bridge the East-West gap means they will not be going away soon.
“The fact that the outside world can no longer afford to ignore China’s business community and vice versa has created an ongoing need for multicultural leaders,” Hall says. “People such as that do not just spring out of the ether. Take, for example, one of our students who was born in China, brought up in the US, where he went to West Point, and ended up commanding troops in South Korea.
“He’s now in China handling a greenfield tech start-up, but he would be the first to admit that he will only fulfil his true potential through formal business education.”