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Business in Context

May 16, 2011

A “vast abyss” exists in what we know about management education programs around the world, and “cross-border collaborative projects may yet prove to be the most underutilized mechanism with the greatest potential,” according to a recent report on the globalization of management education.

But the Global Business School Network, which since 2003 has linked colleges in the developed West to those in developing nations, with the goal of strengthening business education worldwide, is trying to realize that potential.

“Management is context-specific. We don’t live in a flat world; indeed, it’s quite hilly in a lot of ways,” said Dan LeClair, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which issued the aforementioned report. “We don’t live in a world where management education in one place should be the same as it is in another place. This notion of global best practices is in some ways a myth. What we do have is good practices that fit environments in context.”

Through the GBSN, 41 top business schools from different regions – though most are located in the United States and South Africa – can keep tabs on what business schools in developing nations are doing and team up with each other or with different local schools for research, case writing and student exchange.

“There are a lot of schools saying, ‘We need to have a better global approach or global initiative,’ but it’s hard to do on their own,” said Robert E. Kennedy, executive director of the William Davidson Institute, which runs most of the international programs at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Michigan's work with the University of Johannesburg came about through a network connection; college officials met each other through GBSN, but they carried out the resulting initiative themselves. The SALETTI Project's objective is to develop the student and faculty capacity in Johannesburg's Department of Transport and Supply Chain Management, an area of great strength at Michigan's William Davidson Institute. Also, the institute's nonprofit structure dedicates people and processes specifically to assisting in different types of capacity-building at numerous other developing-country business schools on a large scale. (It has helped promote private sector development in Cyprus, train embassy staff in Sri Lanka, and promote access to finance in the West Bank.) For Johannesburg, this entails departmental expansion in scope and course development, including a new master's in supply chain management program that is slated to launch this year.

The AACSB also noted in its report that research focused on business education in an international context is sorely lacking: only about 6 percent of articles published in the top 20 management journals from 2002-6 contain specifically cross-border content, the report says. What’s more, a single publication, the Journal of International Business Studies, contains more than a third of those articles.

But research is only one dimension of the partnerships. The network’s members – which in the United States also include the likes of schools at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, and Columbia, Duke and Ohio State Universities – also collaborate on case studies and student exchange. Member schools are located in Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Britain and 15 other countries.

At Michigan and under GBSN leadership, Kennedy has worked with a handful of business schools in developing countries to enhance their faculty members’ capacity through case writing. A couple of years ago, Michigan ran a program with six African schools, some of which were network members as well. After GBSN had run workshops for the schools on how to write and teach cases, Michigan worked with the faculty authors of the top five cases to revise and extend them. "The challenge was that, in most cases, they simply told a story about an entrepreneur," Kennedy said. "There was no puzzle to be solved, or clear teaching point."

Two cases were published. One examined women entrepreneurs in Rwanda, highlighting the banana wine business of one African woman grappling with different ways to grow her operation, such as increasing production, investing money in domestic marketing, or increasing exports in Africa. Students were asked to analyze the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the business venture, then consider the trade-offs or limitations associated with each option.

Despite the success of these case studies in Africa, it's not easy to apply this method, which is used to a great extent in developed countries, to developing ones. "The case study method does not transfer directly to the developing world, as most schools tend to be undergrad-oriented, and the students have less real-world experience than M.B.A.'s, and are reluctant to disagree with their teachers and fellow students," Kennedy said. "That makes having a productive case discussion a challenge. But with careful nurturing, it can work."

Case studies in Africa differ, of course, in their setting, which changes the context of the analysis. "There are lots and lots of cases that present basic business topics where the situation is based in the U.S. or Europe. Having a situation located in a developing country provides more flavor, and sometimes different issues," Kennedy said. "Analyzing a base of the pyramid market in Rwanda is very different from analyzing the market for tween clothing in suburban America."

Business education in general is very much dependent on location, said Jonathan Cook, executive director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, part of the University of Pretoria. “There’s a contextualization of business principles, and local economic, cultural and social and political realities,” he said. “They are areas of business that might need either greater attention or different attention. When you’re dealing, for example, with logistics, a business school in an emerging market would want to teach students how to cope with an inadequate infrastructure,” whereas that’s probably not necessary in North America.

But the biggest challenge specific to the cases is not location, Kennedy said. "There are a fair amount of cases, written by U.S. academics and featuring U.S. firms, that are set in developing countries," he said. "There are very few cases that feature local protagonists, working for local firms, analyzing developing countries. The GBSN casewriting initiative is an effort to work with locals to make sure that this perspective is presented."

Kennedy is also considering setting up a research project on the role business schools play in promoting development and investment. "The main point would be, can we measure the economic impact of improving a local business school in a transitioning economy, like Rwanda or Bali or Bangladesh?," Kennedy said. "It's not a simple thing to figure out."

A quarter of the GBSN’s member schools have joined in the last year alone, said Guy Pfeffermann, CEO of the network, and he hopes it will grow even more quickly in the coming years. There are many strong applicants in the pipeline, he said, from Europe, the U.S. and Latin America. But he also wants to see growth in some of the more underrepresented regions, like Asia and the Middle East. “Having some of the best schools is always a good way to attract others,” Pfeffermann said. “I think GBSN is a window and a bridge for these schools. It’s a window into markets which they may not know very well, and it’s a bridge to establish connections with local business schools with whom they may have interests in common. So it’s both a connector but also kind of broader, giving them a tool that they can use in order to learn more about the world of business out there.”

The strong presence of African schools in the network was a draw for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which joined GBSN in 2008, said Jim Dean, dean of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business. While the university was well-established internationally, before it joined the network its presence in Africa was lagging, Dean said. UNC has built alliances with those schools at two of the network’s annual meetings that took place in Africa, and he said the university has become more knowledgeable generally about business education in that growing area, in addition to sending students to Cape Town, South Africa, and Kenya to write cases. “One of the important things about the mission of GBSN ... is that it’s not intended to be a one-way, ‘Let’s have the Western schools help the African schools,' ” Dean said. “I just didn’t feel in good conscience that we could graduate students who never had the opportunity to learn about something that’s so important ... that some people see as the last frontier.”

LeClair said he thinks the GBSN will continue to be a force addressing the issues business educators face in a globalized world. “I think that in general, we will see not only more collaboration, but we’ll see collaboration in some spaces where we don’t currently see it,” such as doctoral education and research, he said. He added that existing collaborations, which often simply emerge from one enterprising faculty member and are specific to one particular activity, can be strengthened by extending to different aspects of student and faculty exchange, joint programs and research.

In other words, schools need to think about holistic strategies. “We think that this is an important area for every business school to continue to focus on. It’s a little like golf,” LeClair said. “Everybody can get better at it. There’s no single point or bar at which you could say a school has mastered something like this. Even the best golfers in the world can get better.”

 

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