September 7, 2008 6:52 pm

Soapbox: The globalisation challenge

Many business schools seem to believe that packing the classroom with international students is the answer to the globalisation challenges they face. In a recent survey I conducted of the websites of 30 leading business schools, 25 highlight the diverse countries of origin of their students as an indicator of that commitment.

Schools take great pride in what I once heard Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University, describe as the “convening power” to attract students from around the world. Given the relative ease of measurement, national diversity is also one of the standard indicators in attempts such as that of the Financial Times to incorporate measures of internationalisation into business school rankings.

The focus has led to measurable results. For example, I watched the international student percentages climb several times in the 25 years I was at Harvard Business School, to more than 30 per cent.

But an approach to globalisation focusing on internationalising the student body is incomplete and potentially dangerous.

For instance, given the integrationist bias at most business schools, Turkish and French classmates may try to deepen each other’s understanding of the mutual economic benefits of Turkey moving towards membership in the European Union. But the French student may not fully convey the religious mistrust – unworthy, perhaps, but undeniable – that makes French politicians unlikely to agree. And the Turkish student may not reflect the resentment among many Turks of what they see as EU double standards.

In other words, what may result if one simply mixes up students from different countries is a global elite with a shared misunderstanding of the way the world works, rather than a shared understanding.

Most of the schools that I have looked at do try to mix up the composition of study groups, but attempts to influence what really happens in the classroom are either limited or unsatisfactory, or both.

The other globalisation levers many schools have actively pulled – forming international joint ventures or setting up cross-border treks or projects – can be read, like the reliance on student diversity, as substitutes for engaging with the hard question of what to do on content.

In fact, a focus on process over content may make it harder rather than easier truly to globalise business school curricula because it feeds scepticism among research-oriented faculty. The low status of globalisation-related topics is perhaps the biggest barrier to embedding it into MBA curricula, and is not going to change until we make progress on identifying what the distinctively global content is for which we want to carve out a place.

One indicator of what still has to be done is a recent analysis of the core curricula at 10 leading business schools, which concluded that while there was significant convergence in most functional areas in the coursework, there was virtually no convergence in how to handle globalisation-related issues.

To make matters worse, some schools that claim to be doing a lot to globalise their curricula may be exaggerating. One US business school I studied claimed that more than 30 per cent of the case studies in the first year of its MBA programme had significant non-US content. But cases with a cross-border component were only 15 per cent of the total. And cross-border issues were of high importance in only 6 per cent of the cases.

Pankaj Ghemawat is professor of strategic management at Iese Business School in Spain. To comment on this article go to www.ft.com/soapbox; to watch Prof Ghemawat’s lecture on global strategy in the first of two FT Business School videos go to www.ft.com/iese

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