Soapbox

November 26, 2012 12:03 am

Although daunting, multi-school partnerships are the way ahead

International alliances demand commitment and compromise

There are still some in the business school community who believe that a single institution can deliver international programmes that provide a “whole-world” experience and in-depth insight into what it is like to operate across global markets. I do not happen to be one of them.

My view is that the best way to provide a truly global business education is through an international alliance in which partners participate equally in the educational process. Yet, despite the increasingly frequent heralding of alliances by business schools, truly successful programmes of this kind are still relatively thin on the ground. And too many attempts to set up and sustain them end in the disappointment and rancour of a messy divorce.

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Isn’t this all rather embarrassing, considering how much time business schools spend teaching students and executives how to operate globally and build effective international teams? Aren’t business schools in danger of looking like the physicians who, rather urgently, need to heal themselves?

So perhaps, like the students and participants on our programmes, deans and directors need to return to first principles.

What is often forgotten amid the enthusiasm and goodwill surrounding the start of an alliance is just how difficult it is to create and maintain one. Napoleon once said that he would rather fight an alliance than be part of one, but he was eventually defeated by an alliance. The benefits of partnerships can be substantial – but to achieve these benefits, they must be carefully managed.

Most business schools entering into joint ventures tend to start – correctly – by seeking other schools that dovetail with their own offerings, aims and values. But what often gets overlooked is that any venture of this kind is, at heart, based on individuals who live and work on different continents, have different cultural backgrounds and have different ideas, expectations and assumptions. Ensuring that they all pull together as a team calls for considerable commitment and a genuine willingness to compromise.

Such teams only work if they are based on equality and mutual respect. Every dean harbours the belief that their school is the best, but there is no place for egos in an international partnership of equals. Approaching such a venture with the agenda that all schools are equal, but some are more equal than others, is likely to ensure that the project is shortlived.

And do not assume that because English is – at least for now – the global lingua franca of business, it is therefore an infallible method of communication. George Bernard Shaw is believed to have commented that England and America were two countries divided by a common language. In the ever-shrinking world of 21st-century global business, communication is becoming exponentially more complicated. Adding cultural differences to communications where most individuals are not speaking their native language adds to the challenge.

In addition, any educational joint venture of this nature, like any business, needs to balance global with local. Not all subjects need be taught on an international basis: Do business schools really need to take someone to the other side of the world to explain how business statistics work? Schools need to understand which part of their educational offering will be “global” (the same for all) and which will be “local” and offered in a local way to all students. “Local” residencies, presented by engaged and committed local partners, are the best way to ensure international study goes beyond educational tourism and delivers a sound return on the personal and financial investment made to accomplish them.

An equal international alliance where no one school dominates also means that students in global teams will understand what it means to work in a context where their cultures give them no unearned dominance.

International, multi-school partnerships are the way ahead, no matter how challenging or daunting they may be to organise and operate. If business schools are able to master the co-operation that such partnerships demand, what better advertisement could they offer in demonstrating how to build and sustain global enterprises and international teamwork? To teach global business with credibility and authority, business schools must show that they can conduct it themselves and operate in diverse global teams such as those in place in multinationals around the world.

The writer is associate dean of the UNC Kenan-Flagler OneMBA programme.

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