Soapbox

March 18, 2013 12:00 am

Western business schools have a crucial role to play in China

Institutions should tailor the way they teach entrepreneurship

Every business school in the western world places enormous stock in its global appeal, but how many of these institutions are genuinely catering for the market they probably covet above all others?

Latest OECD figures show that in 2010 the number of students studying internationally exceeded 4m for the first time, having topped 3m just five years earlier. The likes of India and Africa may have emerged as key targets, but it is China, inevitably, that demands special attention as the quest to expound the management wisdom of the west grows ever more competitive.

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China needs entrepreneurs, but the notion that it is already a hotbed of innovation is a myth: it is still an imitator. Last year the Wall Street Journal, remarking on the findings of an investigation by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, observed that the typical Chinese entrepreneur might still be regarded as a restaurant owner or a farmer.

It is the need for a more “visionary” outlook that makes the role of the west’s business schools so crucial to China’s transition from a labour-intensive to a knowledge-based economy.

Yet an increasingly pressing – and too often tacit – concern is whether Chinese students, because of their earlier education, encounter insurmountable obstacles to the sort of experiential learning widely considered necessary to develop entrepreneurial skills.

The rote-based, collectivist nature of the Chinese education system is often accused of stifling creativity. Whereas western individualism is presumed to encourage freedom and autonomy, the Chinese approach is said to deter self-efficacy and risk-taking. The argument, in essence, is that there is a different “learning style” – one that might not lend itself to the art of making novel connections and foreseeing benefits and advantages within business settings.

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A recent comparative study by Nottingham University Business School followed two groups of students, one educated in the UK and the other in China, on an identical business school course in their home countries. It found that each group followed a distinct path after being exposed to creative problem-solving. The UK students appeared to progress straight to initiative-taking and action, whereas some of their Chinese counterparts responded by reflecting on their own competence and limitations. They conceived multiple reasons why they were insufficiently creative and why entrepreneurship was not and never would be their forte.

As these findings suggest, there may well be different “learning styles” between China and the west, and the respective influences of individualist and collectivist education systems may well be significant. But this does not mean that these disparities cannot be overcome. What it does mean is that western business schools that court and recruit Chinese students are letting them down if they do not try to take these disparities into account in the education they deliver.

To guard against this failing, an entrepreneurial education that is more grounded in “concrete experience” is needed. Any such experience could include visits to industrial zones and innovation parks, expert mentoring that stresses positives rather than reinforcing negatives, creative problem-solving based around teamwork and the synthesis of opposing “learning styles”. It is activities such as these that inspire in students a belief in one’s own aptitude for achieving tasks and reaching goals.

After all, there is no hard and fast rule that says the experiential learning journey must involve a fixed route. There are a number of essential “stops”, but the order in which they are visited is less important than the ultimate destination. The key for those students is to ensure that none of the “stops” becomes a terminus.

China plainly believes that western business schools are capable of furnishing it with the entrepreneurs and innovators that it needs. The duty of western business schools is to prove that belief is well-founded. It would be disingenuous of western business schools to welcome Chinese students with open arms while remaining unable to help fulfil every iota of their potential.

The fact is that everyone has some kind of innate facility for entrepreneurship. It is not a gift inexplicably bestowed at random. The trick lies in nurturing and maximising it, and a constant diet of lectures is not the answer. Those western business schools whose approach does not reflect this truth risk failing all concerned – themselves included.

Simon Mosey is a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Nottingham University Business School.

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