Soapbox

September 25, 2011 7:45 pm

China’s schools must make the leap forward

Chinese academics hold the key and need to create a lively learning environment

Millward Brown’s BrandZ survey results for 2011 contained no fewer than 12 Chinese companies in the top 100 most valuable in the world. No mean achievement, but for Chinese companies to remain dominant in an increasingly open domestic marketplace and to succeed internationally, the country needs to produce more managers who have the skills and knowledge for business expansion.

Yet there is a dearth of Chinese managerial talent, especially on the international stage.

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What can business education in China offer to fill this yawning gap? Nearly all of the 100 or so universities in China appear to have a business or management school not too dissimilar to those of the west. However, it is only the top 10 per cent of these institutions that have made serious attempts to replicate the western business school learning experience and its more modern business school curriculum.

But, even at these leading Chinese business schools, the learning environment falls some- what short of that at comparable US institutions. This is despite the fact that many Chinese schools have brought in world-renowned academics.

Although finance and economics will always play a key role in business education, business and management today are more about communication, creativity, teamwork and cultural understanding, with decision making increasingly based on judgment and intuition and less on rational, analytic, quantified outcomes.

Business education in China therefore, needs to place people-oriented skills and cross-cultural management ability at the heart of most programmes. This means going beyond placing modules such as the management of change and entrepreneurship at the core of a programme.

There also needs to be a fundamental change in the teaching approach, especially where Chinese teachers are concerned. Organisational and consumer research in today’s volatile world favours qualitative (focus group, depth interview) rather than quantitative (structured questionnaire) techniques, yet Chinese business schools still focus on quantitative research and advanced statistical analyses far too much.

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Even though leading Chinese business schools have sent their academics to top US schools and have tried to replicate the US business education model, typically with a 20-30 page case study, far too little critical analysis and feisty in-class debate and discussion takes place. In typical western business schools a presentation merely whets the appetite of the argumentative and eager students watching. While the professor taking the class sees it as their responsibility to generate critical assessment and feedback. The end of the formal presentation is just the beginning as the team then starts to defend whatever arguments, judgments and decisions it proposed. Students learn so much more during heated debate and disagreement. Such a learning environment helps develop communication, team building and general managerial skills, as well as detailed knowledge.

Chinese academics need to be shown how to generate a lively, critical thinking, learning environment. In my experience, Chinese business students, when asked if they have any questions, appear shy and retiring. There is rarely a totally right or totally wrong answer for most business and management case study analyses and therefore, plenty of opportunity to air opinions.

Chinese academics hold the key. They need intensive training in order to develop an ability to generate a lively, almost electric learning environment, in which students are empowered to challenge each other at all times and feel comfortable and confident when taking on their own professor.

It is time for business education in China to follow the rest of Chinese society and move into the 21st century. An initial influx of western academics whose sole responsibility is to observe and then tutor leading Chinese academics is the urgently needed first step in what may be a long road.

Mike Bastin is a visiting professor at Tsinghua University and a researcher at Nottingham University’s School of Contemporary Chinese Studies.

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