The study of culture – once the academic purview of anthropology and sociology – is capturing a more central role at New York University Stern School of Business in a new course that aims to prepare MBA candidates for global careers.

The course strives to give students an understanding of the impact that local customs and culture have on business, according to Bruce Buchanan, professor of business ethics at Stern.

“We want students to appreciate that there are significant and meaningful differences between cultures and that it takes time to find out what matters to different people,” he says.

“With so many cultures on the planet that you’re hoping to do business with, you have to do your homework. We can’t give students the answers, but we hope they come away with the understanding that this is something they have to do. It doesn’t just stop at the spreadsheet or the cash flow projection.”

The course, called global markets and normative frameworks, was first offered last semester. From next year it will become a regular part of Stern’s curriculum and will be open to students from NYU’s school of public service, its law school and its graduate school of arts and sciences.

The new course follows a trend of business schools placing more emphasis on concepts such as multiculturalism and globalisation to enable MBAs to compete in an increasingly international job market. “It’s a global marketplace for businesses and so it is for business students,” says John Fernandes, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the industry body.

Schools are tackling globalisation in different ways: some have introduced international exchange programmes where students spend a semester at an overseas university, others are simply giving the topic more classroom time, either in newly designed modules or incorporated into core classes on strategy and finance.

Most schools take a broad approach to teaching culture, according to Mr Fernandes. “The issue of cultural sensitivity is discussed, but [it is] more the idea that you need to be sensitive to different cultures to do business with them,” he says. “But NYU is going right to the cultural focus in an effort to impart a more global readiness on its student.”

Mr Fernandes questions whether students “should be learning about culture from business people, rather than anthropologists” but says it is an “exciting” class that is breaking new ground in business education.

“It makes sense this type of course would be tried in New York . . . It’s a cultural melting pot.”

The course was limited to 30 students and was co-taught by Maria Bartiromo, the TV personality and NYU alum, and Tim Collins, chief executive of Ripplewood Holdings, the private equity company. Speakers included Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Hank Greenberg, former head of AIG, the insurance group, and Graham Allison, political scientist at Harvard.

In one class Mr Greenberg spoke about his efforts to build relationships with China’s leaders beginning in the 1970s. This careful cultivation eventually led AIG – which was founded in Shanghai in 1919 – to reopen its doors in the country in 1992. “Seventeen years is quite a long sell, but people had to trust him, and they had to trust AIG,” says Prof Buchanan. “The point is that if you’re going to do something important and meaningful, it takes time. American culture operates very fast; other cultures do not. We were trying to bring these subtle, complicated, non-standard ideas into the classroom.”

In another session, the class examined the turnround of Japan’s Long Term Credit Bank, which started when a consortium of western investors – led by Ripplewood Capital Partners – purchased LTCB from the government. They installed new management and re-christened it Shinsei Bank with a mandate to branch out from long-term commercial lending.

A standard M&A course would have examined finding a market niche, says Prof Buchanan, but the Stern class looked at the psychological trauma the bankers suffered when the bank was taken over.

“The banks had been a tremendous source of national pride in Japan, and many [people] felt shame and stress as the banks fell apart,” he says.

“We wanted our students to see that different cultures see things differently. That kind of learning in a conventional business class is hard to pull off. The numbers part business schools do pretty well, but it was the cultural and political ideas that we were trying to get across.”

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