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Over the past year, thousands of MBA students will have travelled overseas with the aim of ensuring that they graduate as well-rounded global business people.

Some students will have been immersed in months-long programmes that require learning a foreign language before moving on to in-depth overseas corporate consulting projects. Others will have been sent to spend a few weeks or months at an overseas partner school. Some will have been challenged by an overseas consulting project. But in the worst-case scenarios, labelled “MBA tourism”, some students will have had little time to do anything but stare out of an air-conditioned coach window at people living in poverty during a week-long tour of a developing country.

Every business school insists their own international offering is enormously beneficial. But there are huge differences between what is on offer and there is much debate on their respective benefits.

Henry Mintzberg, professor of management studies at Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, who is renowned for his rejection of conventional MBA education, has strong views on the topic.

“Taking the inexperienced into situations they can barely understand is voyeurism. And that includes what is so common: giving them a speech by some famous person so they can go home and boast about it.”

Thomas Pugel, vice-dean for MBA programmes at NYU Stern, would disagree. NYU Stern offers a range of international experience including one or two-week elective courses called “Doing Business in …” which offer a mix of faculty lectures, corporate visits, speakers and cultural visits – something that sounds somewhat similar to what Prof Mintzberg was describing.

But Prof Pugel insists the DBI experiences are worth it. “A week or two in the country is noticeably better than trying to study it from afar.”

He believes that what distinguishes a good overseas programme from a bad one is not the length of time spent in another country, it is the academic component, something he says NYU Stern takes very seriously.

It would be hard to take a one-week international trip more seriously than Harvard Business School. In 2012 it launched the Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development as a compulsory course for all MBA students. Students only spend a week in the target emerging market country but start working on their design of a product or service months beforehand. They have to validate their proposal while in their target project and make a formal presentation to senior management at the company’s local offices, and then spend time reflecting on their experiences once they return. Unlike the NYU Stern offering, Field is a compulsory element that has been built into the curriculum. It spans a full year and is funded by Harvard.

John Quelch, professor of business administration at HBS and former dean of Ceibs, defends the short amount of time Harvard MBAs spend in country.

“There was a view put forward some years ago that you needed six months in a culture before you could understand much of anything.

“Anything less than six months was not an experience that would enable you to operate across cultural boundaries with any success.”

“I do adhere to that view but I also think that the Field programme does not promise to deliver cultural literacy,” he says. “It’s as important to know what you don’t know as it is to become proficient at something.”

Whether an international experience is woven into the programme, as it is now at Harvard, or provided as an add-on that must be paid for, schools are reporting strong interest from students.

Babson College, which has been running trips overseas for MBA students for 15 years, reports that from 2011-12 to 2012-13 there was a 15 per cent rise in graduate students opting for international electives.

“And it’s not cheap, it’s expensive,” says Dennis Hanno, provost and senior vice-president at Babson. “I think the primary driver is the students themselves. We seem to have an insatiable demand.”

That insatiable demand might be blinding some students as to what might constitute a valuable international experience.

Prof Hanno has some advice; check that a long time is spent briefing and debriefing and look for a long-running programme that will be more likely to have engagement with local people.

He says, as an example, that Babson first took students to Ghana in 2001. “That was academic tourism,” he admits, recalling that on that first trip the students mainly interacted with one another. However, now that the trip has been running for more than a decade and Babson knows local people on the ground, he says Babson is able to provide a far more rewarding experience.

“I would encourage schools to work out how to create more impact,” Prof Hanno says.

Prof Quelch cautions against “box-ticking”. He would be suspicious of a school with a large roster of exchange schools. “That requires no imagination,” he says, and adds that it raises questions about educational standards.

Robert Dammon, dean of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, is also concerned about educational standards and says the school works with just two partner institutions – either WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany or Chinese University of Hong Kong – and students who choose to go are there for five weeks.

“Our view is that the academic component is very important,” he says, adding: “I don’t see what you can possibly get out of a week …I would rather they had no trip and bring in a tutor from overseas.”


Degrees of focus

For Kendall Roth, senior associate dean of international programmes at Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, the rush by many schools to expand the international element in MBA programmes has been exasperating.

“In some ways I find it a little frustrating when you look at MBA programmes. Every programme claims to have an international global focus and yet if you probe you find significantly varying degrees of what an international focus is,” he says.

The Moore programme sends its MBA participants overseas for four months of intensive language tuition, which is followed by a six-month corporate consulting internship in the target country.

Students can choose to learn Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, German and Japanese. Prof Roth says the school advises students to acquire prior language skills, adding that such advice is “very unusual for a US institution. In Europe it would be less unusual.”

“We believe language is the way to access and be effective in a foreign setting,” says Prof Roth.

Moore launched the programme as a masters in international business studies in 1975 and relaunched it as an international MBA (IMBA) in 2002.

“A one-week or two-week trip can be a very powerful thing for a student who has not had that kind of exposure. That being said, there’s a substantial difference between opening someone’s awareness and being fluent in a culture,” adds Prof Roth.

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