Seduced by the glitz of global programmes

Business schools appear to be neglecting their own backyard. In Europe, local programmes have become the ugly duckling of the business school portfolio. Schools proudly list their range of international programmes, painstakingly developed to attract those with “global mindsets” from around the world. But what of the programmes designed to train young people to think that way in the first place? Not just the excellent undergraduate training available, but the part-time or executive MBAs, or executive education programmes, aimed at those working in the country where the programme takes place, taught in the local language to people of the same nationality.

Contrary to the beliefs of many, including some school administrators, these classes do not comprise those who were unable to get into a full-time MBA programme – where 90 per cent of students are international – but rather brilliant young businesspeople who have chosen a different path for a variety of reasons. Entrepreneurs, rising stars, inheritors of family businesses … in short, executives who are “in too deep” to take two years off. There is certainly no lack of diversity here, provided, of course, that we consider the concept to mean more than an individual’s passport.

Why is it then, that schools seem so willing to let their local competitive advantage slip in favour of putting all their resources into chasing “global” students or launching more international programmes? Surely we should also be working on our own backyards with at least the same zeal. Resting on our laurels and expecting eternal market dominance, particularly in times of recession and dynamic new competitors, is attempting to defy the very basic rules of economics, not to mention common sense.

And what of the role of business schools in society? Our society is undoubtedly global, but it is also local. Surely the positive impact a business school can have is greater in its national environment. Should it really be shirking this in favour of the lesser responsibility of lending a hand on a global level? An intrinsic part of the mission of many schools is to help improve the country’s businesses and businesspeople. This is not a responsibility discharged solely through alumni sessions to those lucky enough to have already graduated; instead, it also requires a continued commitment to providing top-quality programmes open to locals.

The paradox of the global schools is that no matter how hard they try to shake off those pesky local ties – that annoyingly accurate understanding of the local, regional or national way of doing things – in the hopes of reaching the holy grail of the ever more standardised global approach, local expertise has a nasty habit of cropping up. Indeed, this in-depth understanding based on many generations of experience in the national or regional market is the foundation of all top schools: Harvard Business School would not be Harvard Business School if it failed to understand business in the US or New England.

Even in international programmes teeming with “global mindsets”, schools should take care to include local business knowledge, not eschew it like the plague. A balance of the local and the global is essential in all programmes, even in those with diverse nationalities. In fact, it may help prevent students from becoming members of the new global business class who know how to do business everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

The era of globalisation has, of course, brought with it the need for all businesspeople to comprehend how the global pieces fit together – how national economies are tied to one another, how a consumer in Spain is different from one in South Korea, how cost efficiency can be obtained by outsourcing to India, among many, many other things – but this is something leading schools have long since taken extremely seriously in all their programmes.

Times are not easy for business schools – just look at the latest GMAT Application Trends Survey or consider the recent issues with school endowment funds. In times of reduced resources, schools should be careful not to dismiss “local” programmes in favour of the glitz and glamour of international ones. A combination of the two is essential for business schools’ economic sustainability and more importantly, for their role in society.

Dr Josep M. Sayeras is director of the part-time MBA and professor of economics at Esade Business School.

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