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First offered in 1943, the executive MBA (EMBA) programme – a degree for working managers – was designed to meet the needs of the experienced executive. Through refinement over the past few decades, its reach has become increasingly international as organisations needed to develop a new type of business manager – one who could genuinely grasp and meet the challenges and opportunities presented by globalisation. This has led to the creation of dedicated international executive MBA programmes.

But in doing this, the model is in danger of creating too many business visitors instead – individuals who believe they know more than they actually do about the commercial impact of local cultures and circumstances, without regard to the sensitivities that define a market.

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Too many of these EMBA programmes that are branded as ‘international’ use a curriculum that offers a single “global model” with strategies that can be applied the same way to all regions and markets. Although global business is more closely connected than ever before, regions vary dramatically and even present significant opportunities with micro-markets. The ability of the global executive to understand and adapt to local preferences, policies and cultures is paramount to business success.

Today business leaders need practical experiences within multiple geographies to grasp fully the extent of these differences. International executive MBA programmes should reflect this opportunity with an international curriculum that includes immersive study in multiple world regions.

Gaining a real understanding of how business actually takes place in key markets around the world is no longer a “nice to have” – it is essential. In fact, many international EMBA programmes are not providing the global education the executives and their employers should expect.

So what should schools be doing? First, ensure that international executive MBA participants receive exposure to the front-line in different countries. Rather than cosy chats with local executives over lunch or carefully managed tours of a large company headquarters, students should apply their studies to solve actual business challenges. This will require schools to align with local companies on specific projects to understand the daily reality of life and commerce in that location.

Second, work in true partnership with local schools, not only to provide teachers, corporate connections and accommodation, but also to collaborate to design a curriculum that allows participants to understand the local regional and cultural idiosyncrasies that make markets unique.

Third, design study teams that reflect the global structure of multinationals. Rather than organise teams of students in the same geography, programmes should assemble students to collaborate with teammates across significant time zones and varied communication channels. Employers now expect executives to manage virtual teams with the same level of success as in-person teams.

Finally, ensure that participants have the opportunity to experience and learn about multiple regions of the globe to sharpen their thinking about commonalities in global business, while at the same time understanding the unique challenges and opportunities in each of those regions. What companies of all sizes need now, and what they are turning to business schools to help create, are executives who can piece together a global jigsaw of talent, material resources and business models for maximum benefit, who know how to put together and manage international teams, who see themselves as citizens of the world and who can envision and lead successful present and future companies. It is a requirement of business leaders today to think globally, but act with local sensitivity to the needs of an ever-changing marketplace.

For the business school community this is quite simply one of the most exciting and meaningful challenges we have been offered in recent years. It is one that we need to address boldly and immediately.

The author is associate dean, OneMBA programme at Kenan-Flagler Business School, UNC Chapel Hill.

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