When Wisnu Wongsomboon wanted to “climb to another level” of management, he attended a senior executive short course.
“It’s kind of essential. It shakes you up, gets the creativity flowing, gives you an edge,” says the managing director of PTT Utility, an oil and gas conglomerate, based in Thailand.
Asia is awash with MBAs. Sometimes it seems almost everyone has an MBA plus the T-shirt, sports bag and car sticker. It provides a box of basic business tools and – from the right school – some useful job contacts. But will it help the high-level decision-maker drowning in global competition?
“I would say there are already far too many MBA programmes in Asia, certainly in Indonesia,” says Tanri Abeng, founder of Indonesia’s Executive Center for Global Leadership. “People are often simply trying to paper over the holes left by weak education systems. Even when that’s not the case, I really wonder how much practical use some people get out of them.
“Frankly I’d like to see more modular courses for people with more experience. That’s where enlightenment, real learning, takes place,” he adds.
That may be happening. Sasin Graduate School of Business in Bangkok, in a joint venture with Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University in the US, plans to open an advanced senior management school on the Thai resort island of Phuket within two years.
The idea is that small classes of executives will “take on leadership and become more visionary as opposed to just functional managers”, according to Dipak Jain, dean at Kellogg.
Professor Jain says the two partner schools have sensed the growing awareness of corporations in Asia of the need to manage risk and innovation, as well as increasing global interest in the region. The combination has provided an opportunity for those institutions able to roll out sophisticated short programmes.
Leading business schools have for some time quietly recognised that executive short courses, although requiring planning and inspiration to put together, can be lucrative. Leading schools such as Harvard and Wharton charge participants on short courses at least $1,000 a day. Sasin charges about half that but expects to lift its prices in Phuket.
The robust demand in emerging Asia for plain vanilla finance and information skills is being met by a host of minor new schools and online agencies, which compete on cost and volume. Slightly grander MBA programmes at hundreds of new schools of widely varying quality cater to wannabe executives.
Yet as Asian corporations have started to compete in multilayered markets and to develop their own brands, they have found themselves dealing with business problems of a wholly different order.
“Asian managers have discovered a world with no formulaic answers. Reflecting, being creative, have suddenly become very important,” says Narayan Pant, professor of Asian business and associate dean of executive education at Insead’s Singapore campus.
Professor Pant says demand for high-end executive education has come primarily from local corporations attempting to claw their way up the value ladder and multinationals eager to lift local talent on to a higher plane. Industry insiders now believe the executive education market in Asia is expanding at 20-30 per cent a year.
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology business school stresses location and relevance to draw Asian executives to its short courses.
“Our executives are looking for a speedy update, a jolt, an exchange with their peers. They want real insight, not just tips.Talent management is currently our very hot topic.
“Talent management is currently our very hot topic. Corporations have suddenly discovered that keeping and developing people can be a make-or-break issue,” says Betty Lau, director of executive programmes.
Increasingly Asian corporations want tailored private programmes so that their senior staff can thrash out real-life growth strategies and debate live innovations, says Ms Lau.
“When Asia is moving so quickly, companies want their managements to get their act together now, not later,” she adds.
The Executive Center for Global Leadership runs courses divided between the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, and Bali, taught by invited faculty. It claims many of Indonesia’s local CEOs as clients. Mr Abeng has not lacked critics of his multifaceted business interests but remains keenly aware of deficiencies in his country’s business elite.
“There’s a clear gap in understanding and sophistication between the requirements of the global market and the quality of people our universities produce.”
This gap, he says, has to be filled by high-quality executive education. “It’s not so necessary in places like the US because degree courses are much better and MBAs mean something. Here we have business courses coming out of our ears but the quality is stretched wafer thin,” Mr Abeng says.
It is no accident the Executive Center for Global Leadership runs partly on Indonesia’s pleasure dome of Bali. “A change of environment stimulates innovation,” argues Mr Abeng.
The designers of Sasin’s Phuket facility clearly expect their guests to be wooed by a sweeping beach and nearby golf courses.
“We don’t think you can learn about Asia in North America, but we can’t see why you can’t do it in a
nice place,” says Ian Fenwick, consultant and visiting professor.
However business courses fail or succeed on their ability to transform executives into better managers at the gut level.
“It’s a colossal waste of company money to put people in classrooms and try to dispense wisdom by the spoonful. It’s like teaching someone to ride a bike without giving them a bike,” says Prof Pant. “The point is to change behaviour and attitudes. The serious business schools can do this and that is why they can charge so much,” he adds.
Ultimately, centres of executive education in Asia must attract top faculty if they are to convince prospective students of the transformative qualities of their products.
Professor Fenwick is confident the Phuket venture will attract the best: “We’ve found a magic ingredient for attracting the very best faculty that has proven very effective in the past. We offer lots of money.”