Echoing his ultimate boss Premier Zhu Rongji, State Economic and Trade Commission vice-minister Chen Qingtai recently commented that 200,000 MBA holders of international calibre would help the Chinese economy climb another rung up the ladder.
It is not only would-be graduates who have taken up this call to arms; international business schools too are eagerly seeking ways of serving a market which, over the. longer time, could prove highly lucrative.
Demand is growing. China aims to add 10,000 more MBA slots next year. It. now .has 56 MBA programmes. with anything between. 100 and 500 students a year on the two-year programmes.
So 'far international schools' methods have largely centred on affiliations with mainland universities and other joint venture programmes, sometimes in conjunction with banks or multinationals looking for a stream of trained management. The pioneer in the MBA field is the.China-Europe International Business School, a joint venture funded by the EU and Shanghai municipality.
But new schools are looking for different ways to approach China. Encouraged by a recent edict that one-quarter of all MBA courses should he based on case studies where students look at real business scenarios to deduce best practices Western business schools are spearheading their thrust. with written materials and plans to go `live' via interactive television.
At the. Richard Ivey School of Business, which like other course providers. has established partner-ships with mainland universities, the chosen modus operandi is videoconferencing, something it has employed in Canada over the past three years.
This is unlikely to be unrolled soon in China, given the still rudimentary fibre optic infrastructure, political sensitivities and high costs involved. However, the school regards it as the best means of providing interactive teaching in the mainland..
In the shorter-term, it is establishing a strong foothold with case study materials. Mr Paul Beamish. director of the Asian management institute at Richard Ivey, who spent much of this summer in China promoting the materials, says the response has been "overwhelming".
"We are onto something here," he adds. "There really is a latent demand for business teaching material in China. The days of pure lecturing as a method of learning have had their day. China needs a more interactive approach because they need people who can make decisions and that's the way the case study method teaches you."
Videoconferencing Richard Ivey-style means using split screens, thereby stimulating discussion between different sites, and projecting other classes onto blank walls to give the impression of all students (virtually) being in the same room.
Interest from multinationals
According to Joseph DiStefano, professor of organisational behaviour at Richard Ivey, videoconferencing tackles a number of challenges posed by teaching in China, including the size of the country and the need for quality education that stresses decision-making and not rote-learning. Even on the internet, he notes, there is no immediate sense of real-time exchanges or being the first to crack a problem in front of a room full of other people.
Another advantage of vi deoconferencing is that it exposes students and professors to different nationalities and cultures. This equips them to operate in today's cross-cultural world ?picking up the subtleties ofcommunication and understanding different nuances. This, he says. is as relevant between Hong Kong and Chinese citizens as anywhere else.
More practically from the point of view of education providers, it overcomes the common pitfalls of obtaining visas and exemption from travel restrictions within China. Professors can go out for two weeks and hook up to different sites, thus covering all centres on one trip, without making any inter-country flights.
"It's more than a dream because we've done it," says DiStefano. "We have companies very interested in this." He sees the main obstacle to be cost rather than infra structure fibre optic cables already exist in Beijing and Shanghai, he points out. A cash shortfall could possibly be overcome with help from the private sector multinationals which themselves are involved in China and have a stake in the education of local executives.
"We have already had expression [of interest] from multinational corporations because the biggest issue [in China] is training and development of competent managers," DiStefano says. "The market is big, but the needs are even bigger."
Richard Ivey recognises the costs are high and that there are political sensitivities of using fibre optic cables for its own ends. However while it reckons these issues can be overcome, several experienced education providers do not think this approach is viable in the short-term.
"Videoconferencing is not financially feasible and it is not feasible from a regulatory standpoint," says Mr Ira Cohen, vice-president of Universal Ideas Consulting in Beijing.
The case study route
Case studies, the major focus of the international schools pursuing China, were previously used on an ad hoc basis in the mainland's MBA programmes. That has changed following an edict from the State Education Commission, which advocates that 25 per cent of all courses should use the case study method.
"That's lit a fire under people trying to figure out how to do this," says Beamish. He reckons it is a task which is 100 times easier than it was when he first began, in the I 980s under the auspices of the World Bank. "It's not the massive impediment that people think."
At the Kellog-HKUST programme in Hong Kong, a substantial part. of the teaching is given. over to China case studies. Its cases are derived in part from Asia Law and. Practice, a publisher specialising in legal practices, and it is also starting to build its own resources helped by strong interest from the faculty.
Hong Kong University's Business School is also devoting vast resources to building up a library of China case studies, aided in part by government funds. One deterrent to typical published case studies is the cost: according to deans at the Shanghai-based CEIBS, an individual Harvard case study costs US$5 although Richard Ivey is offering an entire book for this price. So far, most are written in English with a view to translating them into Chinese.
Language, however, is not the main bu4gbear.. Putting the case studies together is more of a challenge than it would be to pre-pare similar dossiers on Disney Corporation or GM, but those involved insist the problems are not insurmountable.
The alumni network
Case leads are taken up, as they would be in other parts of the world, by accessing media articles or through alumni networks or sponsor programme of companies which have expressed an interest in supporting training in China. .
The- route that is proving useful in China is the alumni network. Most well-known business schools have large pools of former students in Hong Kong, where MBA graduates of ian/ad; London and Insead are employed across the corporate spectrum.
These people in turn will have links into China, either through their own companies or through distributor or other arrangements.
Beamish says the net is wider: those who have studied anywhere in Canada, he says, will have heard of Ivey and that gives his school a potential `alumni' base in Hong Kong of about 100,000 people.
Mr. Malcolm Warner, who teaches on China for the Cambridge, UK, MBA, says questionnaires are largely unsuccessful –they are seen as time consuming and also dangerous. given that the information required may be state secrets or restricted material.
Rather, he prefers to take several companies withiir a single industry, or a 'model' key enterprise, such as Sinopec or Shanghai Petrochemical, and draw out themes.
Convincing managers to talk can be difficult, says Beamish. In the China context this is new? at least in the state-owned enter-prises and they are under so much pressure themselves right now to justify their existence that there's a natural. tendency not to talk about problems or do anything that might cause embarrassment."
This is usually overcome, he says, by assurances nothing will be released without the company's signed agreement. If that fails, a company name can always be disguised something Richard Ivey has resorted to in a couple of cases. Building a platform of trust facilitates the information flow, and the key way of doing this is securing a personal introduction — hence the value of the alumni.
These links are all very well but the key issue comes back to the skills and experience of professors. Cohen points to the shortcomings of non-local professors whatever their expertise which shows up in the calibre of case studies they write. Cohen's view is that only CEIBS has had success in this area; other case studies, he reckons, "lack substance".
"They can titillate students, they can be helpful for generic or training purposes, but they are not going to be in the forefront of leadership making, because China changes every six months, if not every three months," he adds. "We have the situation of millions being displaced by floods, which changes the whole reality. Case studies [done by "outsiders') miss a lot of the under-rooted variables on which real decisions are made."
Trepidation on the part of enterprises and companies has been dispelled partially by Zhu Rongji who has publicly emphasised the need for China to draw from the best practices and experiences in the West.
Comments such as those by Chen are also a help. "It has become increasingly clear that if we cannot nurture managerial talent of' international calibre, we will not be able to develop enterprises which are internationally competitive," he said.
Finally, there is the element of vested interest. Some companies regard the input of professors as free consulting from a neutral but skilled party. At best, they welcome this sort of questioning.
"We are not doing anything radical. We are not asking for their patents. Indeed, corn-panics welcome us because they view it almost as free consulting," says Beamish.
As far as financial information is concerned, despite China's failure to embrace international accounting standards on.a mass scale, accounting records are maintained which (assuming the books have not been cooked) give useful additional information to those preparing the case study.