Bruce Stening is professor of management and international dean of the Beijing International MBA (BiMBA) program at Peking University, a joint venture with Belgium-based Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School. He spoke to China Economic Review about teaching business students how to learn.
Q: Why and how did you come to China?
A: I’ve been coming back and forth to China for over 20 years. The reasons for relocating were professional and personal. My wife is Chinese and we have two children we wanted to grow up bilingually, and the only place you can really do that is China. So we came back for that reason. Professionally speaking, given that so much of my work has been in East Asia, I figured that this is the place to be. That’s partly the development of business schools here, which are in the takeoff phase, and also for doing research on China.
Q: Your title is dean, and you are also a professor of management with responsibilities for teaching and research. How do your responsibilities break down?
A: It’s a combination. It probably breaks down 40% teaching, 40% administrating and 20% research. As dean, I am responsible for the overall quality of the program, which is my main responsibility here. There’s also a China dean who has responsibility for operational issues: admissions, alumni relations and so on.
Q: How has your teaching experience been here in China?
A: I think the differences between pedagogical cultures is one of the biggest challenges here, particularly in regards to the Chinese candidates, to get them to realize that we are about learning, not teaching. Teaching is a transfer of knowledge, learning is creating knowledge together. Business academics have an important role in guiding people through the material, but ultimately the students have to contextualize it themselves. Book knowledge is not ultimately going to help them that much. In this field, of course, there are rarely definitive answers. In most of the things they need to know and be skillful at in their managerial careers, there are not answers, there are ways of making decisions, and we want to help them make the best decisions they can. They have to be active participants. For some people that is relatively easy. For others, not so easy.
Q: Has there been any improvement in attitudes and methology?
A: Yes, the transformation has been stunning. Twenty years ago the curriculum was mostly concentrated on economics and mathematical modeling of things like inventory and operational issues, optimizing manufacturing processes. Now there is much more emphasis on strategic thinking, marketing and people issues. As someone who specializes in organizational behavior, I think that there’s been a major step forward in understanding how organizations actually work. I think as the country has developed, people have become more individualistic and materialistic, and organizations need to become much more mindful of how to get more out of people. The very best people are in short supply and high demand. They can pick and choose. Organizations, be they local or international, need to pay attention to these issues. There’s growing recognition that in order to be competitive in the broader sense, they need to not only produce products that people want but also manage their enterprises in a way that makes employees more efficient.
Q: What is the biggest challenge of managing MBA programs in China?
A: I think the key success factor in a joint venture is partner compatibility. They need to have a similar vision and also similar standards. I think the fit for Vlerick with Peking University was very good. This is a world class university, one of the two best in China. Vlerick is a small but high-quality MBA program, ranked by the Economist as the tenth-best full-time MBA in the world last year. It’s not a highly recognizable name, it’s more a boutique, high-quality program. BiMBA is also relatively small, so there’s compatibility in terms of size. Standards in both places are high. I think the reason some schools run into trouble is they haven’t paid enough attention to standards. Chinese MBA consumers are much pickier now, as are employees. It’s not just a question of getting an MBA and putting it on the wall. The credential by itself doesn’t mean a lot. We and BiMBA have very similar views; there are no sticking points. The hardest challenges I think are maintaining high quality of intake and delivery. We live in a very competitive environment. You can’t be complacent, you need to be innovative. One of the big challenges I think is creating people who have a very sound knowledge of management and who can operate in China. And it’s not a question of getting it right and then it’s done. You need to be constantly aware of what’s going on.
Q: What differentiates BiMBA from other programs?
A: We are international. We don’t only have Chinese candidates, but also foreign candidates – maybe 40% of our student pool – which adds to our diversity. I think having local candidates mix with international candidates is a big advantage.
Q: Has it gotten easier to do research here? In the past many academics have complained that getting information out of Chinese firms is very difficult.
A: I just wrote a paper on the subject. It has been difficult. It’s not just difficulty getting information out of people. But we also have to realize different cultures frame different issues differently. A lot of foreign research in China has been na?ve. Now foreign researchers are doing better, but also many domestic researchers are first class. Either they went to a top domestic program or they are coming back from study abroad. And the rigor is increasing. It is getting somewhat easier to interview individuals, who have less to fear than they did before, but it’s still difficult to get information at the firm level, at the organizational level. And I think that will persist, that preference to be secretive. But receptivity is still higher than it was.