If an MBA education is like a strong pair of hiking shoes, helping the wearer to stride more confidently through treacherous business terrain, then business schools are the cobblers – and a lot of cobblers were selling shoes in Shanghai in November.
Dozens of foreign b-schools join two “MBA tour” roadshows every year for the opportunity to meet thousands of MBA candidates in cities all over the world. One of the two tours was in Shanghai on the ninth of November, while the Tsinghua-INSEAD EMBA (TIEMBA) program, based in Beijing, held an information session a few days later.
Fewer shoe-shoppers showed up for the tour event this year than last, but the TIEMBA folks enjoyed a full house. Why was that? Historically during economic downturns, more people apply for full-time programs, because their careers are languishing, while fewer people apply for executive MBA (EMBA) programs, because struggling companies scale back EMBA sponsorships. One might expect that the tour event would have been mobbed, because it focuses on attracting full-time students for study overseas, and the TIEMBA event less well attended.
Professor Patrick Moreton, who runs one of the best joint-venture EMBA programs in China (Olin-Fudan), suggests one possible explanation for fewer attendees at the tour event: As China’s economy becomes more globally relevant and powerful, people here may be increasingly reluctant to step off their China career paths for a few years to join full-time programs overseas, particularly when the overseas programs may feature material that’s becoming less and less relevant to China’s fast-moving business environment.
The full house at TIEMBA’s session could be down to a number of factors. It costs nothing to go along to an information session, plus one may get in a bit of networking on the side – only TIEMBA knows how many other people in the room that evening were, like me, not actual candidates. And the economy here is far more robust than economies in the West – China’s b-schools report that enrollments in their own EMBA programs rose sharply in 2009.
In the TIEMBA case though, the Tsinghua side of the partnership contributes not only a powerful Chinese university brand, but also Chinese faculty teaching about the China-specific business environment. As the global economy evolves Chinese characteristics, we can expect more and more shoe shoppers (and their sponsors) to seek such China-specific relevance. Other examples in China today include Moreton’s own program, which combines globally proven theoretical structure with a cohort of China-based managers, who apply the global perspectives to the China environment. A program operated by another Western b-school as a JV with Shanghai Jiao Tong University has appointed a Shanghai-born academic director, who is also publishing on recent China business developments.
Are the masses of foreign b-schools ready to evolve to reflect the changing global reality? In theory, b-schools should be world leaders at managing change and globalization, at adapting to changing market realities, since they research and teach these subjects. Yet they often prove poor at cobbling their own shoes. One data point: In their addiction to rankings, the b-schools create a precise analog to publicly traded companies that narrowly focus on the next quarterly earnings report at the expense of sustainable development.
Add now to the b-school’s challenges an ascendant China. In developing China relevance, foreign b-schools face some daunting challenges, including a severe shortage of qualified faculty and good cases or other publications about the Chinese business environment. And Chinese faculty teaching in global-level programs can be a double-edged sword – many are unqualified to teach in a modern, global university environment
Nonetheless, the market direction is clear, and b-schools that fail to respond will prove the truth of the aphorism, “the cobbler’s children go barefoot.” A few years ago, one student in a Sino-foreign JV MBA program said to me, “This school teaches globalization. Why are they so bad at it themselves?”
In the coming years, we’ll see foreign b-schools that do have strategic vision, and the shoe-making stamina to implement such vision despite bureaucratic inertia, continuously enhance their China relevance. Those that don’t will condemn their children, their MBA programs, to a long, barefoot hike on rocky terrain.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.