What's Your Global IQ?

A recent survey explores how business schools are increasing their students’ global intelligence—and how they’re re-evaluating their own.

What's Your Global IQ?

Business educators are experimenting with both direct and indirect ways to increase the global IQ of their MBA students. But what makes an MBA program global? Like many business schools, we’ve been exploring that question for many years at The George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C.

A team of GW researchers recently conducted a study to discover how business schools are increasing their own global intelligence, making the transition from simply offering global courses and components to integrating “global” throughout the entire program. They analyzed the Web sites of a sampling of MBA programs in the Financial Times’ top 30 and surveyed 34 program administrators at MBA programs in the FT’s top 100.

Although the survey’s sample size is small, its findings indicate that business schools are re-examining and rethinking their programs in terms of global content. It’s a trend that promises to inspire the introduction of innovative approaches in MBA programs worldwide.

The Appeal of Direct Exposure

Most programs in the FT’s rankings offer “direct” global exposures. The study classified direct exposures as short global tours, study abroad offerings, exchange programs, overseas consulting projects, and internships.

Schools promote their global tour and study abroad opportunities the most prominently—especially short programs that last one to two weeks and offer academic credit—because they inspire the greatest student interest. The survey found that a little more than 85 percent offer exchange programs with partner schools, and 79 percent offer short-term MBA study tours to various countries. Internships and consulting practicums were options in the programs of slightly more than 67 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

Even so, only just over 14 percent of respondent schools make study abroad mandatory for all MBA students. Schools where these opportunities are elective see the highest participation rates for short-term global study offerings: Just over 43 percent reported that 20 percent to 40 percent of their MBA students participated in at least one study tour, while 26 percent of schools reported that 40 percent to 60 percent of students participated.

However, participation rates in longer term formats are much lower. More than 70 percent of respondents noted that participation rates in their study abroad and exchange programs, international internships, and research/consulting projects were 20 percent or less of their MBA student body. Even so, schools are making those opportunities available. Students at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia can choose to spend a semester at school in one of more than 153 countries, and at the London Business School, 35 percent of second-year MBAs spend a term abroad. Students in the International MBA program at the University of Chicago in Illinois must spend one term studying abroad.

More Emphasis on Indirect Exposure

More schools reported that they’re paying greater attention to “indirect” global exposures, which represent tools at the core of a global MBA program. These tools fall into three categories:

  1. Curriculum—the integration of theory and application of global and cross-cultural topics in core courses, cases, and modules.
  2. Faculty—the hiring of scholars with experience in and knowledge of multiple cultures and business environments.
  3. Students—the recruitment and enrollment of a heterogeneous, multicultural, multinational student body.

The study found that 90 percent or more of FT-recognized MBA programs report placing emphasis on these areas. For example, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology achieves its global focus, in part, through the international makeup of its students and faculty: 80 percent of its MBAs come from outside Hong Kong, and its 120 faculty include scholars from 16 countries.

The Tuck College of Business at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire, conducts outreach to increase awareness of its programs in areas such as Europe, India, and Mexico to attract an international student body and faculty. Tuck also hosts regular series and forums that convene visiting executives and scholars, students, and faculty to discuss issues affecting international business and public policy.

Many schools also report that they support student organizations with international perspectives and that host international guest speakers, seminars, and other events. A number of schools also offer certificates, or concentrations, as options within their full-time MBA programs—global management is proving to be among the most popular.

For example, the Haas School at U.C. Berkeley offers a certificate in global management that requires MBA students to participate in an overseas experience, complete on-campus coursework in international business, and develop proficiency in a language other than English. MBAs at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration in Gainesville can earn their certificates by completing on-campus coursework and six credits of study at a partner school abroad.

Unlike Haas, Warrington does not include a language requirement in its program. That’s the case at many schools—courses in language and culture are still not as popular as other indirect exposures.

Even so, these types of courses appear in a small majority—51 percent—of programs, and some are joining Haas in making language proficiency a requirement. At London Business School, for instance, every graduate must show competency in one language other than English, by taking language courses at the school or by studying independently. HEC Paris offers intensive language courses, and native French speakers and fluent non-native French speakers alike are required to learn another language unless they are already trilingual.

Establishing Best Practices

Respondents shared a number of their best practices on the survey. These approaches, they noted, increase their students’ “cultural competence” and prepare them to function effectively in the global arena.

Integrating travel into core courses: While the typical international visit lasts one to two weeks, many schools now make these trips part of semester long courses. Students conduct research, complete coursework, attend sessions about the country, or interact with consulting clients before they depart on their study tours. They attend debriefing sessions after their return.

For example, the Wharton School offers its Global Immersion Program, which attracts approximately 135 first-year MBAs each year. Students spend the first five weeks of the program studying a particular global region; they then spend four weeks experiencing that region firsthand.

Although they can be challenging to arrange, global consulting projects are quickly becoming among the most popular global experiences, combining study with real-world problem solving. IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, makes its international consulting project compulsory in its MBA program. At the Tuck School, student teams have completed 135 on-site global consulting engagements in more than 45 countries.

Increased interest in courses on social responsibility has given rise to a range of consulting projects that focus on improving the quality of life in emerging markets. Columbia University’s Chazen Institute of International Business in New York City holds a 12-week Master Class Program in which student teams complete consulting assignments and case study work. A recent Master Class focused on private equity and entrepreneurship in Africa. Students spent the semester preparing for a two-week field trip to sub-Saharan and North Africa, where they worked with local firms. At MIT’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, teams of students work with entrepreneurs in particular sectors of emerging markets—for instance, global health delivery in Africa.

Offering a “menu” of options: Schools are finding a menu-style approach works best to serve diverse student populations. The programs surveyed typically offer trips to four to six countries in one academic year and provide at least four or five ways for students to meet global experience requirements. In some cases, students are asked to apply to different, selective opportunities by submitting statements that outline how they think particular global exposure options will fulfill their educational and professional objectives.

Adding time for reflection: Some schools ask students to keep introspective “cultural diaries” of their travel experiences.

Encouraging students to take the lead: Some schools reported that their students are even arranging their own activities, such as lunchtime sessions where international classmates share their knowledge about their home countries. In many programs, students also are allowed to design their own international programs, choosing among electives at their home schools and partner schools abroad, and choosing the duration of international study. In this way, they can tailor a program to best suit their schedules, objectives, and time and financial constraints.

Globalization Is Risky—And Necessary

This study reflects a small sample of schools, but its findings still highlight the areas of innovation and change required to build a global MBA program. Schools making the transition into a global curriculum will face risk and uncertainty, not to mention dwindling revenue during the current recession.

To make this transition successfully, schools must assess and manage their faculty’s reaction to curricular change without alienating anyone. They must involve students as integral players from the beginning, allowing them to provide feedback, contribute to the change process, and take ownership of the results. Most important, school administrators must anticipate the operational challenges of implementing new curricula, which will impact everything from advising to student services to staffing.

But in spite of these challenges, globalization is the key for a business school to remain competitive. The failure to prepare a global workforce will render an MBA program irrelevant sooner rather than later.

Robert F. Dyer is professor of marketing at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C. M. Murat Tarimcilar is GWSB’s associate dean of graduate programs and professor of decision sciences. The complete findings of the survey can be found in “Global Exposure in Leading MBA Programs,” chapter 12 of the book Real Learning Opportunities in Business School and Beyond

Ian Cropp is a second-year MBA candidate at The George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C.