Learning from the Inside

Educators emphasize that it takes more than “academic tourism” to prepare students to work effectively in global business environments.

The global experiences students want today are different from what they wanted ten years ago. Then, students were happy to visit a country where they’d never been for a few days, see the sights, interact with local culture, and return home “enriched.” Today, that kind of “academic tourism” isn’t enough, says Peter Rodriguez, director of the Darden Center for Global Initiatives at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Business students, especially, want to know what countries are like from the inside.

“We have to help students explore a region and culture more than they can on a mere study vacation,” says Rodriguez. “Students want to be in the mix—they want to be in the meeting rooms and on the shop floor. They want to work on actual projects and spend a semester helping an entrepreneur get his business off the ground.”

In response to demand for new kinds of global experiences, many schools are developing more involved, more hands-on models—and some are expanding the definition of what “global” means to business.

It’s All About Experience

Darden meets this demand through programs such as its Global Business Experience. Each GBE is a one- or two-week course for MBAs that takes place in either China, Europe, Central America, Egypt, Bahrain, or Israel. The school also offers its Darden Global Business Projects (DGBP), semester long courses in which MBA and EMBA students work on a business plan for entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Rodriguez always takes his DGBP students to either Nicaragua or El Salvador. Last year, for example, Rodriguez and a group of students worked with a Nicaraguan group that wanted to build low-cost, environmentally sustainable homes for low-income families. Not only did this project teach students how differently two cultures can view the same situation, but it presented a challenge that even Rodriguez didn’t anticipate.

After working all semester to secure funding for the entrepreneurs’ enterprise, the students excitedly went to their clients with the news that they had found an investor. Rodriguez and his students were shocked when the entrepreneurs refused to enter into the partnership.

“We discovered that in Nicaraguan culture, people do not trust an investor who’s not a close friend or family member. The concept of an equity partner made no sense to them,” he explains. “It was astonishing. They told us they’d rather have a loan, even though Nicaraguan banks charge exorbitant rates. We made some broad assumptions—we never imagined they wouldn’t want the funding!”

Business plans can look far too easy on the blackboard, says Rodriguez. Only when the students arrived in Nicaragua did they discover governmental and cultural obstacles that they didn’t expect—and often didn’t understand.

If a project doesn’t cause students to constantly question themselves and their assumptions, then it’s not meeting the objective of a global education, says Rodriguez. “As business faculty, we have to provide students with actual projects to work on for firms, with real opportunities to engage with the commercial culture in each region,” he says. “It’s rewarding—and it’s tough.”

We have to provide students with actual projects to work on for firms, with real opportunities to engage with the commercial culture in each region. It’s rewarding—and it’s tough. —Peter Rodriguez, University of Virginia

Teaching with Live Cases

The ten-week “live case” is a mainstay of the international program at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis. Each live case puts students to work on a problem that a real company faces in a foreign market. Students spend seven weeks on campus researching the problem, meeting with executives, and brainstorming possible solutions. Then, the students spend two weeks in the country itself. In the final week, they return to campus to present their findings to company representatives.

Karine Watne, an international business manager for Minnesota-based Toro, says that such live cases give the company another window into its global strategy. For instance, Toro, a lawn care equipment manufacturer, asked students to work with students at Sun Yatsen University in Guangzhou, China, to find out what expectations Chinese customers had of its parts and service division.

“When students asked customers for feedback, customers told them that they wished that Toro would allow them to return parts,” says Watne. “That surprised us, because we do have a parts return program in place in China. We realized that we had a communication issue that we had to take care of.”

Cargill, a food and agricultural services company, provided Carlson students with a live case based in Poland and Hungary. Carlson undergraduates worked with executives from Cargill’s animal nutrition division and graduate students at the Warsaw School of Economics to determine how the company might best expand its pet food operations in Central and Eastern Europe.

The students’ research validated some of the expectations that Cargill had about the market, says Lee Skold, a corporate vice president. “These live cases help us know whether our intuition is serving us well or not, and it helps shed light on things that we wouldn’t otherwise predict,” says Skold. “Moreover, it also teaches students to become comfortable tackling and finding solutions for a problem in an often undefined sphere.”

Carlson also sponsors live cases in Minnesota, bringing students from partner universities to work with Carlson students on U.S.-based projects. Anne D’Angelo, Carlson’s assistant dean of international programs, says that live cases offer a perfect mix of global experiences—coursework, travel, multicultural teamwork, research, and interactions with executives.

More Than Geography

For students to think globally, they must understand how business has developed across centuries as well as across borders, says Bing Xiang, dean of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing. For that reason, CKGSB is working to integrate the humanities into its curriculum. Study of world history and religion is included in its MBA and EMBA courses. All MBAs also take a course called “Confucian Humanism” to better understand Confucian philosophy and how it shaped Chinese culture and business.

Xiang hopes to add more humanities-focused classes to the curriculum in the future, to give students a more complete context for the global business environment. As an example, he refers to China’s historical and religious relics—only by knowing their importance and the values they represent will future business leaders make decisions that take their preservation into account.

“If they don’t, the beauty of these relics may be gone—the damage we do may be irreversible,” Xiang says. “What’s right for the next 20 years may not be right 50, 80, or 100 years from now. If students take history into account, they will make more sustainable decisions.”

Eventually, CKGSB’s curriculum also may include study of artists and artistic periods that have been most pivotal to social, political, and economic innovations. Xiang points to the Medici family, who owned Europe’s largest bank during the Renaissance era.

“The Medici family had so much power and wealth, they sponsored key artists and became key drivers of the Renaissance movement,” Xiang says. “By discussing topics such as this, our students don’t only learn how we do business, but why we do business.”