Closing the Skills Gap - East and West

Kennesaw State’s Govind Hariharan suggests teaching Eastern and Western approaches to business.
Closing the Skills Gap - East and West

Some experts are calling this era the Century of Asia, and it’s not hard to see why. China and India are becoming economic giants; along with the U.S., they account for one-third of the world’s population. It’s likely that everyone in the business world will eventually have close interactions with Chinese, Indian, or American businesses or employees. This means that Eastern and Western business schools will need to work together in innovative and relevant ways to produce managers who can succeed in global business environments.

But if Eastern and Western schools are going to have productive partnerships, all of us will have to look beyond the stereotypes. Many people believe that Eastern business education emphasizes rote memorization and produces highly trained graduates who lack soft skills and independent thinking abilities. Others are convinced that Western-educated business students excel in communication and soft skills, but lack strong technical training. And yet, employers in China and India often complain that recent graduates lack technical training, while U.S. employers are unimpressed by the communication skills of their new hires.

For example, a recent McKinsey study titled “The $250 billion question: Can China close the skills gap?” pointed to the major shortcomings of Chinese graduates: insufficient technical training, inadequate English-speaking skills, and deficiencies in soft skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, and innovative flair. At the same time, employers surveyed in India and the U.S. identified similar deficiencies in recent graduates: low technical ability, poor communication and analytical skills, and little ability to work well in cross-cultural teams.

Clearly there are similar skills gaps in graduates across these three countries—and probably most other nations. If business schools around the world are going to produce a strong workforce for the global economy, all of them must help their graduates develop technical competency, communication skills, critical thinking, and the ability to work in teams.


I believe that recent attempts to redress these skill gaps have fallen short for four reasons: The solutions look West instead of East; they ignore government and society; they emphasize bicultural rather than multicultural business education; and they ignore the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (commonly known as STEM). Therefore, I would propose four new approaches to erasing skills gaps in today’s business graduates:

Look East: The last decade has witnessed an unprecedented growth in collaborations between Western business schools and their counterparts in Asia, particularly China. However, U.S. schools have been exporting their knowledge to China since the 1980s. For example, the University of Buffalo established an MBA program in Dalian in the late ’80s, and EMBA programs have sprouted throughout China since the 1990s. The U.S. and other Western universities have been slower to create partnerships with Indian schools over the past decade and a half, but more of these have been launched in recent years. For instance, Harvard recently established a center for executive education in Mumbai. What’s common to most of these programs is an emphasis on training Asian business students to work in Asia, sometimes within multinational Western corporations that have locations in China or India.

But that’s not what is really needed for economic success in the 21st century. Business schools also need to prepare Western students to work in multinational Asian corporations, whether these corporations are located in Asia or the West. That’s where many new jobs are being created—and will be for the rest of the century. I think a school such as the Singapore Management University is poised to capitalize on this reality better than many others as it positions itself to become a business education hub for the world.

Pay attention to government and society: In China, business education is only relevant if it is accompanied by a thorough understanding of the government. There are two reasons: The large and growing public enterprises that dominate certain sectors are often key sources of employment for business graduates, and the government maintains relatively high levels of regulatory oversight. Similarly, businesspeople operating in India must understand the local population’s religious beliefs and caste system, because both permeate the business system.

Western business students must become familiar with what might seem like alien subjects if they are to gain a comprehensive understanding of Eastern business practices. One example of such an approach is at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. The program nurtures young global leaders by first giving them a foundation in international affairs and diplomacy.

Think multicultural rather than bicultural: The recent talks between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have emphasized educational cooperation, as have the Obama-Singh treaties between the U.S. and India. (See “A Treaty for Education” on page 48.) In fact, since the inception of bilateral treaties, they have included commitments to education—but the key point is that these partnerships have been bilateral.

Treaties between universities on different continents also have tended to be bilateral. For instance, every major university in India has established a partnership with a school in the West, and most Indian business schools have recently signed MOUs with Chinese universities. Because they’re bilateral, they’re designed to enhance bicultural communication in the workplace—but the fact is, most workplaces are or soon will be multicultural. Therefore, business graduates must learn how to function in multicultural settings.

Once again, Singapore is ideally situated to promote this type of education, because it has strong ties to the U.S., as well as China and India, and its own population is multicultural. While SMU has numerous bilateral partnerships with Chinese, Indian, and U.S. schools, its next step might well be to bring several universities together to create seamless cross-cultural business communication. INSEAD, which has campuses in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi, is already striving for that multicultural ideal.

Also offering opportunities for multicultural business education are consortia made up of business school members from several continents. These include Trium, whose members are New York University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and HEC School of Management; and OneMBA, whose members are the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Erasmus University, Tecnológico de Monterrey Graduate School of Business Administration and Leadership (EGADE), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Escola de Administração de Empresas de São Paulo da Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV-EAESP).

Other schools—such as my own, Kennesaw State University (KSU) in Georgia—are developing business education programs designed to impart true multicultural business savvy. The nonprofit India China America (ICA) Institute housed at Kennesaw was formed to drive synergies among the three countries in the areas of emerging markets, commercial growth, and alignment of policies. In one trinodal partnership, students from Indian and U.S. schools will learn about doing business with China; Chinese and American students will learn about doing business with India; and Chinese and Indian students will study how to do business with the U.S. In the grand finale, all the bilateral pairs will form truly multicultural teams to work together on a global project— perhaps in Singapore.

Promote STEM education for all: Western business schools have traditionally considered science, technology, engineering, and math to be foreign fields that their students should avoid—but that needs to change. The majority of students entering MBA programs in China and India have engineering backgrounds, and anyone who wants to communicate with them must have a basic level of proficiency in STEM subjects.

As we move through the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that for business education to close the skills gap, innovative collaboration is necessary. To create a global workforce, business students in the West must learn how to work and lead in the East, just as students from the East must understand how to work in the Western world. No longer can we say East is East and West is West; they each must embrace and learn to understand the other.

Govind Hariharan is professor of economics and the executive director of the India China America (ICA) Institute at the Michael J. Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia.