When Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, launched its Executive MBA program with Fudan University in Shanghai in 2002, it adopted the cautious approach of Deng Xiaoping, who introduced unprecedented economic reform in China with this maxim: “We must cross the river by feeling out the stones with our feet.” By taking small steps in an unfamiliar market, the Washington University-Fudan Executive MBA became the first joint venture program to be formally recognized by China’s Ministry of Education, as well as the model for Fudan’s own Chinese-language EMBA program.
Washington University first began planning its Shanghai EMBA in 2000, when China’s economy was about a third of its current size. Some multinational companies had locations in China, but many were relatively new to the market and their Chinese operations typically accounted for only a small percentage of their global revenue. Their challenge at the time was getting established in China and, in particular, attracting and developing talent.
Fast forward to 2014. The strategy of both multinational and local Chinese companies has shifted from exporting low-cost products “made in China” to selling products to a more affluent and open Chinese market. Competition has become more Westernized, no longer based almost solely on price, but now focused on product features and quality as much as price. At the same time, multinational corporations are grappling with the challenge of managing incredible growth rates of up to 100 percent a year. But still, just as in 2000, companies see their greatest challenge as a shortage of management talent.
The goal of the Washington University-Fudan Executive MBA is to train leaders who aren’t just able to manage in China, but who one day will manage large regional or global organizations. To do so, we’ve had to design a program that serves not just Chinese business, but global business.
DESIGNING THE PROGRAM
From the very beginning our program has emphasized developing students’ skills as global managers. For that reason, the basic outline of our curriculum has remained focused on strategy, execution, and leadership.
The opening module delivers a foundational core on topics such as organizational behavior, financial accounting, data modeling, and strategic cost analysis. Leadership courses cover managing power and leading organizational change. Later modules focus on growth and global management.
Even though we are training global managers, the program provides insights on the particular challenges of managing in the Chinese environment. China-specific material is included throughout the curriculum, and we employ cases set in China. However, our main strategy for bringing a Chinese perspective to the program is to bring together faculty from Olin Business School and Fudan School of Management to co-teach most courses. These faculty members focus on issues germane to China, which ensures that students gain both global competence and local understanding. We also have a course, Fudan Thought Leaders, which brings faculty from both the School of Management and other departments of Fudan to discuss Chinese history, politics, and legal issues.
The Olin faculty who co-teach the Shanghai courses also teach in our U.S.-based programs, and they have found that the same teaching skills that lead to success in U.S. classrooms apply in China. Many have now taught in China for more than ten years. This experience has given them a front-row seat to China’s economic evolution over the past decade, which has deepened their understanding of this complex country and enriched their teaching.
LESSONS LEARNED IN CHINA
While the decade-long partnership with Fudan has been fruitful, it hasn’t always been easy. It’s a challenge to manage programs far from home. For instance, we’ve dealt with the obvious and expected issues—such as securing work permissions for U.S. staff and dealing with delays in financial transfers caused by Chinese foreign exchange regulations. We’ve also encountered more unexpected difficulties, such as learning how to build a program culture that genuinely reflects both partners.
Going into the program, we realized it would be essential to find the right partner, and we chose Fudan for several reasons. We wanted a school with a strong reputation, because Washington University was not well-known in China, and the partnership with Fudan conferred immediate legitimacy. In addition, the Fudan School of Management shared the Olin Business School’s commitment to the highest standards in research and teaching. Perhaps most important, the leadership of the two schools quickly developed the close personal relationships that are essential to a successful joint venture.
Something we didn’t learn until we arrived in China was that, despite the sheer size of the Chinese population, there is a relatively small market for English-language EMBA programs in China. Language proficiency is mandatory, because participation in class discussion is essential, and reading and written assignments must be completed in English. Many potential students find it much more attractive to study in their native language. In fact, I would say that if there are two million middle managers in Shanghai, almost two million of them would prefer to get an MBA in Chinese. Schools compete intensely for the executives who are qualified—and willing—to pursue EMBA degrees in English.
Fortunately, we have more than 500 successful alumni from our Shanghai EMBA program, and they are our best ambassadors and recruiters for the program. They not only recommend executives from their own companies, but help spread the word among the Chinese and ex-pat community of executives based in Shanghai.
Olin Business School’s partnership with Fudan’s School of Management opened the door to many other joint opportunities for our universities. Today, the schools of social work, law, medicine, and engineering from both institutions are involved in research partnerships through the St. Louis-based McDonnell Academy that also sponsors exchange programs for students and faculty.
Our next goal is to take the lessons we’ve learned from the Fudan program and replicate it in other markets. Olin is currently developing an EMBA program with IITBombay, and we expect to enroll our first class in 2015. We know there will be challenges as we set out for Mumbai—but we are confident that we can profit from the lessons we learned in China as we explore this exciting new market.
Jim Little is the Donald J. Danforth Jr. Distinguished Professor of Business at the Olin Business School of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He has been the academic director of the EMBA Shanghai program since its inception.