Translating the MBA

How does EDHEC Business School ensure that its Asian students have the tools they need to succeed?
Translating the MBA

As the number of Asian students enrolling in U.S. and European business programs continues to grow, many business schools are intensifying their marketing and recruitment efforts to capture the attention of this growing demographic. At the same time, however, it’s important for educators to rethink the academic product they have to offer these students. Is it adapted to their linguistic, cultural, and educational needs? Does it suit their employment objectives?

In 2012, the Institute of International Education reported that nearly half of the more than 800,000 international students studying in the U.S. were from Asia.

At EDHEC Business School in France, where I serve as director of the Global MBA program, we are reviewing our pedagogical approach, course offerings, and student support services to provide our Asian student population with the best management education possible. We want to make sure we prepare them for successful careers, whether they work in New York or London, or back home in Shanghai or Seoul, Tokyo or Delhi. It’s a challenging time for business schools, but also one filled with great promise for internationalization and student recruitment.


A growing number of business educators believe traditional Western MBA education fails students from other parts of the world. Among these educators is Mike Bastin, a senior lecturer at the Southampton Solent University School of Business in the United Kingdom. In a recent Financial Times op-ed, Bastin laments the state of the modern business school. He points out that the world’s top business schools continue to adopt traditional teaching approaches—most notably, the Harvard case study method. The typical case study asks students to analyze real-life management dilemmas, most often from U.S. or European corporations. But Bastin argues that “news of Western corporations struggling to thrive in emerging markets strongly suggests that business students desperately need a new approach.”

I agree with Bastin that a shake-up of traditional business education is needed—and it must start with the foundation of the MBA education: the case study. While the case study method still works well, it has limitations when used with Asian students, primarily because most case studies do not reflect the management realities of emerging markets. This discrepancy puts students from these regions at a disadvantage if they wish to return to their home countries after graduation.

In 2011–2012, 60,000 Chinese citizens took the GMAT—triple the number that took the test in 2007–2008.

We’ve found that case studies focused on Asian markets don’t just provide Western students with insights into these regions. They also give much-needed encouragement for our Asian students, who might otherwise be hesitant to speak up in discussions of Western business practices. For instance, we use the HBS case study on Tata’s crisis management of the November 2008 terrorist attacks on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, which sheds light on Indian companies.

This year, nearly 200,000 people took Common Admission Test, the entrance exam for India’s management and business schools.

Unfortunately, cases that focus on emerging markets tend to be unstable and must be updated regularly, so we can’t find as many as we would like. To fill this void, EDHEC works with corporations operating in Asian markets to help them solve strategy and management problems. The results of this work often make their way into our MBA classrooms.

One such project is EDHEC’s partnership with French carmaker Renault on its introduction of the Dacia line of cars and SUVs. With roots in Romania, the Dacia brand was originally created for sale in less developed countries such as India, but it has found success in Western Europe thanks to its low sticker price and fuel economy. Through the Dacia story, students learn about reverse innovation, when products or services first created for the developing world spread to industrialized markets.

When discussions are focused on their native countries, Asian students are more confident to challenge the professor and other students, because they realize that among their classmates they are the experts on the subject matter. They also are more willing to turn the tables on American and European students by challenging Western attitudes and habits, which sparks interesting classroom exchanges about everything from environmental sustainability to the wastefulness of the Western lifestyle.


The second dimension of the classic MBA experience is an interactive and dynamic classroom, where students are encouraged to voice their opinions, defend their ideas, and challenge authority. But this classroom atmosphere can intimidate some Asian students, whose culture emphasizes conformity and respect for authority figures, including professors.

In a philosophy class that is part of EDHEC’s Global MBA, students discuss topics such as property rights, human rights, and freedom of speech. During the course, students are encouraged to consider ethical questions from different angles and to find new responses. Geert Demuijnck, who teaches this course, has told me how difficult it can be to persuade some Chinese students to dissect philosophical theories. Even though Chinese students tend to be conscientious and competitive, they often accept lower grades because of their cultural hard-wiring.

To help all of our students become more comfortable participating in class discussion, we offer them individual coaching outside of class. I once worked with a South Korean MBA student who found it difficult to participate in class discussions, not because he lacked a good command of the English language, but because his past education placed an emphasis on the professor’s authority rather than on the student’s contributions. I began coaching him and helping him set objectives for his contributions to class discussions. Little by little, he learned to contradict and challenge, skills instinctive to those educated in Western institutions. In the end, this student was amazed by his ability to debate; it was a quality he had believed was not in his DNA.

For students from countries such as India, social integration can be as difficult as academic participation. Our Indian students are usually fluent English speakers, but some have difficulty with soft skills such as collaboration and Western etiquette. “They often do not think these skills are important,” says MB Sarkar, who teaches “Doing Business in Emerging Countries” for our Global MBA program. “It is critical that they understand that they cannot slide by just on the learning and study habits they honed in their college days in India.” In some cases, Sarkar takes students aside and speaks with them about the importance of these issues; he also strongly encourages students to work in cross-cultural groups to ensure their social integration.


As indicated above, a third dimension of an MBA program is educating students in soft skills and emotional intelligence. One of the fundamental pedagogical levers in EDHEC’s soft skills courses is honest self-disclosure. As part of this self-reflection, students evaluate their peers’ soft skills.

However, speaking publically about emotional or intimate experiences, a common activity for American and European students, is deemed inappropriate in many Asian countries. Shlomo Maital, a professor of macroeconomics and innovation in our Global MBA program, has developed an approach to help Asian students overcome these barriers. He boosts their confidence by encouraging them to speak out in class, give oral presentations, and express audacious ideas. “My first goal for my Asian students is to restore their faith in their own creativity,” Maital says. “Asian students bring a superior work ethic to the classroom and in short order their creativity finds expression.”

Maital adds that he doesn’t assign grades for class participation, as this tends to produce rather artificial and forced contributions. “Instead, I try to elicit their stories—for example, an illustration of a creative solution they’ve applied to a problem when their resources were scarce. Or I ask them to write on a Post-it note something they know that they’re willing to share with the class, which other students might find of value or interest. Then, when I get tired of talking, I pull out one of these notes and ask the student who wrote it to explain. The results are often fascinating!”


Maital stresses that just as the world’s dominant economic powers are shifting, so too is the makeup of the MBA class. Now is the time to take into account this change in several important areas, including faculty recruitment, student body diversity, new student orientation and integration, degree program organization, and staff cultural awareness.

At EDHEC, we have found that faculty members with international backgrounds tend to better understand our Asian students and their needs. For instance, Maital is an Israeli-born Canadian national; Demuijnck, a Belgian; and Sarkar, an Indian-born American national based at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It is also important for business schools to recruit students from all over the world to ensure that there is not a dominant group of English speakers or of any one nationality. A high number of Asian students could result in sub-populations of students who live in their own communities and have little or no direct contact with the rest of their class. Some American institutions are now instituting peer-mentoring programs and placing international student liaisons in dorms to encourage more interaction and discourage the formation of sub-groups.


To ensure that Asian students will be successful in the classroom, many schools are adopting new approaches to integrating their international students successfully:

Expanded orientations. Some undergraduate institutions are creating extended orientation courses for Asian students. Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, for example, administers a yearlong international student program that includes workshops on topics such as overcoming culture shock, filing income taxes, and using the counseling center.

Workshops. At EDHEC, we organize a one-day session that offers students lessons on interpreting different cultures. It’s not focused solely on Asia, but it gives all of our students a head start for interacting with their international peers.

Targeted career counseling. Asian students often are used to a job application process where family connections and social status can be crucial. Our career counselors help them adopt more Western approaches to writing their CVs and networking for certain job searches.

Language study. While most Asian students already are proficient in English, at EDHEC we also encourage students to take French language courses early in their programs so they have an easier time fitting into French culture.

Social media use. Some schools send tweets to students with tips and lessons regarding the new country or direct them to a Facebook page where they can interact with student ambassadors who are trained to offer advice before and after their programs begin.

Travel for students and staff. To better address the growing importance of Asia in business, international programs could focus more specifically on emerging Asian countries. For instance, all students in EDHEC’s Global MBA program take a trip to Singapore to meet executives from both Asian and Western companies. Some U.S. undergraduate programs take that approach one step further—they send their front-line staff members to China to develop more awareness of the needs of Chinese students. A few years ago, Michigan State University, for example, sent members of its residence hall staff to Beijing.


By integrating culturally sensitive strategies into every aspect of their programs, business schools can help everyone in their communities better understand one another and receive maximum benefit from their MBA experience. We must view the increased presence of Asian students on our campuses as an opportunity for innovation and modernization. Asian students can teach us much about their homelands, work ethics, savoir-faire, and creativity. It’s certainly my hope that business school professionals will seize this opportunity to better prepare themselves and their students for the exciting future that lies ahead.

Emmanuel Métais is director of the EDHEC Global MBA at EDHEC Business School in Nice, France. EDHEC also has campuses in Lille and Paris, France; London; and Singapore.