So You Think You Can Dance

Finding an international partner is akin to mastering an elaborate dance. Georgetown’s David Thomas discusses how to learn the right steps.
So You Think You Can Dance

It’s been said that Ginger Rogers was a great dancer because she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels. Now imagine if she had a succession of international suitors engaging her in a waltz, pas de deux, tango, and dozens of other elaborate moves, each with its own rules and rhythms. How well would she do then?

A business school dean looking for the right international collaborator might end up trying out steps with a series of potential partners, each with its own particular style. To avoid dancing backward, the dean should strive to take the lead in any such arrangement. But to remain relevant in today’s competitive environment, the dean definitely should learn to dance.

International arrangements—more specifically, global business school partnerships—are flourishing in today’s market. Of the top 100 EMBA programs ranked by the Financial Times in 2013, more than a quarter were international partnerships. More significantly, programs that are global partnerships are qualitatively beating their domestic counterparts: Seven of the FT’s top ten EMBA programs in 2013 involved cross-border relationships among schools in countries such as the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. Traditional MBA programs also have been forming partnerships with overseas institutions at a furious pace.

The reasons for the popularity of these arrangements are manifold. For the business school, these partnerships create new business opportunities, identify new students, enhance regional and global expertise, and build the brand. For students, deep-immersion programs provide an edge when they’re searching for jobs in an increasingly interconnected world. In fact, students who don’t have experience operating in locales such as Brazil, China, Colombia, and Kenya could lose job opportunities to their better-traveled peers.

But while the right global partnership can be a model of elegance, the wrong one can be clumsy and uncertain. A school that chooses the wrong partner will have to deal with a diminished reputation, unhappy students, procedural nightmares, and a long night on the dance floor.


Two main types of international partnerships exist. The first can be called a handoff, since one school simply delivers its students to another one. Each institution runs its program as it ordinarily would without adjusting staffing, curriculum, or teaching style. The second option, full integration, requires both schools to be much more deeply involved in coordinating and delivering classes.

Full integration is the model we use at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. We partner with Spain’s ESADE Business School and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service for our global executive MBA (GEMBA) program. We also partner with both the Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration of the Fundação Getulio Vargas (EBAPE/FGV) and ESADE for a corporate international master’s program.

In the GEMBA arrangement, six 12- day modules take place in Spain, Brazil, the U.S., China, and India. Each module involves professors from each school who have worked together to prepare the curriculum for the class of about 35 students. The academic directors of both schools interview all the applicants, so there is true alignment. The Georgetown- ESADE-EBAPE/FGV partnership is similarly integrated, with modules in Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C. The partners also offer online tutorials that students at all participating schools can access.

The integrated approach requires extra time, staffing, and coordination, which means our academic, admissions, program management, marketing, and finance teams must meet in person and virtually to plan and deliver the programs. However, we believe the benefits far outweigh the costs—as long as the institution has paired up with suitable collaborators.


Many prestigious business schools already run successful partnerships. Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management is allied with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School for a global EMBA that offers on-site studies in Hong Kong, the U.S., Israel, Germany, and Canada. Columbia’s Graduate School of Business runs a program with London Business School in which students alternate between New York and London and can perform field study in Asia. UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and the National University of Singapore together offer a curriculum that focuses on the Asian business environment.

However, there are stories about failures as well as successes. If the parties don’t move to the same rhythms—for example, if they don’t share educational philosophies and similar definitions of academic rigor—the dancers can trip and fall. We believe alliances will be more successful when the partners look for these key characteristics:

Programmatic excellence. Business schools must ally only with institutions of similar quality and with similar aspirations and values. This usually means each potential partner must closely review the other institution’s academic programming. While the schools may have different ideas about what constitutes a detailed syllabus or appropriate classroom behavior, well-matched partners can solve these issues through dialogue among academic directors.

At the same time, business schools can benefit by finding partners that have strengths and weaknesses different from their own. For instance, Georgetown and ESADE initially paired up because they had similar Jesuit roots, international orientations, and experiential learning approaches. But each party brought different capabilities to the table. Georgetown took the lead in curriculum design and delivery, while ESADE directed program management and marketing.

Over the course of our six-year alliance, Georgetown has learned a great deal from our partner. We’ve progressed tremendously in marketing and business development; we’ve also learned how to make effective use of social media and how to engage alumni in marketing. In addition, we’ve learned from ESADE’s approach to student services. Traditional MBAs usually are students first, but EMBA participants often are spouses first, businesspeople second, and students third. Georgetown has significantly upgraded its capabilities by watching how ESADE treats EMBAs more as executives than as students—for instance, by providing regular meals, offering convenient wireless service, and facilitating availability of course materials.

An open dance card. No one wants to dance with the wallflower, but it may be even worse to try to cut in on the belle of the ball. A business school in China that doesn’t have international partners is often solitary for a reason, but it could make for a better pairing than a school that has extended itself too much.

At the same time, it’s best to start with a slow dance. Before embarking on a large-scale project with a new partner, a school first should try small, customized programs. This will provide insight into the other school’s operations, business networks, and internal politics. Such customized programs can be costly, but finding the right partner is worth the investment.

Geographic advantage. Business schools need partners located in countries much different from their own. Schools in emerging nations might pair with Western schools, while institutions in Europe and the U.S. might partner with those in nations that will be important in the future as they rise to become global centers of commerce and politics. Two well-known emerging economies, Brazil and China, have been choice sites for recent partnerships. Some economic analysts are touting the CIVETS nations of Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa. Others are focusing on African countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, which boast vast natural resources, low cost of entry, young populations, and close relations with China. Yet some of these untapped markets make risky partners because their political unrest could put students in danger.

Safe environments. In fact, schools shouldn’t partner with other institutions that can’t assure the well-being of students, faculty, and administrators. Since political, security, and environmental incidents happen daily around the globe, business schools must conduct risk assessments of particular regions and specific sites and facilities. And schools should devise contingency plans no matter where they set up shop.

This past spring, Georgetown was planning to send a group of MBA students to Israel until a conflict erupted there. After assessing the situation—and going by the philosophy that student safety is paramount—we moved the program to Istanbul, where a backup arrangement was in place. Even that solution wasn’t simple, however, because of recent disturbances in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Program managers had to make sure students were housed and taught well away from that hot spot.

When performing site risk assessments, schools should check with embassies in other nations, scout the availability of high-quality medical services, and consult resources on the timing of hazards such as monsoons, hurricanes, and workers’ strikes. American schools also can refer to U.S. State Department analyses. Once the school chooses a site, it should prescreen hotels, contract for emergency medical service, arrange for secure transportation, and hold regular safety briefings for students and staff. And its partner should aid in these preparations and be willing to invest in student safety.

Connections. The success of international programs often rests on people and factors unrelated to education: customs agents, accreditation authorities, bank transfer policies, and visa applications. A trusted partner should have the connections and experience to expedite operations while staying within the law. The visiting school can develop this expertise over time through trial and error, but the learning curve can be painful.

Administrators for one U.S. school shipped course materials—including documents, USBs, and binders—to Lima, Peru, for a module to be held there. Because Lima’s customs office has a reputation for being slow, the school sent packages weeks in advance and had staff meet the shipment when it arrived. Despite those preparations, and even with the aid of local officials and shipping agents, the shipment was not released until the program was over. Staff on the ground in Lima had to scramble to recreate the materials.


Even when all partners are committed and perfectly in sync, various other issues can force the music to stop. Here are a few problems that can introduce dissonance into what seems to be a harmonious relationship:

Differences in cultures. The very thing that makes international programs so enriching— the mix of students from a wide array of backgrounds—is the element that can cause the most frustration. When the executive from China says “yes,” does he mean “yes,” does he mean “I will try,” or is he offering a polite “no”? Is it rude when a Brazilian or Spaniard shows up for an appointment 30 minutes later than the set time? Are Americans rigid and demanding when they insist on contracts instead of relying on the strength of personal relationships, as is the norm in some countries? For a cross-border collaboration to succeed, students and administrators must understand that broad differences exist among individuals and cultures. They must learn to work with those differences.

Variations in learning styles. In the U.S., students typically are exposed to a combination of lectures, workshops, panel discussions, case analyses, fieldwork, and simulations; they’re used to speaking up in class. In other countries, such as China, learning tends to be more passive, and students tend to stay silent when a professor is delivering a lecture.

At Georgetown, we have found that students from deferential cultures become more vocal if they first split into groups to discuss issues on their own and then return to the classroom. Professors also can help students cross cultural divides by creating joint projects, scheduling social events, holding forums with local or regional executives, and simulating real-world business environments. Such activities also build strong connections among students, which is one of the purposes of any MBA program.

Confusion about financial aid. MBA programs are expensive, and it’s tricky for any student to figure out the dizzying array of national rules governing financial aid. For example, it is typically more advantageous for a Spanish student who has a U.S. green card to apply for aid in Spain. A responsible school will have trained staff ready to help students understand a slew of loan and grant possibilities.

Administrators also should know that they might be legally responsible if a student makes a financial aid misstep. Therefore, schools might wish to include appropriate caveats in their memoranda of understanding or joint operating agreements.

Insufficient career guidance. Career management staff should be prepared to assist students from a broad array of business disciplines and countries of origin. For instance, students in Georgetown’s EMBA programs come from more than 20 countries, and their career goals run the gamut. A patent expert in Madagascar may wish to become a marketer in Southeast Asia. An entrepreneur in Kazakhstan may want to transition to a finance job in New York. Moreover, career aspirations change during a program. A student who visits Bangalore might develop a fascination with managing a high-tech business in India, for example, while a student who takes a London module might be attracted to global banking. Career counselors must be prepared to aid a variety of students if the whole program is to succeed.


Launching an international partnership is not a simple endeavor, but it’s one that can bring big rewards. As the market for global EMBA programs continues to thrive, more schools will be interested in testing the market. The best programs, like the best dance routines, are created when all the parties work closely together. They play off each other’s top attributes, improvise when appropriate—and turn out graduates in perfect step with their professional aspirations.

David A. Thomas is the dean and William R. Berkley Chair of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C.