A World of Difference

Once dominated by American standards, business schools around the globe are taking a more international approach to teaching.

The idea of teaching business and awarding MBA degrees was born and bred in North America. Until a decade or so ago, the rest of the world did not seem much interested in the notion. But the times they are a-changing, according to psychologists on business school faculties now scattered around the globe.

Until the 1980s and 1990s, “Most foreign business leaders were trained in more focused social sciences, such as economics or sociology,” said APS Fellow and Charter Member Randal Dunham, University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Business learning occurred on the job.”

Then European, Australian, and Asian institutions started setting up Harvard-like MBA programs of their own. “There was a mimicry effect going on,” said David Barry, Copenhagen Business School, or CBS, and the Danish University of Education. Schools around the world “imitated the original and borrowed texts, teachers and case studies” from American schools, explained Ian Colville, a psychologist who specializes in organizational change and behavior at Bath University, England.

Now an even bigger switch is on. Business schools in Denmark, England, and elsewhere are gaining confidence and redefining themselves as distinctly non-American. CBS, for example, is positioning itself as a “humanistic” and “cultured” school that is international and multicultural, said Barry, who holds a PhD in organizational psychology and strategic management. CBS has ties to fine-arts and humanities faculties, plays a major role in setting Danish policy, and has a well-traveled, multidisciplinary student body, one-third to half of which is drawn from other countries.

“There is a question of cultural relativity,” Colville said. “The American way is not necessarily the best or only way.”

“The trend in business schools in other nations is most definitely one of diversifying the material,” said Erin Anderson, at the Fontainebleau, France, campus of INSEAD, one of the world’s premier business schools. “There is a movement away from heavy reliance on US practices, examples, and materials,” she said, “and developing more materials from other contexts — especially the school’s own home market.”

“Certainly, America’s role affects what is being taught here” — largely because of ready access to American research — said Oyvind Lund Martinsen, professor in organizational psychology at the Norwegian School of Management. “It is of course our own responsibility to evaluate whether results from American research is generalizable to our cultures. I’m not certain that we are always good at considering such differences. We may make ourselves vulnerable to a relatively uncritical ‘Americanization’ of our teaching and understanding of psychological issues.”

Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has focused his psychological research on how cultural differences remain large despite the global economy’s potential for increasing homogeneity. “What Americans take to be culture-neutral efficient business practices are increasingly being met with resistance.”

One such set of beliefs is “Protestant Relational Ideology,” which Sanchez-Burks described as “an affliction related to the Protestant work ethic, characterized by the expectation that one should be more impersonal and emotionally detached at work than in social situations. For a very long time, PRI has been seen as essential to the success of Western business organizations, so it’s difficult to accept that staying on-task may actually be a barrier to productivity in today’s global business environment.”

Unfortunately, East Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern cultures believe otherwise, that “social and emotional relationships are just as important at work as a relentless focus on the task at hand.” Sanchez-Burks’s experiments, conducted with colleagues in Korea and China, demonstrated how cross-cultural communication styles can fuel conflict in a diverse workplace, and how informal, sociable work environments can reduce such misunderstandings.

Non-American business education differs from the American blueprint in other respects as well. European and Australian schools “are starting to produce their own theories of organization, management, and business,” Barry said. They are searching for “a viable business model that rejects a number of American values and tenets — the ’24/7 work ethic,’ for example, and ‘take care of yourself because no one else will.’ ” Foreign business schools are also emphasizing leadership over management, applying critical analysis to classic American business texts, and even deliberately using non-American formats at their conferences by asking participants to form relationships within a particular group rather than drift from talk to talk.

The changes abroad are not lost on American schools. “A loop is closing,” said Anderson. “US business schools themselves are becoming much more international in their teaching. For me, this has been a startling development. I started teaching 25 years ago, in the US, and for years I heard the calls for US schools to internationalize their curricula. I moved to INSEAD in 1994, and things hadn’t changed that much. They are changing now. There is more awareness of the need to globalize the curriculum and more movement to do so.”

Dunham agreed: “Sure, we always had MBA schools that specialized in global issues, but now almost every North American program has a big focus on global issues.”

More culturally sensitive teaching materials are needed, Martinsen said. “It would be helpful for us, for example, if textbook authors and publishers included a cultural section in which research emphasized cultural differences in motivation, leadership, group processes, and so on. This could actually represent valuable information also for American students, who would become better at understanding how cultural differences may impact business and organizational life in other parts of the world.”

Barry also noted a cultural rift in the international business school community itself. “The Asian markets are very US-centric, often holding up the American business model as top-of-class,” he said, while European and Australian schools “are making great efforts to break out of the copycat tradition and architect a different way of thinking, doing, teaching, and researching. I have no idea how things will pan out — whether the general ‘deepening’ of business thinking that’s being experimented with will eventually turn into a mainstream, workable player, or whether it will somehow succumb to more cutthroat business models. We’ll see.”

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