Business schools badly need an overhaul

Updated: 2012-12-07 09:05

By Mike Bastin (China Daily)

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Business schools badly need an overhaul

Western experts should be given a free hand in driving through change

China's export-led economic growth appears to have reached its limit, and there are calls for a switch to domestic consumption and for more competitive Chinese businesses to switch from low-cost to premium branding strategies.

But little or nothing seems to have been said about the catalyst or trigger needed to kick-start such change. This answer lies in the much-needed reform of China's business education, and the trigger can come only from Western business.

Many top Western business schools not only have leading scholars in their academic field but also former, or even current, business leaders who provide perhaps an even greater contribution as they impart their vast knowledge and experience. Business students undoubtedly gain from the academic models and theories constructed from extensive and meticulous academic research but benefit even more from business leaders and managers. Former business leaders, directors and managers do more than just complement the academic theory presented to business students; they make sense of the models and frameworks with their own practical experience.

Sadly, Western business leaders are a rare sight at China's business schools. Even successful Chinese business leaders rarely put something back with a spell at a Chinese business school.

Chinese business schools, certainly at the top end, make constant use of leading Western academics who impart invaluable knowledge but usually in the context of theoretical frameworks. However, Chinese business students will find the presence of Western business leaders far more beneficial and inspiring. In fact, the mere sight of someone who has scaled the heights of international business and delivered will resonate even more with Chinese business students than Western ones. This could form part of this crucial trigger for change in Chinese business culture and inspire future generations of Chinese business leaders.

Western academics, especially full business/management professors at leading universities in the UK or the US, are undoubtedly revered in China and by Chinese business students, but the typical Chinese business student is driven by the desire to reach captain-of-industry status. Younger generations of Chinese business students also place the utmost prestige on the role of business leader nowadays. Western business leaders will, without doubt, provide an unrivalled boost to all aspects of the typical Chinese business school learning environment, and the excitement, and attention of the students will reach fever pitch.

So it is essential for China's business schools to attract leading Western business leaders, and not just on a guest lecture basis but with longer-term deals that may span several years. Such Western business leaders should then act as a major change agent within China's business schools and not just impart knowledge and wisdom.

China's business schools also have an important role to play in changing the corporate culture that continues to hobble many Chinese enterprises, such as short-term, low-cost approaches rather than strategies based on innovation, long-term investment, teamwork and premium brand building. Western business leaders are also ideally placed to change not only curriculum content but also the teaching approach at China's business schools.

Not that the onus is on the management at China's business schools to attract, or even headhunt, leading Western business practitioners. Movement is far more likely to result from business leaders in the West taking the initiative and approaching China's business schools first.

As change agents at Chinese business schools, Western business leaders will require time, but change should follow a more revolutionary rather than evolutionary path. A useful analogy is the process of integration and change that ensues after an aggressive takeover in industry. The prevailing view here is that quick and decisive action is best, even more so if such action is likely to inflict economic pain and discomfort on the workforce.

Western business leaders need to engage and work with the management at Chinese business schools but should not be prepared to compromise and attempt to find some Western-Chinese blend of teaching approaches and blend of curriculum content. Instead these change agents should make constant reference to their own successes and use these to drive out the status quo. This may require substantial staff retraining, orchestrated of course by experienced Western business practitioners, and possible staff replacements.

A complete rebranding of China's business schools should also form part of these change agents' task, which would benefit from sponsorship from leading Western businesses.

Resistance to change will of course prove potentially obstructive, even if senior management at China's business schools are fully behind the appointment of Western business leaders and provide them with the time and resource to effect such change. In this case, it is imperative that China's government intervene and lend support with supportive finance and the threat of punitive action should change be blocked. After all, the country will benefit greatly in the long term from such revolutionary change in its business education.

It is only with such revolutionary change inside most business schools that Chinese business and the Chinese economy will modernize and thrive in the long term.

Such a change in Chinese business education and the consequent quantum advance in the competitiveness and environmental attractiveness of the typical Chinese enterprise should also contribute to a halt in the ever-increasing loss of the country's brightest business talent. Chinese business students are desperate to pursue careers inside China and inside Chinese companies but find it difficult to ignore offers from foreign businesses. If left unchecked such a loss of talent will seriously impair any sustainable economic development across China.

Western presence and authority inside Chinese business schools should also help eliminate corrupt practices and ensure a far more meritorious learning environment.

Western academics in Chinese business schools represent a good thing, but Western business leaders and practitioners represent an absolute necessity. In my experience, almost 20 years in international business education, Western academics contribute considerably inside China but do not push for more comprehensive change in curriculum and teaching and learning methods. In fact, on more than the odd occasion I have witnessed Western academics trying to replicate the prescriptive, rote-learning Chinese approach.

Western business leaders can go much further and drive through fundamental root and branch review and change toward a far more modern teaching and learning environment in Chinese business schools. Such a change is essential if Chinese industry is also to move toward more modern business and management techniques and strategies.

Western business leaders can help a lot in unlocking the real potential of China's business students, its business and the economy.

The author is a visiting professor at China's University of International Business and Economics and researcher at Nottingham University's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. Contact the writer at

(China Daily 12/07/2012 page9)