Why Business Schools Can be Perfect Partners

Business schools are natural partners. After all, they are both educators and businesspeople, who are constantly looking for opportunities to maximize results through efficient means.

So, partnerships in the business school world are common. But they don’t all succeed. It takes a special group of partners, commitment, and an alignment of the stars to keep a partnership intact for the long haul. Few have lasted and achieved success among business school unions.

Sometimes, the relationship sours or the two parties grow apart and have to move on separately. Indeed, to make them work, they require lots of effort on the part of both parties. Every once in a while, a partnership ends up being the stuff of magic.

Teaming up with China
Truly, the MIT Sloan School of Management partnership with Chinese educators is unique. The relationship spans more than 20 years, and is quite different from what other business schools have attempted to do, both in China, and on other foreign soil.

For starters, Sloan went into China earlier than their competitors. In the early 1990s, led by the late Lester Thurow, who was then dean of Sloan, the school struck up a conversation with Chinese educators at top universities. They took a novel approach. The Chinese expected Sloan to come in and build a school on Chinese territory, but the Sloan administration insisted they do things differently.

“Our initial priority was to contribute to China so that serious engagement and learning could occur,” writes Alan White, senior associate dean and senior lecturer at Sloan, in “The Stars Aligned,” a book about the 20th anniversary of the MIT-China Management Education Project. “The idea was that Chinese educators would come to MIT as colleagues to participate in the MIT Sloan community and take back to China whatever they found useful for their work back home.”

Sloan never did build anything in China. Administrators never worked with the government; they left that portion of the project up to their Chinese partners. And Sloan was careful not to preach or lecture.

“We wanted to learn from them,” says White in an interview with QS. “They were teaching but not researching. We helped them. We never said, ‘You have to do it this way.’ Instead, we showed them what we did and let them decide for themselves what was right for China.”

A global alliance
The key was establishing true equality rather than maintaining an air of American superiority. This kind of equal partnership was also achieved among University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and its partners in the Global OneMBA program. In this example, as a founding partner, Kenan-Flagler teamed up with EGADE Business School Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, Escola de Administracao de Empresas de Sao Paulo da Fundacao Getulio Vargas (FGV-EAESP) in Brazil, and Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) in the Netherlands. Today, Xiamen University School of Management (SMXMU) in China is also on board after it took the place of CUHK, which remains a partner with Kenan-Flagler in other capacities.

Kenan-Flagler Professor David Ravenscraft was among the architects behind the program, which launched in 2002. He counts OneMBA as his greatest accomplishment. The partners have worked across time zones, continents, and cultures to keep the coursework fresh and the program relevant. In the last 15 years, 1,400 students from more than 50 countries have graduated from OneMBA.

“From the start, we were dedicated to designing and delivering a new model of global leadership development in partnership with top business schools around the world,” says Sridhar Balasubramanian, senior associate dean of MBA Programs and professor of marketing at Kenan-Flagler. “We designed OneMBA jointly to ensure classes are taught from five regions’ cultural and economic perspectives. It is an equal partnership of five schools. It’s required a team effort from faculty and senior staff leaders to provide unique, authentic global experiences for our students.”

Successful programs seem to embrace diverse cultures and geographies, too. The OneMBA has students visiting all the schools’ regions as part of its curriculum. And Sloan educators did not just go into Shanghai and Beijing. They also went to Guandong and Yunnan provinces. Each region is culturally different, and that helped build better understanding of the people as a whole and the oncoming economic growth that Thurow had already envisioned, says White.

Respecting diversity
Since the Sloan-China collaboration began, about 300 Chinese faculty members have spent a semester at Sloan as international faculty fellows. Also, the program offers the China Lab, which pairs Sloan students with counterparts from Chinese schools. Together, they work in teams to offer consulting services to help Chinese firms address real problems they are facing.

Sloan faculty also conducts research related to China and its economy. Chinese leaders and professors are most helpful, says White, in providing access to data and information related to the studies. In addition, they often invite Sloan deans to be members of advisory boards and to participate in conferences.

Finally, Sloan also runs courses for Chinese companies. In those instances, company executives might come to Sloan’s campus or the American faculty may travel to China and host the program there.

Establishing a presence abroad
Similarly, Yale School of Management, venture capital/private equity firm Sequoia China, and Yale Center Beijing (YCB) launched a partnership in 2016. The goal is to “groom China’s next generation of business leaders by providing insights into both Chinese and global entrepreneurship and business practices,” according to Yale News.

So far, the program has graduated 44 participants, which include founders and CEOs of startups within the Sequoia fold. Yale faculty and global executives teach the courses. The YCB is a 16,500 square foot space in the Chaoyang District in Beijing.

“By leveraging Yale’s wealth of resources as a global research university and its historically strong ties to China, the center aims to further constructive dialogue about pressing issues and the forthright exchange of ideas and knowledge among decision makers and thought leaders,” according to the YCB website.

Clearly, Yale SOM and MIT Sloan have similar goals but different approaches. There’s no right or wrong way to develop a relationship and distribute knowledge. Time will tell the effectiveness of each.

Overcoming challenges
For now, Sloan has endurance on its side. Of course, the creation of its partnership with China did not come without some hiccups. The school decided early on that it would not allow Chinese entities to pay for the program, based on advice from Shirley Young, who has experience working with General Motors China. This was the right advice at the time, says White.

At the start, Sloan instead raised money for the initiatives in China through friends and alumni of the school. Now, the Chinese have become wealthier and the system of conducting business has changed, so they are paying their own way for programs, says White.

Although Chinese officials prohibit Sloan from teaching negotiations, because they believe it is up to the party in China to resolve such disputes, they encourage Sloan to teach the ways of the western economy. They want to understand how America and other western economies operate, adds White.

“This kind of partnership is important because our graduates are going to work in the international economy,” says White. “Also, it’s important to develop the cross-cultural relationship. The more you cross cultures, the more you learn.”