James Little can't quite get on a handle on China. In fact, Little, a finance professor at Washington University's Olin School of Business, believes his Chinese acumen has actually decreased in the two decades he has been traveling to the country. "As a foreigner, you never totally understand Chinese culture," Little says. "You think you know what's going on, and something new -- totally out of the blue -- pops up."
To crack the impenetrable mystery of China for the Western faculty at Olin's executive MBA program at Shanghai's Fudan University, Little suggested a novel approach when the program for older, mid-career executives was launched in 2001. Instead of leaving them on their own, Little advocated pairing each U.S. professor with a Chinese colleague in a co-teaching arrangement.
The idea is to give the U.S. teachers a ready source of insight into Chinese business practices and give students a better education. "It had never really been done before," Little says, "but it was the most practical way to go."
THE RIGHT MIX For the majority of American or European universities with MBA programs in China that import their own faculty as needed, finding a way to straddle the divergent business practices of East and West has become a necessity. Most programs have faculty-sharing arrangements with Western universities.
Some executive MBA programs -- those attended by older executives, often with poor English skills -- provide classes with Western faculty by day and lectures by local Chinese faculty at night. Most programs supplement the steady diet of Western management techniques with the insights of Chinese executives brought in as guest lecturers.
At Olin, finding the right mix of East and West has been taken to a new level. Faculty members are flown in from St. Louis for as few as four days to teach each course of the 18-month EMBA program. Taking Little's suggestion, each Olin professor is partnered with a member of Fudan's faculty. Together, they plan a strategy for the course they're expected to teach.
The Olin professor generally provides the basic business principles, while the Fudan partner gives it a local flavor, filling the gaps in the Olin professor's knowledge created by the heavy hand of government in business affairs and an economy in overdrive.
"We want to emphasize that this is a general business education that can be applied to any setting," says professor Patrick Moreton, the program's managing director, "but this way we can guarantee the China angle is there."
FOUND IN TRANSLATION Little relies heavily on his co-teacher, Professor Zhang Xiaorong. The two map out the course over e-mail or telephone before Little arrives in China and then meet briefly before their joint lectures. "Maybe she'll point out the government doesn't allow the market to work how I expected," Little says. "She's saved me from many a faux pas in this regard."
Zhang's help is sometimes as simple as translating a technical term from English to Chinese to avoid interrupting a class's flow, but she has also recently tackled such uniquely Chinese issues as the revaluation of the yuan or effects of the country's housing price boom.
STUDENT TEACHERS Fudan, of course, does not come out of this arrangement empty-handed. The experience has allowed the Chinese business school to use Olin as a model for its own Chinese-language EMBA program, which it opened only a few months after Olin set up shop in Shanghai. Learning to teach in an EMBA program, where fellow students contribute as much to the classroom experience as their instructors do, was enlightening to many of the Fudan faculty who worked in the Olin program.
"Chinese professors are used to lecturing their students," says Fudan professor Rose Zhou, who helps run both Fudan and Olin's programs, "but class discussions are one of the most important parts of an EMBA education."
Fudan couldn't find louder cheerleaders than its Olin partners. Both Little and Moreton stress the school's hard work and dedication have greatly improved their EMBA program. Sometimes imitation does more than flatter; it benefits copier and copied alike.