Putting MBAs to the Culture Test

Putting MBAs to the Culture Test
A workshop at Tepper aims to give MBAs the cultural awareness they need to work with colleagues from different backgrounds (Photograph by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images)
Photograph by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images

Cultural differences can become magnified in the global marketplace. Now that MBAs are expected to work on teams with colleagues from different countries and backgrounds, understanding cultural norms and differences is critical, says Evelyn Pierce, associate director of the Accelerate Leadership Center at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

In the spring, Tepper launched the Leadership Immersion Workshop, a two-and-a-half-day program for MBA students that was developed by the leadership center and the Carnegie Bosch Institute, an executive education provider. Students undergo a culture assessment and participate in experiential learning projects created by the United Kingdom’s Coverdale executive training program.

Although the school ran pilot versions of the workshop twice before, this was the first time all first-year MBA students were required to participate. he students are now out in the field on their internships, putting what they’ve learned to use, says Pierce.

Recently,she spoke to Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.

What is the culture assessment that students take? How is this different from other assessments?

The results of this test are to show students how your cultural perspective can give you a different outlook. For instance, one of the questions shows students three circles—one representing the past, one the present, and one the future. On the computer, they can manipulate the size of each circle to represent how they experience time and the significance it has to them. Those who make the future circle bigger put more emphasis on it and so on. What we found is that most Americans favor the future. In fact, American managers talk about their visions for the future, often. Those from Asia, on the other hand, look backward first. They want to look at where we’ve come from.

What kinds of experiential learning tasks might students do?

Well, I can’t tell you the specifics of the Coverdale program because we sign a confidentiality agreement. But I can tell you about an assignment I’ve given that is similar to the ones in the workshop. Teams of students are given a stack of cardboard, scissors, tape, and models of towers. Then I ask them to reproduce as many of the models as they can. Doing the assignment isn’t the really important part. How you decide to do it is where the learning comes in.

How do students typically perform in these kinds of assignments?

Some teams want to know if I want them to create models that look exactly like the originals. They get to talking and make assumptions. When they’re done, I might say, ‘Well, I wanted them all to be green.’ They never asked me the question. They forget that there’s a client in this, and they don’t ask enough questions.

We’re aiming to help them come to an understanding of what audiences need, what they need to provide for each other as teammates, how to monitor their progress in terms of time. (Some don’t even get started on the project when time’s up.) These are all basic things, but they can get lost. We see this happening today in many businesses.

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