`We Do Real Company Problems, Not Harvard Case Studies'

In halting English, Tamio Mori is trying to sell a small group of American and European executives on his team's strategy to enter the Indian market. The idea: to produce and sell electric-powered motorbikes to the masses in India who can't afford cars.

"You can't be serious," laughs one skeptic, reminding the Hitachi Ltd. executive of India's daily power blackouts and high electricity costs. "That's a long shot," heckles another. Undaunted, Mori presses ahead. "Itwill take a few years for the costs to go down," he says with a smile. "But we must plan for the next generation of technology."

That scene was recently played out in the University of Michigan's Global Leadership Program, one of several courses singled out by companies and deans in BUSINESS WEEK surveys as among the most innovative and creative approaches to executive education. The highest scores went to a diverse array of programs -- from the Wharton School's still-new, $33,000 International Forum for the world's corporate elite, to the Dartmouth B-school's $2,150 crash one-week management course for minority entrepreneurs. The University of Tennessee makes the list by virtue of the niche it has carved out in quality.

BIGGEST GRIPE. Not many B-school programs even got on the board, however. As one executive who responded to BUSINESS WEEK's survey said, "innovation and creativity are not terms I would use to describe any of the programs." That assessment may be a bit harsh. There's plenty of experimentation going on as business schools try to address the biggest gripe of corporate clients: that executive education rarely provides immediate benefits.

Boston University's Leadership Institute, for example, garnered rave reviews for its real-world practicality. Launched in 1989 after focus groups with potential customers, the program quickly won support from such big names as American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and Digital Equipment Corp. Each manager arrives with a specific "strategy execution challenge" that he or she works on during a pair of two-week sessions over the summer. A Federal Express Corp. manager's challenge was to create a new division in Australia. A Bell of Pennsylvania executive had to go through a downsizing of operations. Each manager is paired with a faculty mentor who acts as a consultant on the action plan. The Boston program mainly attracts midlevel executives who are in their late 30s and early 40s.

No B-school program draws as high-powered a group of executives as Wharton's International Forum, now in its third year. Some 30 business leaders, a third each from Europe, Asia, and the U. S., engage in a trio of four-day seminars over a span of eight months. The sessions on global issues travel from Wharton's campus in Philadelphia to Brugge, Belgium, and then to Kyoto, Japan. The program's steep cost equals the price of its two-year MBA program--and doesn't include airfare. That has not deterred such high-profile executives as Procter & Gamble Co. Chairman Edwin L. Artzt and Fuji Xerox Co. President Yotaro Kobayashi from attending.

The most accolades in the surveys went to Michigan's Global Leadership Program. Once a year, it brings together 30 executives from the U. S., Europe, and Asia for an intensive five-week course team-taught by three professors, one each from Michigan, France's INSEAD, and Hitotsubashi University in Japan. The lofty mission: to develop "global business leaders" with "the mind-set, leadership, and team-building skills to both lead their institutions and contribute to world economic growth."

MAKING RAFTS. To accomplish those goals, Program Director Noel M. Tichy throws executives into what he calls "compressed action learning." Rather than lecture to a classroom of executives, he engages them in a series of team-building exercises, from competitive raft-building at an Outward Bound school to creating and presenting assessments of business opportunities in such countries as India, China, and the Soviet Union. "We do real company problems, not Harvard case studies," says Tichy.

Mori's strategy for the Indian market was typical of that approach. For five weeks, he worked closely with four other executivesin a team jokingly dubbed "Les Miserables" for their sobering views: two Americans from AT&T and Merck, a European from Olivetti, and a Japanese compatriot from Honda Motor. Like the other five teams, the group spent two weeks in a foreign locale to identify target markets and figure out the best way to enter them. The eye-popping trip spurred plenty of personal introspection that reach well beyond business considerations. Takeo Fukui of Honda said he couldn't eat one day because of the squalor. James E. Clark of AT&T said the living conditions in Calcutta reminded him "of what slavery must have been like in this country for my grandparents." Hitachi's Mori recalled the cheerful faces of the children in India. "I started to wonder who they are and what I was doing there," he told his colleagues. "These questions still remain in my mind."

Back at school in Ann Arbor, each team produces written, videotaped, and oral reports for dissection by skeptical colleagues. The whirlwind process forces intense interaction with managers from diverse corners of the world. "You see how different cultures come at things differently," says James Danzeisen, a program alum from ICI Industries. "You see how the Japanese are so pragmatic and precise, yet completely gracious in groups, unwilling to criticize each other." The heckling Mori got when he made his presentation quickly taught him not to expect Japanese-style treatment from his American and European cohorts.

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