The Charge Of Asia's B School Brigades

When Zhang Shouhang's employer, Xuzhou Construction Machinery group, lost a bid to supply equipment for China's planned $30 billion Three Gorges Dam, it did more than just gripe to the government. Instead, the 27,000-worker state-owned company, based in Jiangsu province, sent Zhang and four other senior staff members to study at the MBA program at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "The company decided we need to learn more," says Zhang, 35, a Xuzhou director who studied automation engineering in college, but no economics. "We discovered we lack experienced managers."

Xuzhou isn't alone. In their scramble for growth, companies across booming Asia are finding themselves short on a critical resource: professional management. To fill the void, universities from Shanghai to Singapore are ramping up their MBA programs. Private management institutes are springing up, too, offering courses in everything from time management to teamwork. The management training boom also is creating a thriving new market for U.S. business-school professors. Faculty from such universities as Columbia, Northwestern, and Michigan are taking up temporary residence at campuses across Asia, or even running quick courses out of hotels.

Yet grafting Western management styles onto Asia's corporate ranks isn't enough. Before Asia's business schools can really click, they must devise practices tailored to work in the Asian business environment. Asian schools still rely heavily on U.S. MBA programs for their curriculums, often using the same textbooks. Increasingly, educators are now adapting the American model, using local case studies and farming out students for on-the-job training.

RAPID-FIRE DEALMAKING. For example, traditional U.S. programs don't prepare students for Asian-style dealmaking, where big opportunities come and go in an instant and where personal contacts often take precedence over American-style due diligence. The chief of one of Hong Kong's leading property developers says he has fired every one of the Western-trained MBAs he had hired right out of school, because they weren't responsive enough to the Asian environment. Now, he looks for MBAs with five to seven years' experience in Asia. "If you analyze too much," he says, "you can't make money."

In addition, the time-honored U.S. tradition of brutal downsizing to maximize profits can cause chaos in paternalistic Asia, where workers still expect their loyalty to be reciprocated. "A lot of Western management theory was written during recession," says Toh Thian Ser, vice-dean of the business school at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "But in Asia, the challenge is to achieve change during rapid growth." Nor does the notion of empowerment completely translate into Asian cultures, where midlevel staffers feel that taking unwonted initiative is akin to insubordination.

So Asian business schools are restructuring their MBA training with a more regional approach. For example, the Asian Institute of Management in Manila, the region's first Western-style business school, started out in 1968 using only materials from Harvard business school. Now, 60% of case studies are done in-house or come from other Asian universities. The Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration, Bangkok's top business school, offers a graduate course in cross-cultural management that focuses on neighboring countries such as Vietnam. It also offers special weekend training for mid-career Thai executives. The school emphasizes team projects and builds esprit de corps with social activities ranging from overseas trips to annual Halloween bashes.

Although most MBA training is done in English, the international language of business, B-school curriculums are becoming more culturally and linguistically relevant to Asia. The new business school at three-year-old Hong Kong University of Science & Technology still jets in U.S. specialists for such popular short courses as time management and communication skills. And half of its 40 full-time MBA students attend exchange programs at American universities. But the school is adding elective courses, such as Mandarin, mainland Chinese economic reforms, case studies of local companies, and breakfast lectures with Hong Kong business leaders.

Learning Asia-specific skills is particularly urgent in Taiwan. The island actually has an MBA glut--but the grads often lack the managerial skills demanded by Taiwan's big-growth industries. Finance and management graduates know little about cutting-edge sectors such as computers, while engineering grads lack the background to manage global businesses.

So National Chengchi University's College of Commerce, whose business program is regarded as Taiwan's most prestigious, will start redesigning its entire curriculum in January. A major objective is to beef up international studies, communication skills, and adeptness in information technologies. The school also has launched a technology-and-innovation management program, and another program for 200 specialists in research and development.

Even Singapore, perhaps the most centrally planned of Asia's more advanced economies, finds that "the managerial shortage is acute and across-the-board," says Arun Mahizhnan, a senior researcher at Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies. So Singaporean managers are flocking back to school. Many take one of more than 30 long-distance learning programs offered by U.S. universities. Others attend one of the private training institutes that have sprung up locally.

One outfit, Optima Management & Consultancy Ltd., offers a popular four-day course based on principles from The Art of War, a classic by 4th century BC Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu that has also become a management how-to in the U.S. Teams of 20 to 50 students pay $2,700 each to don army fatigues and engage in mock combat in the jungles of China's Guangdong Province. Then they spend several days relating the lessons on communications and strategic planning from their military games to business situations.

Singapore's stodgy education system is also being retooled to produce global managers. The business school at Nanyang Technological University requires MBA students to go on overseas study missions. Graduate students pump out elaborate case studies on the business scenes in such upcoming hot spots as Penang in Malaysia and China's Sichuan Province.

Nowhere, however, is the need for professional managers more serious than in China. As a result, the government has designated nine universities, including Beijing science-and-technology powerhouse Tsinghua University, to start MBA programs. The university now has 309 MBA students, and it's growing rapidly. The top priority is training the mid-career executives who are responsible for modernizing China's behemoth state-owned companies.

SHANGHAI'S FULL-TIMERS. Even more ambitious is the new China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, launched with financing from the European Union. For this year's 60 full-time MBA slots, CEIBS received 4,000 applicants from across China. Among the full-timers are senior executives from China Eastern Airlines and Shanghai Petrochemical Complex.

All of these Asian MBA programs are still evolving. Until home-grown curriculums become fully refined, Western B-school experts could have the upper hand in shaping what these future managers study. But as resources pour into the region's business schools, it's only a matter of time before they devise programs tailored to Asia's unique needs. In so doing, they will help Asia's new giants bridge the managerial gap between themselves and their toughest Western rivals.

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