Making Those Connections Work

How a Dutch B-school is helping its diverse student body develop lasting networks

Born in Vietnam, raised in Washington, D.C., and frequently on official business in the Middle East, Geneva Pham was hardly a stranger to the world when she enrolled at RSM Erasmus University's international MBA program in Rotterdam. "It's not like it's the first time I met someone from Thailand or Germany or Africa," says Pham, 35, who previously was an international program specialist for the U.S. Commerce Dept.

Globe-trotters like Pham are the rule among students who choose one of the English-language MBA programs that are proliferating in Europe. "The program is a veritable United Nations of students," says Mike Page, a South African who is dean of RSM's international MBA and executive MBA programs. Still, the schools are trying to offer more than a shallow, feel-good experience. Asks Page: "How do we get them to bring diversity into the classroom, to engage with it, grapple with it, and then take it out?"

One answer, at least at RSM, is technology. Dianne Bevelander, executive director of RSM programs, is using software to map the networks that students form among themselves and track the student connections over time. School administrators hope to use the lessons learned to teach students how to more effectively create the networks they'll need to succeed in a global business environment.

Two weeks after students arrived in October, Bevelander asked them to identify their personal networks. A questionnaire asked them to name students with whom they work, those from whom they seek ideas, and those with whom they socialize. Then Bevelander color-coded the three types of connections to produce an image of the current class that, on a PC screen, looks like a lacework project gone haywire.

But patterns emerge. "This group works well together as a team," says Bevelander, pointing at an octagon representing one student work group. "But if you look at the social network, they don't talk to each other at all." Indeed, the lines representing social connections all lead to other groups. The lesson: Teams can get the job done even if the members don't like each other that much.


Not surprisingly, early in the program students tend to cluster according to native language. Bevelander expects that to change as the 15-month program progresses and students create new alliances founded on interests and temperament. As a rule, Bevelander found, women appear to be better at networking than men.

Bevelander plans to repeat the survey twice more before the class graduates. Results of the study are kept confidential, but students get to see who, among the people they identified as members of their network, reciprocated -- their so-called confirmed connections. Then, with the help of Karen Stephenson, a Harvard University anthropologist who studies human networks, students will be encouraged to think about how they can expand and exploit their own connections. Dean Page compares the students to actors on a stage. How can they get beyond being bit players, just trying to get through the program, and learn how to grab the spotlight -- a skill they'll need in business? "A lot of it is about understanding yourself," he says.

Bevelander's method is new, so the results aren't conclusive. But students already know that they are learning something valuable. Pham, for example, learned that women from Japan and Taiwan, whom she expected to be shy, could be quite assertive in class. "A lot of stereotypes are breaking down as we move along," says Pham. For students planning a career in global business, that's an important lesson, and one that can't be found in any textbook.

By Jack Ewing

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