A Passport to Success

Passport to success

In recent months Harvard Business School has received much publicity about its FIELD ‘global immersion experience’ – the dispatch of nearly all of its 907-strong MBA class to assignments in countries as disparate as Argentina, China and South Africa.

Critics argue that seven days provides little more than educational tourism, rather than a meaningful cross-cultural learning experience. Harvard of course insists that the project has a practical base, tasking participants to work with local organisations to create viable products or services for the local market. In Vietnam, for example, a team will help to develop a sustainable form of flood insurance; in China they will work on a new type of car tyre and in Ghana, students will work with L’Oréal to help the company redesign a targeted haircare product.

As Harvard is still the world’s highest-profile business school, this initiative has been greeted as something radically different but the idea of a ‘course within a course’ where students get out of the classroom to learn outside of their comfort zone has been implemented by many schools for more than a decade.

Switzerland’s IMD business school, for instance, puts students through Discovery Expeditions in India, China and Silicon Valley, the idea being that they will explore globalisation by studying local and foreign-based companies doing business there. Beyond investigating new trends and ideas, participants are expected to work on consulting projects and present their recommendations. And since 1992, the Ross School at Michigan University in the US has run ‘multi-disciplinary action projects’ that get students to find solutions to problems faced by a wide range of corporate and not-for-profit (NGO) clients, from fast-growth companies in China to an AIDS clinic in Papua New Guinea.

Other courses within courses are designed to meet specific needs. For example, last September an all-female group of participants in the five-school OneMBA executive programme were taken up Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, in a bonding and empowering exercise.

Despite the fact that one might expect such an exercise to leave little room for anything but a focus on not falling off the mountain, the experience also apparently allowed the climbers time to consider their roles and ambitions in a male-dominated corporate world in a completely different environment. As one of the group put it, without any obvious hint of irony: “It created a safe place for us to talk about a wide range of issues, about being in business and about our career paths.”

What does appear to differentiate the ‘course within a course’ of today from many of its predecessors is the combined emphasis on hands-on learning and delivering something both practical and useful at the end of the experience.

Students have been trotted out to internally focused assignments or to the shadowing of senior executives for years. Now, however, almost all are asked to act as if they were actually working for their host organisation with all the pressures and expectations that that entails. And increasingly, they are being pointed at projects that have a more holistic impact than simply devising a new marketing strategy or change management plan.

At the Vlerick Leuven Gent school in Belgium, for example, MBA students must sign up for its ‘Giving Something Back’ programme and work with an NGO on the development of new business plans, funding models and marketing strategies. Recent projects have included devising and implementing a fundraising strategy for a women’s charity in Thailand.

Although David Venter, the Vlerick professor behind the programme, admits that students have had to be creative because of the nature of the clients, he believes that the benefits of frontline work make the extra effort well worthwhile.

“We’re confident that we’ve set a process in motion that has sensitised our students to the importance of making a contribution beyond yourself,” he says, “and that this attitude will carry through for the rest of their lives.”

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