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These days, anyone contemplating taking an executive MBA will be looking for a significant international element to the learning experience. Domestic markets are history. In future, customers and clients are as likely to be on the other side of the globe as the other side of town.

Designers of such programmes have tried to meet the challenge through an ever-broadening range of case studies that no longer focus just on Western economies. They have also tried to make their classes as diverse as possible in terms of nationality and culture on the basis that participants will learn as much about markets from their peers as from their professor. As Josh Kobb, director of global initiatives at HEC Paris, puts it: “EMBAs are very practice-oriented, and build on the experience of those in the classroom. The more international they are, the more international the learning experience will be through classroom exchange. Highly diverse teaching groups also help to build global business networks than can be invaluable for the future.”

Of late there has been more acceptance that this approach may not provide the whole answer, fuelled in part by the growing number of managers and professionals paying for their own EMBAs and seeking the maximum return on investment. Now executive-education designers are increasingly keen to provide ‘boots on the ground’ experience: personal exposure of what it is like to live, work and deal in key global markets. As a result, about a third of EMBAs at leading schools now feature mandatory overseas study trips, a rise of nearly 14% over the past four years. China is by far the most popular destination but other countries are rapidly catching up. Trips to Turkey and the fastest growing parts of Latin America, for example, have quadrupled over the same period.

Kobb’s HEC Paris has reacted to demand by offering modules in France, China, Russia and Qatar. The London Business School MBA encompasses Dubai, New York and Hong Kong, while Insead makes use of its campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi.

But isn’t there a risk of simply developing domestic programmes with foreign activities? The UK’s Lancaster University Management School has teamed up with McGill University in Canada, as well as schools in Asia and Latin America, to develop the International Masters Program in Practicing Management (IMPM), which tries to balance the course across different parts of the world while being centred in none. “The intention is to create worldly managers rather than global managers”, explains coordinator Dora Koop. “The IMPM is international, but it is not meant to be ‘global’, which suggests conformist. So the programme is as Asian as it is European or North American, offering participants an authentically cross-cultural experience.”

This move towards more truly international programmes is also being embraced by the traditional home of business education, the US. The Darden School at the University of Virginia has developed a 21-month programme that goes under the ‘does what it says on the tin’ title of GEMBA or Global Executive MBA. The programme includes six two-week residencies: two in the US and the rest in Brazil, India, Europe and China. As Professor Lynn Isabella puts it, the point is to get a real understanding of local conditions. “If you just stay in an international hotel having classes for two weeks, you’re missing out on the real value of being in an overseas location. What you need is to get a real sense of what that part of the world is really like. We believe that means a lot of forward preparation before you get there, learning the basics of the language, understanding how the Communist Party operates in China and what sort of impact a religion might have on local culture.”

EMBA and executive education buyers have been travelling for years, but in many instances they have just been passing through, cocooned in Professor Isabella’s “international hotels” like business tourists. What appears to be different now is the commitment to getting under the skin of the local commercial culture through local business leaders, local fellow students and local academics.

The OneMBA, an executive MBA programme staged by a consortium of five schools from four continents, puts its participants through global residencies that feature all three of these key groups. As one of its graduates, Keith Mahoney, points out: “A genuinely global programme isn’t about taking professors and students from one country and running the same course overseas. That’s just a field trip. You need to hear the locals describing what it’s like to do business in their country. That type of learning is simply invaluable.”

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