Designing The Ideal Global MBA Experience

If you were a major business school dean and had the chance to pull out a blank piece of paper to design the ideal global MBA program, what would it look like?

For Peter Rodriguez, an economics professor and an associate dean at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, this was no theoretical exercise.

Four years ago, he was asked by Dean Robert Bruner to do just that—sketch out the best possible design for a new global MBA program for executives. “I remember him saying, ‘We need to wake up every day and worry about how we are going to become more global.’ I think I wake up every day and worry about it.”

Now, years after studying the market, the result of that worry and work will debut this August. Darden’s Global MBA program is a bold undertaking in global business education, a highly innovative one-of-a-kind experience that promises to challenge current notions of what a truly global MBA program can be. It also comes at a time when there already is plenty of competition from other programs for global execs. And it won’t be cheap. The price: a hefty $139,500, not including an estimated $12,000 in additional travel costs. (See our list of the most innovative global MBA programs for executives.)

Starting in August of this year through May of 2011, some 40 students will undergo six separate two-week-long international residencies at the home campus in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington, D.C., but also in Brazil, India, Europe, and China. Fully a third of the course work will be delivered via the Internet, in live weekly classes, virtual learning teams, and integrated work projects. Some 15 faculty members at Darden will be involved in delivering the program.

And all of it will be taught via the case study method, the dominant teaching approach at both Darden and Harvard Business School. For each of the program’s six terms, students will be expected to read and discuss 30 to 35 case studies—over 200 in all. Roughly 20% of the cases will be brand new at launch, designed specifically for the new global MBA.

Multiple faculty members will teach many of the classes from different backgrounds and disciplines. A course called “Understanding Global Markets,” for example, will feature four different professors from finance, economics, marketing, and strategy. “The significance of this model is we teach to the problems of an executive,” says Sankaran “Venkat” Venkataraman, a Darden professor and academic director. “Problems do not show up in academic silos which is how most business schools are constructed. They often transcend individual disciplines.”

Exactly how the program came to be is a case study in educational innovation itself. There is no shortage of global Executive MBA programs. In the past ten years, it has been a fertile area for innovation and growth. There are now dozens of EMBA programs that are partnerships among schools on different continents, including OneMBA, a novel partnership among five different schools, including North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, on four continents.

By being late to the global EMBA party, Darden had the benefit of learning from many other players—and from a deep dive in globalization by Dean Bruner who chaired a task force on the topic for the Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Schools of Business, the leading accreditor of B-schools.

With a charge from Bruner to create the quintessential global program, Rodriguez immediately tackled three central questions:

1. Why should we do a global executive program and what do we really want out of it?

2. Do we need to partner with other schools?

3. What do we need to teach the students in the program?

The answer to the first question was simple, says Rodriguez. Starting the program wasn’t about creating a new source of revenue. “If I just needed customers then we would have expanded our local programs,” he says. “But we saw this as essential to our strategy as a school to help create the world’s best business leaders. And we don’t do volume. We do intimate, elite, leadership experiences.”

Surveying the competitive landscape, Rodriguez discovered that there already are some 40 programs that are the result of partnerships that involve a domestic country school and at least one outside its borders. “In the partnership model,” he says, “a lot of the schools had a less homogenous approach to the learning. The faculties were not integrated. There was one approach at one school, and another approach at the other. We concluded we wanted to own and insure the quality of the experience from beginning to end. than go to a partner right at launch, we agreed to get our footing and then seek partners.”

And finally, to the third question, the answer was to create a program that would prepare students to be “globally aware, to help them understand the opportunities and risks in a global business world. Very few of the existing programs looked at the whole global economy but instead focused on a couple of regions in the world,” he says. “So few took on the bigger challenge of thinking about the entire world and the challenge of being a manager in a highly global organization.”

It meant nothing less than a rethink of the MBA curriculum. “We ended up believing we had to do two things: one, we had to go back to the blackboard and redesign our curriculum,” adds Rodriguez. “A tweak here and there wouldn’t work. We had to go back to the drawing board and rethink the MBA.”

For a case study school like Darden, that meant going to the original class materials that are at the core of the learning process. Many of the existing international cases often were about an American or European multinational operating in a single country, such as China. So Darden had to hire more case writers and toss incentives in front of the faculty to get professors to write more cases on companies in China, India, Latin America, and Europe.

“If it’s global, it has to connect across all the pieces,” says Rodriguez. “Besides having courses that are discipline specific, we have courses that span the residencies so they are by their nature integrating the work in the different environments.”

The Darden team agreed that there should be no shortcuts for an executive program. Instead, it would require the same number of courses and credits as the full-time MBA.

Ultimately, the Darden team decided on four residencies outside the U.S. because that was deemed the minimum number of regions to make the program truly global.

“A drive-by experience of a week or less would be too little to marry the curriculum to the location,” he says. So the team settled on two-week stints, evenly spread across the 21-month program. It begins with two weeks in Charlottesville in late August and then distance learning portion kicks in via the Internet. Each week, there will be a maximum of two online classes, requiring at least ten hours of work by participants.

The second term begins in mid-January of 2012 in Brazil with a two-weeks in Sao Paulo and/or Rio de Janeiro. The third term kicks off in Beijing and Shanghai in May of 2012, while the four term starts off with an immersion trip in September of 2012 in Paris and Berlin. The final international two-week residency begins in December of 2012 in India, in New Delhi and/or Chennai. The program ends with two weeks in Charlottesville and Washington, D.C., in May of 2013. Four Darden professors will be sent to each international residency.

If some of this smacks as academic tourism, Rodriguez is quick to counter that the students will be worked as hard as they are on campus. “Talk to existing students in any one of our programs, and they will disabuse you of any notion that this is easy. We plan to push and stretch the students really hard here,” he insists.

What sets the learning apart, contends Darden, is being taught via case study method from highly experienced case study teachers. “Other schools use cases but in many cases the professors lecture the cases,” says Venkat. “The emphasis is how a professor views the case as opposed to making the students discover learning through trial and error, through dialogue and debate, and shared experiences.”

The other critical difference is the deep level of integration. Many case studies will be written from the perspective of multiple disciplines, and team teaching will be an important focus of the program. “Most of the other programs are being largely taught by subject experts who lecture on an individual subject area,” adds Venkat.

“We are doing a lot of integrative courses with multiple faculty members teaching in a single class.”

“Managing Global Processes,” for example, will be taught by an operations professor, who is an expert in logistics and supply chains, an accounting professor, who addresses issues of managerial accounting, and a decision analysis teacher who explores how decisions are made in a global environment. Four professors, experts in leadership, communications, ethics, and strategy, will deliver “Leading Global Enterprises.”

Dean Bruner sees the program’s launch as part of the widespread experimentation by schools to become more global. “The players in the field are trying a lot of different things,” he says. “It’s like an early stage, high growth industry, with a lot of joint ventures, partnerships, and startups. The bar is very high and should be because of the incredible growth in global business itself.”

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