The IESE Business School at the University of Navarra is over the hill. But like good whiskey, decision-making skills and vocabulary, IESE continues to get better with age—or at least consistent. The end of the 2014 fall semester marked the 50th anniversary of the first two-year MBA program in Europe. The school has consistently ranked among the top five programs in Europe and top 15 in the world for years.
In 1980, IESE became the first school in the world to offer a bilingual MBA program. And appropriate for a school which prides itself on diversity, the 50th anniversary graduating class was 83% international. The 291 graduating students came from 57 different countries.
The Barcelona-based school has gone through many changes since 1964. The MBA program was established under a joint advisory committee with Harvard Business School. The inaugural class had 120 applicants for 31 spots. Since then, the program has expanded with exchange programs to 30 different schools around the world and modules in New York City, Sao Paulo, Nairobi and Shanghai. Additionally, the school offers a very customized degree with 70 elective courses. Professor Carlos Garcia-Pont has witnessed much of the growth first-hand.
Garcia-Pont came to IESE in 1985 for an MBA. After graduating in 1987, he went to MIT’s Sloan for a PhD in international management. On February 28, 1992, Garcia-Pont found himself at a friend’s wedding and in a conversation about coming back to IESE to teach. He took the opportunity and has been there ever since.
LOCALS ONLY NO MORE
The main change in the past 30 years, according to Garcia-Pont, is the number of international students attending the school – which has changed everything from teaching style and environment to classroom culture.
“When I did the MBA here, we were a local school,” Garcia-Pont says. “It was probably 70 to 80 per cent Spaniards and now it is the opposite. We worked in groups when I was here and I remember being in a group of Spaniards. I put a group together this semester and realized it was a group with a Spaniard, Indian, Peruvian, American, Austrian and a Japanese.”
Students have to problem solve from the beginning, to communicate with peers. Just because they might all speak English or Spanish doesn’t mean they all speak the same kind.
“Someone who learned to speak English in France speaks it differently than someone who learned to speak the language in China,” Garcia-Pont says. “So before they can collaborate and work together, they have to learn how to communicate effectively. And I think they are better off for it. It is a unique environment to truly learn how to conduct business in an international setting.”
‘THE FIRST YEAR IS OURS… THE SECOND IS YOURS’
One thing that has remained the same is IESE’s emphasis on working across cultures. It is about quickly learning the values and culture another person is coming from—or at least to understand that culture and values that come with it. “The frame of reference is different depending on where you are coming from,” Garcia-Pont says. “The other day I overheard a group made up of students from Japan, Taiwan and Europe. They were making jokes about how they couldn’t possibly do business with someone from Japan because they refuse to agree with anyone. Obviously it was all in good nature and provided another learning experience for them all.”
And so it makes sense when Garcia-Pont says another evolution within IESE has been emphasis on the idea that business education should be less about the academics and more about the interaction. “A business in one place is different than another place,” Garcia-Pont says. “And the meaning of business is different in one place than another. Which is why we emphasize interaction and relationships and diversity.”
Garcia-Pont also says the school continues to develop its focus on general management. That is highlighted the most with the addition of general electives and the emphasis on customization. Students are encouraged to manage their education. “We tell them at the beginning the first year is ours and they will do what we say but the second year is theirs and they can do whatever they want,” Garcia-Pont says. “In most firms and companies, you are given a problem and told to go solve it. So we look at that second year as a time for them to solve the problem of what they want their MBA experience to really look like.”
POWER TO THE STUDENTS
In terms of future trends, Garcia-Pont sees two. First, students are increasingly going the entrepreneurship route and straying from the traditional corporate sequence. Tech companies are also increasingly seeking out IESE students. Also, IESE is continually testing the opportunities of blended learning. But because of the depth at which professors at IESE try to teach, Garcia-Pont does not see the MBA trending as much to blended learning as other degrees.
“The generation entering MBA programs now is what I call the PlayStation generation,” Garcia-Pont says. “They are looking for more technology. And you can teach finance or accounting with technology, but not the human relations component. You need residential for that.”
Above all, Garcia-Pont says the focus should be on the students.
“This school believes in the students,” Garcia-Pont says. “What we are hoping to say to them from the beginning is this is your place and your house. Each class is theirs and the school is theirs. It is here to be shared and theirs for their growth and development.”