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East meets West in rich new cultural exchange

Published on Friday, 10 Aug 2012
Randall Peterson
Vincent Wong

EMBA-Global Asia
School of Business, HKU

Success in business depends to a large extent on interpersonal skills and understanding others, particularly when operating in an international environment with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds.

For this reason, the EMBA-Global Asia programme at the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) School of Business ensures that students in each intake represent a wide range of industries, expertise, nationalities and experience.

The programme, designed for senior executives in fast-moving businesses, includes modules which deal specifically with the more psychological aspects of business, such as leadership, conflict management and personal motivation, to give an all-round appreciation of what it takes to hit targets.

Importantly too, the programme’s mix of required courses and electives gives the chance to study in three contrasting cities. The deliberate aim is to increase each student’s exposure to different ideas and influences, so they can absorb new perspectives and see that a flexible approach helps in solving most business challenges.

“What we try to do in the programme is bring together students who want to be ‘global citizens’ and show them what it takes to be successful anywhere,” says Randall Peterson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School (LBS), which runs the course in partnership with HKU’s School of Business and New York’s Columbia Business School. “That means learning about different perspectives and, in the longer run, realising there has to be a fusion, blending best practice and ideas from Asia and the West.”

The process begins with a 360-degree personality assessment of each student, inviting feedback from their current manager, peers and even subordinates. From this comes a clear view of individual strengths and weaknesses, along with a personal development plan giving specific recommendations and action points to work on over the next six months.

“In small groups with executive coaches, the students look at what they do now [as managers] and the problems they have,” Peterson says. “There can be a lot of issues depending on the level of cultural knowledge, as well as some less obvious problems with the individual’s philosophy and approach.”

With so many businesses cultivating global ambitions, Peterson notes the EMBA programme has to balance technical subjects such as finance, marketing and strategic planning with softer skills in communication and effective leadership. In doing this, a key principle is to steer away from the “I win” mentality and instead help people to discuss or negotiate in a way where both parties can benefit.

“Obviously there are some major shifts going on in global business,” Peterson says. “Therefore, the framework we use involves teaching cultural intelligence – the knowledge and self-awareness to feel comfortable and be effective in other businesses or social environments. We don’t assume someone will become bi-cultural, but we do look at the hidden layers, not just the basic cultural differences. That is also a signature of the very top schools – not teaching to a particular bias, but seeing what we have to learn from each other.”

For Vincent Wong, a recent EMBA-Global Asia graduate, this gave the programme an extra dimension. More used to the North American style of business interaction, he gained new insights by mixing with classmates from countries such as Brazil, France and Vietnam.

The course had other benefits too. “I found that with the LBS professors, you get a different viewpoint and a European way of thinking,” says Wong, who joined Oracle in Hong Kong earlier this year as director of sales consultancy responsible for Asia-Pacific and Japan.

“The professors also gave us the perspective of Chinese business owners and entrepreneurs, making it a lot easier to understand where they are coming from.”

Though already having been involved in large IT-related deals for the best part of a decade, Wong found this kind of instruction a real eye-opener.

 “China is very interesting in terms of its growth potential,” he says. “But you must know how to deal with people on the ground and understand the way they think.”

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