Open Eye: Russian link lifts self-confidence

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By the time of the second OU Business School tutorial in Moscow in August 1991, Gorbachev had vanished in the coup, Yeltsin was riding on the tanks, statues were being pulled down and bunches of flowers were appearing on street corners. Shortage of paper and envelopes for student assignments and the absence of a reliable postal and telephone service was normal.

Today, the political exhortations have vanished from buildings to be replaced by neon advertising. McDonald's has started up in Red Square and Lenin has been removed from his mausoleum, maybe never to return. Inflation is rampant, society in turmoil, and the phone and postal service still unpredictable.

One constant throughout the 1990s has been the growth in demand for OU Business School management development. This year, more than 5,000 Russian managers are studying for the Certificate and Diploma in Management using more than 70 study centres across nine time zones.

When Edith Thorne, the School's pioneering country manager, retired at the end of last year, the Deputy Minister of Education, Professor Zhurakovsky, applauded her major personal contribution to the Russian revolution in management development.

The Minister wrote: "You have shown yourself to be a real professional and brave person with a profound respect for the Russian educational system." Since the project began, 20,000 Russian managers have been re-trained through the OUBS, from Archangel in the north to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, to Odessa in the south Ukraine.

The story began with OU presentations on distance learning in Moscow in December 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall came down. In the audience were senior members of the Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute (TsAGI), one of the premier space research centres, with 10,000 scientists in the Moscow district alone.

They responded with a proposal to explore how it could translate some OU Business School courses and offer them at locations linked to the aerospace industry. Dr Sergei Schennikov, former director of Soyuz, founded a consortium, Link, to deliver the management courses in Russia.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the space scientists set about re-inventing themselves in the consortium . "These management courses give us confidence in ourselves," said Dr Schennikov. "They also give us the confidence to change our lives."

As the new Russia began to edge towards a market economy, distance learning methods were seen to be immediately relevant to the massive task of re- training large numbers of Russian managers in a short time.

The first scheme began with a group of 20 students in 1991 in the town of Zhukovsky, a major research centre previously not shown on Soviet maps. The local mayor, as well as many who worked on leading-edge research in the Soviet space programme, signed on as students.

An initial cohort of students took the UK version of the Certificate and Diploma courses in English. During this period the courses were translated locally and verified by the OU. Russian staff were also trained in the OU's methods of student registration, assessment and examinations, tutor training and selection, materials production and presentation.

Detailed quality control methods were put in place. A bilingual assessor read and commented on all the materials from the point of view of language and adaptation to the local business and cultural environment.

For Dr Schennikov, the mission was clear: "We wanted to create a new organisational and management enterprise culture in the former territory of the USSR using advanced western educational technology."

The Link consortium has now constructed its own building in Zhukovsky using retained profits and it continues to expand and take on new staff. The ground floor of the building is dedicated to storage of course materials. With the still unpredictable postal service, Link uses trucks to deliver materials direct to the study centres from where students collect them.

The commitment of the Russian management students has proved exceptional. Edith Thorne flew from Edinburgh to Moscow every six weeks to take tutorials. Yet some of her students were travelling greater distances within Russia to attend them.

With the new MBA intake studying in English, students travel to the UK (or Dublin or Leiden) for residential schools. With rampant inflation, the cost of the MBA has tripled and has resulted in very serious personal sacrifices and commitment in a society in economic melt-down.

In Russia, OU management development through distance learning is clearly an idea that has found its time.