How can students in Frankfurt and Henley be attending the same class? Hilary Wilce reports

Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, Rüdiger Fricke leaves his job running a small dairy to join his MBA class in Frankfurt. In England, Stephen Thair leaves his work as an independent IT contractor to join the same class. How can this be?

Henley School of Management is pioneering a new kind of MBA, run simultaneously on two sites, in two countries, with the classes linked by audio and video technology and e-learning systems.

If this sounds a little precarious, then let's be honest: it is. This is the first year of the programme and a steep learning curve for everyone. Glitches still have to be ironed out of the technology, but more importantly everyone is having to work to bridge the gap between the heavily structured German approach to business and learning and the more laid-back British view of these things.

"I'd say the London class is more lively, discursive and is asking more questions. In Frankfurt, they like to know where they stand," says Thair. "I'd also say there are differences in dealing with uncertainty - how comfortable people are with things not being black or white, but shades of grey."

Erich Barthel of Hochschule für Bankwirtschaft, Henley's partner school for the programme in Frankfurt, points out that in Germany, MBA programmes, with their collaborative style of learning, are not yet widely recognised. A PhD is still the commonest way to advance a career. Which means that although the students in Frankfurt are a self-selected group, well up for this new approach, they still expect a lot from their tutors. "They expect them to tell them where to look, and what to learn," he says. "They want to be told the latest theories. In London they don't care if it is the latest theory or not, they only care how appropriate it is. They want things that are useful." But, he adds, the atmosphere between the two groups is great.

There are 28 students in London, and 13 in Frankfurt, and both groups include a mix of nationalities. They follow exactly the same programme, sometimes discussing issues or making presentations to each other via technical links, and sometimes working in their own classes. Two residential sessions have helped to break down barriers between the groups.

Alison Llewellyn, learning and development adviser, has been flying out to Germany to support the Frankfurt classes and has found a number of differences. "For example, the way they operate in groups is different. In Germany, they want to be democratic and appoint a different leader each week. In London, they are more likely to appoint someone to coordinate and lead the whole exercise."

"In London, I'd say they have more fun with it," says Jane McKenzie, course director. "There's lots of laughter. In Frankfurt, the classes are not so dynamic. There is a very heavy commitment to learning."

In part, this stems from how students perceive what they are doing. In Germany, she points out, people tend to feel a strong sense of obligation to the company they work for, and see their own career development as something apart, while in England the attitude is more "I'm an individual, I have a responsibility for developing my career, and that development in turn will feed back to my company". As a result, while the Brits might use assignments to approach their bosses for information and to raise their profile within their companies, in Germany students don't do this and can have trouble getting information and completing assignments.

"The UK guys have to do this step for their professional career," says Rüdiger Fricke, "but here in Germany where the MBA is not so common we are always asking ourselves how we are going to get our cash back." He decided to take the MBA for its international dimension and because its evening schedule fits with having a young family, and hopes to use it to switch into another field. For now, though, he is just enjoying the process. "You have two cultures talking together, meeting, sharing knowledge and ideas. It is a really international approach."

A year of preparation went into setting up the course. Tutors in Frankfurt were trained in the Henley way of teaching - you start with real-life experiences and look at how these fit the theory, not the other way round - and have to follow the Henley curriculum, but are free to use more German case studies and examples, and to adapt their classroom techniques to local conditions, provided they stick to the interactive approach.

The pay-off for both groups is the chance to get really up close and personal with another culture. They swap detailed information about things such as how UK and German companies select people, and what drives marketing in each country. For English students there is the chance to make good European contacts and to study for a part-time MBA in a truly international setting. German students get a British MBA and the chance to improve their English - although language has proved more of a classroom barrier than anticipated. Tutors are now advised to avoid acronyms and metaphors, and in Frankfurt some groups have reverted to working together in German. "At the end of the session, when they are tired, you can really see their language going," says Jane McKenzie. "There are all sorts of little things you don't think about when you embark on something like this."

Yet Henley is committed to its "learning together, apart" programme, seeing it as a good way to tap into the potentially lucrative German MBA market. It is embarking on research to build up a detailed picture of cultural learning differences. And in 2006, as if it hasn't got enough on its plate trying to make a two-location MBA work, it is planning to expand it into a three-way model, adding in a class in New York.

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