International contests between schools can be fun and rewarding, but what do they teach students?

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The Independent Online

This summer, Barclay Rogers, 35, seized the chance to be part of the team fielded by Judge Business School in Cambridge that would take part in an annual competition between leading business schools from all over the world.

The US-born Rogers is an experienced competitor in events such as the Innovate China Global Challenge, organised by China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) and held in Shanghai. A lawyer working in the environmental field, he has taken part in no fewer than three competitions during his one-year MBA programme at Judge. "These competitions are fascinating," he says. "Students bring such amazing energy and enthusiasm. You could call me a serial competitor."

Competitions between business schools are attracting ambitious MBA students in increasing numbers. The question is: are they a distraction, or can they add real value to the learning experience?

MBA students are encouraged to be good team players, but they also harbour a deep-rooted competitive streak. It's a prerequisite of business success, after all. Beyond their core studies, many are entering the growing number of competitions organised by business schools and the corporate sector, which offer a chance for MBAs to make a showing on the global stage and win some useful cash to help fund their course.

There are literally hundreds of competitions to pick from around the world, often run by students themselves. Many offer cash prizes that can amount to thousands of pounds, and they range from case study analysis contests to business plan pitches, to international sporting events. And the competition begins at home, as students vie with one another to be selected for a place on the team that will represent their peers overseas.

Other institutions competing in Shanghai included the Stern School of Business in New York, and the London Business School (LBS). The objective of the intensive four-day competition was to find the best strategy for a big Chinese manufacturing company to enable it to expand its markets globally. For Rogers, the chance to immerse himself in Chinese business and to face real decision-makers, was very motivating. "We didn't get much sleep over the four days, but the buzz of staying up all night to put the final presentation together, to the panel of judges and a 200-strong audience, kept us on our toes."

Judge's team didn't win, but Rogers came away from Shanghai having seen how other MBA students approach the same challenges. It was also an invaluable chance to apply what he had learnt in class. "I've discovered a lot more about myself and how I analyse problems," says Rogers

The chance to interact closely with business was the main attraction for Joo Yi, 30, from Korea, a member of the CEIBS team, who worked for McKinsey before her MBA. "It definitely put the harshness of the problems that real companies face into perspective, and how I may be in a CEO's shoes one day and have to make similarly tough decisions," she says.

The question for MBA students, already under huge pressure, is whether these competitive forays are just a tempting distraction or a valuable learning exercise. Fabiana Olivera, 33, who comes from a consulting background, was another member of Judge's team. She found the timing clashed with her course work. "When we arrived in Shanghai, I was working on an assignment, but as MBAs we must get used to prioritising and multi-tasking," she says. "The China challenge was a one-off chance to get an insight into the Chinese way of doing business. I may move to Asia to work, and the contacts I made will be helpful."

The CEIBS dean, Rolf Cremer, has no doubt about the competition's worth. "It hones skills that CEIBS already stresses in our MBA course, such as analysis, strategy, finance and marketing skills, as well as teamwork and innovation," he says. "On top of that, teams typically need to excel in cross-cultural co-operation. And the students must exhibit stellar presentation skills and strong nerves under pressure, together with an ability to meet deadlines."

Judge's MBA director, Jochen Runde, sees these international competitions as an important outlet for his students' talents and skills. "In the current corporate economic climate, many more than usual are planning to start their own businesses," he says. "These competitions can help them by offering a chance to test out their entrepreneurial ideas on people who can give them leads in raising capital."

LBS is an important player in the competition scene. As well as encouraging its students to participate it also hosts the European rounds of various major contests. The Global Social Venture Competition, for example, awards prizes for business plans that deliver the double bottom-line of both economic and social returns. Haas and Columbia business schools in the USA got together with the Indian School of Business and the LBS to run this competition. The final was held in California.

"At LBS, we are trying to build lifelong learners, and one way to do that is to have people actually apply what they learn, rather than simply listening to the faculty," says John Mullins, chair of the Entrepreneurship Group at LBS. "If you are being taught how to build high-performing teams, what better way to learn than to assemble a student team to run one of these competitions?"

In the Venture Capital Investment Competition, students go one step further by acting as investors facing a real entrepreneur who is trying to raise money. To decide which entrepreneur merits the cash, and on what terms, is a priceless experience you cannot get in the classroom.

"The cash prizes are not the only attraction of these contests, but they certainly do get interest going. Students will often tell you that participating in a major competition was the best single experience they had at business school," says Mullins. "It's all real world stuff. That's the beauty of it."