'It's dark - people are screaming'

Why business schools are putting their students through the mill
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The Independent Online

It's dark and cold and frightening in a sinking ship in the Solent, when you and your team-mates are expected to climb into the freezing water and plug the leak, as Ant Evans, taking an MBA at Cass Business School, in London, found.

"People are shouting," he described it afterwards to fellow students. "Not just shouting - screaming at the tops of their voices. There is smoke below decks and bodies everywhere. It's so dark... We stomp, we wade, we clamber up and down ladders and through hatchways. We scream instructions. I've never seen a 120kg Nigerian accountant and a 40kg Chinese business development manager manhandle a pressure dome, a pole, wedges and two hammers to staunch a fissure in the lower deck of a rolling ship, and I will probably never see it again."

This isn't what you expect when you decide to take an MBA, but on an increasing number of programmes it is what you get. Because one of the first aims of the people who run these courses is to take you by the scruff of the neck and change you from a ego-driven individualist into a team-player.

And to achieve this, they may do some very nasty things indeed. They may abandon you up a mountain, cast you away on an island, or dangle you from a cliff. In the classroom, they might instruct you to build a tower from paper, or complete some other near-impossible assignment in a ridiculous amount of time with totally inadequate resources. But whatever they ask you to do, you can be sure that the task will be designed so that you can only succeed at it if you trust and rely on your fellow students

Take INSEAD, for example, which has pushed the idea of team-building about as far as it can go. MBA students at the Fontainebleau-based international business school are put in groups of six and have to stay in those groups for the first four months of the course. These groups are carefully chosen to maximise diversity. There is always a mixture of backgrounds, countries and ages, which means there is also huge potential for conflict. The groups face outward bound-type challenges on an island (in Singapore), or in a forest (in France), and go on to complete assignments together and - this is where it gets really bad - take exams and get graded as a group. Which means that, however well you're doing, your performance is only ever as good as the weakest person you are working with.

"We want to measure how well they are able to make their group work," says Pekka Hietala, dean of the MBA programme. "Sometimes people come to us and say, 'Oh, but my group wasn't great'." And we say, 'Sorry, but that's the name of the game'."

The reason for this tough stance stems from a survey the school did seven years ago asking 400 companies if they were getting what they wanted from INSEAD MBAs. The short answer was yes, when it came to hard skills; no, when it came to the softer ones. The companies didn't just want finance or strategy wizards, they wanted people who knew how to lead, inspire and be team players.

This growing emphasis on soft skills is something all business schools are aware of, says Peter Calladine of the Association of MBAs. "A computer can crunch numbers, but it takes human skills to run a project and motivate people to do things for you." And learning how to work in an ill-assorted group is an important part of this.

Also, he points out, business schools must get very disparate students quickly bonded. "They have people from Argentina to Zambia. They've got to get them integrated fast, and team-building exercises are a convenient way to do this."

Luiz Camara, 30, a Portuguese investment banker discovered this when he embarked on an MBA at Cass Business School, in London. Suddenly, he was thrown into a group with Spanish, Chinese and British students, ages ranging from 28 to 45, and backgrounds varying from financial accounting to marketing, doing a variety of team-building tasks including a mine-laying exercise in Portsmouth and - even more scary - having to run a meeting and being videotaped doing it. "You look at it and think, 'Ooh, did I do that!' Everyone wanted to participate, we were interrupting and sometimes speaking too fast - it can be very difficult to understand different accents. We also had one team member who was shy and not participating at all at first, and we had to learn we were not being inclusive, and that we needed to go around and make sure everyone had a chance to say something."

David Sims, associate dean of MBA programmes and professor of organisational behaviour at Cass, says team-building exercises give students common memories to refer back to, and experience of working with each other. "One very important thing in team-building, is learning how to value other people correctly - and that does not always mean highly." Also, because most people are heading for an international career, learning how to communicate clearly is crucial. "Brazilian and Chinese versions of English might be quite different. And English speakers have to realise how much of what they say might not be understood, and learn to avoid those subtle little word jokes which make them feel warm and cosy but which leave other people out. Bringing these things into awareness is very important."

Even students who aren't taken off into the wilderness, or underwater, can be given challenging physical tasks. At Henley Management College they have to cross a crocodile-infested swamp (the front lawn) while students at Ashridge Business School have to get their teams from one place to another in the school's grounds blindfolded. "It's about problem-solving and team-working, although the exercises aren't anything extreme - a middle-aged fat lady like me can do them!" says Fiona Dent, director of faculty development.

But outdoor team-building does have its limits, as Steve Kempster, director of the full-time MBA at Lancaster University Management School, points out. Team-building activities for new recruits, he says, should be about getting to know each other "comfortably", not about intense self-discovery. They should never last more than two days. And nor are students going to be judged on their personal performance.

However, students who come through tough situations often find them life-changing. "Our former students are always coming back and telling us that the people in their team have become their life-time friends," says Pekka Hietala.

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