The Independent MBA: In command of cultural differences

Globalisation has increased the need to avoid stereotypes and misconceptions.
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The Independent Online

If you stay at a guest bedroom at Cranfield University and find yourself wondering about the purpose of the painted arrow on the ceiling, you'll be told that it points in the direction of Mecca. This small gesture is evidence of a sea change in the way business schools are responding to the needs of international and, particularly, Islamic students. In a world shaped by the globalisation of capital and of cross-border mergers and acquisitions, managers have to be able to do business as readily in Tehran or Tokyo, Baghdad or Bombay.

Cranfield has been walking the talk now for at least five years. Dr Jehad Al-Omari, a visiting lecturer from Abu Dhabi, prepares Cranfield students for the cultural nuances they will encounter doing business in the Middle East. "Westerners who come to do business in the Arab world arrive with an awful lot of stereotypes and misconceptions," he says. "They believe the media hype about threats to personal safety and freedom of movement and try to dive straight into business and get away as quickly as possible. Invariably they rush things."

Cranfield teaches its students that business operates within a cultural context. Although the global village is shrinking, there are enough differences in work practices and the ownership of capital to keep management consultants fully employed. Cranfield specialises in international case studies; students of different nationalities and cultures work together in syndicate teams and benefit from a much wider perspective and awareness of their diversity.

Doing business in the Arab world is based on friendship, so shared relaxation is an essential prelude to deal making. Dr Al-Omari recommends a leisurely meal and some self-revelatory conversation. The language of business carries an unwritten agenda that students need to be aware of, such as the context in which words are being spoken. Dr Al-Omari explains: "Language skills and communication are exceptionally important. Most western cultures – except British – tend to be low-context cultures: you say what you mean. High-context cultures like Britain, Arab countries and the Mediterranean rely heavily on hidden meaning, jargon and body language. Your hidden meanings can be missed by us so you need to speak clearly, without patronising."

If two high-context cultures meet, the opportunities for misunderstanding multiply because each culture has its own unspoken agendas and assumptions. Gestures and dress code take on a whole different meaning as do definitions of leadership. Multiculturalism in a business school is not so much about celebrating different cultures as getting below the surface to find out what the other person is really thinking and giving your message unambiguously.

To get at these unspoken agendas there is one business school whose sole aim is to cement links between West and East. The Euro-Arab Management School in Granada was set up by the European Union and the League of Arab States to bring businesses across two cultures closer together. A third of students are European, the rest are divided between North Africa and the Middle East – Jordan, Kuwait and the Emirates.

The school is supported by Insead, Cranfield and IESE. Professor Alberto Ribera, the director general who specialises in cross-cultural management, believes it is now much more important to understand Islam. "After 11 September, Arabs are no longer doing business with the USA – they've switched to Europe. Arabs who were doing MBAs at American business schools have cancelled and are booking with European business schools mainly in the UK and France."

Henley Management College also tackles multiculturalism head on. Besides investigating political and economic differences between countries and companies, it brings history and religion into the equation. Terry Garrison, professor of international business, uses a questionnaire to compare business attitudes across countries and companies. The technique is the basis of an elective module that MBA students can take as they near the end of the course and that can be the subject of a dissertation. The results challenge preconceptions about how business schools approach teaching international students.

Western business culture appears to be an almost unstoppable giant. Almost by default the US business model coupled with the insistent demands of technology is ironing out cultural differences. International banking or manufacturing is likely to be the same anywhere in the world.

But who is to say who is right or what world view should prevail? "We tend to want to see instant results," Garrison says. "They believe that time is a continuum, that you come back in the after-life as another being. Under sharia law you can't charge interest on debt, which makes the creation of a bank as we understand it very difficult; it means not measuring the cost of capital. Islam is a very fatalistic religion. Everything has to do with God's will, whereas in our culture, everything is determined by shareholder value."