Embracing diversity: How do business schools encourage multicultural cohesion?

By Andy Sharman
Sunday 13 October 2013 02:23

We've all seen the adverts where the frightfully English chap puts his feet up, exposing his soles and offending the sensibilities of the local Thai people. Well, this is the real-life version: British businessmen have been meeting clients in India and – shock horror – kissing them, causing much offence in the process.

Now the UK-India Business Council has stepped in and ordered Britons to refrain from greeting people in India in this way. But MBA professors, who lead some of the most cosmopolitan cohorts in education, say that the key to multicultural cohesion is not tiptoeing around stereotypes: it's just about being sensitive.

"We all try to point out quaint cultural differences, but that's a bit trivial," says Professor Arthur Francis, of Bradford School of Management. To smooth the transition of its foreign students, Bradford has produced a guide to cultural differences and how to embrace them. "What's important is to remind ourselves that when certain behaviour seems odd to us it might just be a cultural difference and not rude. It's just about being alive to these differences."

But whether business school students are alive to it or not, differences can occur when highly diverse groups have to operate in the pressurised atmosphere of an MBA course. Each cohort must go through this so-called storming period, when students from different countries must understand why, and how, they must learn to work with each other.

Dr Marie Taillard, assistant professor in marketing at ESCP-EAP European School of Management is charged with sorting out the cultural differences when the MBA students form teams. She talks about the typical group, where the German woman will assume the lead, and quickly get frustrated that her female Italian colleague is always late, and her male French colleague simply wants to take her out for a drink.

"We try to explain that it's nothing unusual to have these differences," says Taillard. "It's just part of working in an international business environment." She urges her students to set down rules before beginning: that everyone will be on time, that everyone will have a voice, and that no one will leave a meeting without arranging to meet again. That's the easy part.

"More difficult is where there are problems deciding who is the leader," she says. "We'll help them to choose a leader or a different model altogether, where someone takes the lead for two weeks, say. The worst case scenario is when they won't talk, they've tried to ostracise someone they don't like, and people are coming to me in tears saying they want to quit the programme altogether."

This is when Taillard has each group member explain their situation, and they can begin to rebuild and see things from the perspective of the other group members. "We're not teaching multi-culturalism per se, we're just helping them to navigate through problem-solving and decision-making in a multicultural environment," she says. "I've never had a group that didn't thank me for helping them to understand what working in a multicultural environment is like and employers really recognise that our students have that extra dimension."

It seems to be that business schools, rather than adopting a didactic approach to multiculturalism, simply choose to immerse their students in diversity. ESCP-EAP benefits from being spread across five campuses – Paris, London, Turin, Berlin and Madrid – which means that students will spend time in at least two different cultures. Similarly Cranfield School of Management, not satisfied with having a diverse cohort of 37 different nationalities, also runs international business experience trips for its students, where MBAs go out to work on a project in a foreign country (see above).

Three other business schools – Aston Business School, EM Lyon and Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich - have come together to offer a European Masters in Management that allows students to spend time learning an working in the UK, France and Germany.

"One of the principles of the programme was to attract interculturally aware students who will graduate as internationally competent managers of the future," says Kathryn Priest, director of the European Masters in Management. But in contrast with other business school Masters degrees, the EMM actually teaches two modules on intercultural communication.

Grenoble Ecole de Management, whose MBA is also offered at six locations, is particularly active in language teacher and students are now able to study sign language as a third language. "When you dig under the surface, you realise that deaf people have a different perception of the world and express humour and emotions differently," says Nancy Armstrong-Benetto, who is in charge of the new module.

She says that being able to say a few words and understanding deaf people can go a long way to integrating them in the business environment. "They have a different way of relating to the world – and that is what we call culture," she says.

'We were living with the fishermen'

Gareth Watkins, 37, is IT director for the Rose Partnership in London and is in the final year of a part-time MBA at Cranfield School of Management. Last year he went to Brazil as part of his international business experience.

"The task was to develop a communications plan and a fundraising strategy for a charity. There were six Cranfield students out there. I was the only Briton: there were two African girls and three Asian guys. The Cranfield course is split between part-time and full-time students and we don't tend to mix that much so it was a great opportunity to mingle.

We spent days going round and interviewing local people. It was fascinating to see things at a grassroots level. Other MBA courses offered international business experiences where it was, 'we'll pick you up at 8am and we'll go to business x and then business y and you'll have lunch with this person and then you'll meet the ambassador'. But we were living with the fishermen and the farmers, and having lunch with the crops we'd harvested.

Our job was to help the charity, but I felt that we got just as much out of it ourselves. The MBA is about providing you with the skills to succeed in business in a global environment. While the MBA cohort is already multi-cultural, the international business experience allows you to take that understanding beyond the campus and into the real world."

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