Q&A with Ian Fenwick – how can business schools in emerging economies compete globally?

Photo: Sasin.edu

Many prospective students around the world strive to head to universities in Europe and North America to continue their studies. The business schools of the USA, United Kingdom, France and other developed countries are among the most attractive in the world.

But in a radically changing world, business education is not going to be immune to the many disruptions about to come and ones already taking place. Adaptations will have to be made and business schools in advanced economies are already taking major steps.

Will universities in developing and emerging economies be subjected to the same disruptions? And will they be adapting in the same way as their Western counterparts? And how can they attract more of the world’s international students?

Business Forward sat down in an exclusive one-on-one with Professor Ian Fenwick, a member of the marketing faculty and a director at the Sasin School of Management in Bangkok, the first international accredited business school in Thailand.

Fenwick was previously the director of Canada’s top Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) program at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

From your experience, what are some of the universal characteristics of business education in emerging economies? How are they similar and different from education in advanced economies?

In our case, it’s exactly the same. I teach exactly the same sort of things here in Thailand as I did in Canada. I think the focus on the techniques are the same but I think applying those frameworks is a bit different. I think managing in Asia is very different from managing in North America. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse. It’s in a way more pleasant but also in a way more time consuming. But I think in the future, business education is going to change dramatically and I think the force behind that will really be artificial intelligence [AI]. As AI takes over, I think a lot of the nuts and bolts and mechanics that we teach in business education will fall away. There’s no point, in my opinion, in teaching people how to do calculations of any sort because those will always be done faster and more effectively by some sort of computing device. We should be teaching people how to think, not how to calculate.

What, if any, are the preparations and changes being made at Sasin School of Management to be ready to take on the impact of future disruptions to emerging economies such as Thailand?

I think we’ve moved much more to focus on action learning, students working in groups on real business problems [and] unstructured problems and doing it in a relatively low supervision way. We want to go a long way from people coming to their class expecting answers. The best we can provide is questions and frameworks. I think students have got to realize that in the future, definitive answers will become harder and harder to come by. They’ve really got to start to learn to think for themselves, to work in groups and to deal with messy real life unstructured problems.

Action learning is the big change for us. We also have international action learning. We do projects in conjunction with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Fudan [University]. Students from those schools worked with our students on problems either in Thailand or in China. [They] looked for creative, imaginative [and] practical solutions.

What are the most urgent management and leadership skills and qualities needed today?

I think the major thing we need is the ability to be resilient. Change is happening very fast. Change is happening in ways that are not always foreseeable and whose implications are not at all foreseeable. I always like the example of electric cars. GM [General Motors] has said that in 15 years all its cars will be electric. The Thai government has recently made a similar announcement claiming 30 percent [of cars] will be electric. The knock-on effects of something like that are enormous. Suddenly, we don’t need parking spaces. We don’t need our own individual car. All that space can be used for something else. Traffic rules can be negotiated between the cars themselves.

So, to be resilient, you need to be able to be comfortable in environments that are very different from the environment today. You need to be able to see creative entrepreneurial solutions and to implement those solutions. That’s what we’re trying to teach. How do you teach that? I’m not so certain we know but we try our best and I think action learning [and] getting people to try things out is an important part of that.

How can business schools in emerging economies market themselves to compete with their counterparts in advanced economies in drawing students and researchers?

It’s actually a lot easier to draw the researchers and professors than it is to draw the students. We recently expanded our faculty by about 40 percent, hiring internationally for the first time. You have an attractive value proposition, particularly for people that are already doing research in Asia. [Because] the fastest growing businesses are in Asia, that’s quite a lot of people.

For students, it’s a bit different and difficult. Students are obviously risk averse and I suspect their parents are even more risk averse and it’s quite an undertaking to decide you’re not going to business school in Michigan. You’re going to go to business school in Bangkok. That’s a big step.

So, what do we do about that? First of all, we do a lot of marketing. We try to present video presentations of Sasin and of the environment, so people see that we don’t actually live in the jungle and go to work on elephants! And we try to show the advantages of being in Asia. I think most people have an idea that Asia is the future. If you really believe that, you go to school in Shanghai or Beijing [and] that’s very scary. We try to present Bangkok as the user-friendly [and] customer friendly part of Asia. Is it easy? I think we’ve got to keep on doing it for many years. Of course, we have exchange programs and dual degree programs and as I mentioned, the international action learning. So, people get to know the environment bit by bit. Then, of course, we have a pandemic which kind of undoes all that work!

Our positioning is: Inspire. Connect. Transform. For a better, smarter, sustainable world. I think that kind of says it all. I think this is the age of creativity. This is the age of entrepreneurship and this is the age of inspiration. Connections are important everywhere, but in Asia especially, connections are doubly important. If the infrastructure is difficult to understand and perhaps arbitrary, it is connections that will get you through. And then, of course, transformation. If we go on doing business as we are, if we go on choking on smoggy days, we’re not going to exist for long and so, we really do need a total change in the way we do business and in the way we live our lives. Everyone kind of knows that but nobody does it.

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