'Study Trips' Make Blazing Comeback

Culturally diverse groups of students have many benefits, especially when it comes to solving problems creatively. But they also run the risk of misunderstandings and friction. As more businesses cross borders, leaders who have the skills to gain the most from cross-cultural teams will have a distinct advantage.

These skills are made up of three parts:

Awareness This means not just knowledge of other cultures (which we sometimes focus on too much) but also an understanding of your own background.

Empathy To manage a multicultural group successfully you must find common ground, creating a team culture that goes beyond each member’s preferences. For this to work, you must be open about your preferences — you cannot expect other people to read your mind, mainly because they will interpret your actions based on their own cultural background.

Openness You must be open-minded about different approaches to work, and be able to reflect on the limits of your own assumptions and preferences.

Yet some of the traditional methods used to develop these attributes can make matters worse. A typical example on MBA programmes might be an intensive week-long trip to China. While excursions to exotic locations can help with cultural awareness, there is a risk that students may come back with a misplaced belief that they now understand Chinese culture. What is needed is a more integrative and multi-layered approach to developing cross-cultural skills.

There are three elements that business schools should focus on:

Highly diversified small teams

Because MBA programmes tend to attract high numbers of international students (at Iese Business School, international students comprise more than 80 per cent of the cohort), MBAs can mistakenly assume they will develop strong cross-cultural skills just by dint of the environment.

But, while being in a diverse cohort helps, silently sitting in a lecture room next to someone from a different country is not useful. The key is daily, in-depth conversation and collaboration with people with different cultural perspectives.

Business schools can encourage interaction. For example, at Iese we put effort into creating small, culturally diverse groups, with faculty acting as mentors. These groups then tackle case-study discussions and activities on provocative topics together. By working constantly in small teams, students are challenged and confronted by their own biases and assumptions.

A cross-cultural mindset across all subjects

Students must grapple with cross-cultural problems throughout the MBA, not just in a few sessions. For example, a significant part of a team-building module at Iese is devoted to how to manage cross-cultural conflict. A course on managing yourself will ask students to examine their own cultural preferences.

In this context, direct experience in other cultures, such as exchanges and international modules — even if they are short trips — makes sense, because they can build and complement everything learnt in class.

Reflection

The final element — and one that all business schools must work on — is time for structured reflection. This could be done through specific assignments. For example, students can write essays about cultural challenges, or describe particular elements of their own culture. Given the chance to reflect, students are better able to make sense of cross-cultural encounters.

The writer is an associate professor of managing people in organisations at Iese Business School

Source : https://www.ft.com/content/69d26746-7139-11e7-93ff-99f383b09ff9

How MBAs can develop cross-cultural skills
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