The Eye of the Tiger: A Look at EMBA Programs in East Asia

Despite the global economic downturn, a focus on Asia remains an attractive option for executives

In the 1980s, the business world had its eye on Japan as Asia’s rising star. Next, the gaze shifted toward the "Four Tigers": Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. These days, everybody is talking about India and China.

The fact is, all of the Asian economies are and will become increasingly vital to global business. In light of this growing region, executives looking to get a foothold in the region may find that Executive MBA (EMBA) programs can offer an extremely useful insight into the Asian business environment.

Facing a global recession, there is uncertainty lingering in all sectors of industry as restructuring, layoffs, and bankruptcy loom. For managers who no longer have a clear career outlook or a handle on the direction their industry is taking, an EMBA may provide an opportunity to readjust one’s goals and plans in an educational environment targeted towards networking and solution-oriented thinking.

“The downturn requires a reformulation of strategy, where in the past there wasn't motivation for change,” says Patrick Moreton, managing director of the Washington University – Fudan University EMBA program. “Now it creates an opportunity.”

Moreton says that many topics will be more relevant in the classroom as managers are currently trying to address them in the workplace.

Asia is one of the regions expected to bounce back relatively quickly from the recession. The Wall Street Journal has said that China and other Pacific Rim countries are “are generally in better financial and economic shape” than the rest of the global market.

With this knowledge, many managers are seizing the opportunity. Steve DeKrey from the Kellogg-HKUST EMBA program says demand for education is increasing, which is typical of times of recession and crisis.

The Kellogg-HKUST program is one of the most high-profile EMBA offerings in the region. Other major programs include the Fudan-Washington program, Hong Kong University's EMBA-Global partnership with London Business School and Columbia Business School, the TIEMBA by INSEAD and Tsinghua University, and the UCLA-NUS EMBA.

People currently working in Asia benefit the most from these programs. EMBA programs allow managers to study part-time and take weekend classes to fulfill their degree requirements. The student population is generally a mix of Asian nationals, foreign-born Asians, and non-Asian managers.

Although many EMBA programs focus on one country, some programs seek to expose executives to various parts of Asia. The UCLA-NUS EMBA program, for example, holds classes in four different cities: Singapore, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Bangalore.

Go learn the language

Then there is the language question. In many programs, previous knowledge of the local language and cultural environment is extremely helpful, but not mandatory to get in. Steve DeKrey, however, says that knowing the local language is critical, especially in China.

“Without those skills,” says DeKrey “opportunities will be significantly less.”

Understanding cultural differences is also critical to success in Asia. As a former consultant for a multinational company, Nikolai Schwarz, has worked in several Asian countries, including Malaysia and Japan. From country to country, Schwarz found that there was a “very different understanding of an efficient decision-making process and whom to involve in it.”

“Trial and error, learn as you go,” recalls Schwarz of his experience. “But this is certainly not the easiest and the most effective way. In the end, we did well, and with a few detours, managed to understand each other and work together.”

Some of those detours, says Schwarz, could have been avoided by spending some time in “an almost risk-free academic environment where you can test and learn about cultural differences with your fellow students.”

But for managers seeking to break into the Asian market or learn about cross-cultural differences, EMBA programs are not necessarily the first step to achieving those goals.

Patrick Moreton of the Washington-Fudan program notes that many companies may be unwilling to invest in a candidate without language and cultural skills, unless the manager has specialized skills and value, like Schwarz after working several years for his company. EMBA tuition, after all, is often paid for by companies looking to sharpen the management skills of their top talent.

“The local population in most Asian countries has enough managerial competence that if you don't have the language and cultural skills, an EMBA or MBA program will not solve this problem,” says Moreton. “If I was advising an MBA student, I would tell them to take a year and learn the language.”

Bringing together managers from varied backgrounds and different cultural experiences is one of the biggest advantages for EMBA programs in Asia, particularly those offered by two or more universities. The curriculum attempts to take core conceptual management tools and apply them in the context of the Asian environment, bolstered by academic research, and on-the-ground experience related in the classroom.

It is clear that despite the recession, Asia is primed to be the engine driving future global economic development. EMBA programs in Asia may end up playing a special role in revitalizing certain sectors, as managers seeking solutions are heading back to school to find new perspectives on the leadership challenges companies are now facing.

Hong Kong Photo: Ángel Riesgo Martínez / Creative Commons (cropped)

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