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International Immersion

An accelerated route to cultural business understanding


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For multinational corporations (MNCs) with years of experience operating in different cultures and regulatory environments opening up a new market is a familiar experience, and they have plenty of expertise to draw upon. The challenge for the next level down of organizations, those large and medium sized businesses, is many times greater. New markets pose significant management challenges, and because of these businesses size, the risk to go into them is considerably greater, as the resources required will be significantly larger in proportional terms than an experienced MNC would be risking.

Bath School of Management is leveraging its strong connections with the University of Stellenbosch, 50 kilometres outside Cape Town, and Zhejiang University, a couple of hours south of Shanghai, to create a program to aid senior managers at large and medium-sized organizations who see opportunity in expanding their operations to southern Africa or south-east Asia, either as new markets or for their supply chain.

Jan Stiles, Director of Executive Education at Bath School of Management, and an experienced designer of management programs who has worked in many different locations herself, notes that “when you talk about culture in a classroom, you don’t really learn what it’s all about. Working in different cultures is a lot more complicated than just visiting a different country.  Often people might think they understand what the culture is like, but actually working in that culture it is easy to ‘fall over’, and that can cost businesses millions of pounds.” Stiles is clear that there are many companies looking to expand abroad that do not have the luxury of the resource to make mistakes, they need to hit the ground facing the right way, making the right connections, and understanding the cultural nuances from the start.

The International Senior Executive Development Program is the result of feedback from many businesses, Stiles explains, that specifically asked for an immersion program for their executives who are responsible for planning international operations strategies. “The key focus is to help people really understand that doing business in a global environment is not just ‘doing what they do best but doing it bigger’; but having to do it in very different contexts, and that while many things may look the same from the outside, operating efficiently and effectively inside those different systems in very different.”

Chinese business people coming to the UK frequently do not understand the UK regulatory environment, with its pace and advanced complexity. The priorities for UK businesses maybe around digital and data protection, but these are not the same level of priority for Chinese businesses in China. In South Africa all business is infused with the South African social context, and to fail to understand that is to miss critical cultural values. In China the rate and scale of business growth is a major challenge, and management priorities often are focused on how to manage the interaction with the various levels of government bodies that control the business environment.

Discussing these topics in abstracted theory in a classroom is much like teaching the theory of swimming, it is not much use until you get immersed in the pool. This program allows participants to immerse themselves in these cultural pools, in a safe and facilitated way, visiting local businesses and discussing these challenges on the ground, with business peers, local business leaders and school faculty and experts. Each business school will bring in local businesses of similar size and dynamic to participants’ organizations as can be found. In South Africa, for instance, in addition to the Stellenbosch core faculty, experts such as Albie Sachs, the former judge appointed by Mandela to the Constitutional Court will spend time with the participants explaining some of the cultural context; in the UK, Oke Eleazu, COO of BoughtByMany a fintech insurance business, and Nick Pearce, Director of the  Public Policy Institute and former 10 Downing Street Head of Policy, will share their knowledge to give insights on the digital world and government policy and regulation.

The input from these experts combined with the ‘feet on the ground’ experience enables participants to properly ‘get it’ through an immersive experience, in combination with building a supportive network of experts and potential collaborators in the different locations.

Immersive learning is increasingly being seen as a highly effective way for executives to absorb and understand the complexities of the business world in an accelerated fashion. While it is not the cheapest learning route, involving three one-week modules and international travel, pound-for-pound, its impact is likely to outperform most other options believes Stiles.

Learn more about the: International Senior Executive Development Program at Bath School of Management, University of Bath

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