MBA courses boost interpersonal skills

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2007, 12:00am

The results of a benchmarking exercise conducted about five years ago convinced Hong Kong Polytechnic University's faculty of business that it was time to update its MBA programme.

The survey showed that respected local and overseas institutions were still teaching all the hard skills of finance, accountancy and management theory. However, they were also starting to introduce new modules focusing on the range of soft skills which business professionals need to make it to the top.

'We realised that to be a good manager it was also necessary to have interpersonal skills and the ability to build and motivate teams, so we decided to incorporate these elements,' PolyU's MBA programme director Warren Chiu Chi-kwan said.

Subsequently, when deciding on a suitable course structure and content, the faculty turned to a trusted adviser - Confucius. The faculty had recognised early on that the ancient sage's traditional concept of training based on learning, thinking and executing, was an ideal model for teaching modern-day professional skills.

So, after identifying key requirements such as presenting, negotiating, leadership, problem-solving and writing proposals, professors assigned each to one of the three categories. This helped to ensure comprehensive coverage and made it easier to create a good balance between instruction, discussion, role-plays and other teaching methods.

The topic of change management, for example, is taught mainly through case studies. Each is deliberately chosen to illustrate an all too common scenario, such as conflict between a company's marketing and production departments.

'We analyse the individuals and their behaviour, not the product, the marketing or the management of the company,' said Dr Chiu.

The aim is to understand organisational behaviour in the real world and then come up with practical solutions.

The course on presentation skills tests students in a different way. Participants must address the class, and their performance is recorded and reviewed.

'They are then asked to do it again, so they can learn by experience,' Dr Chiu said.

He is confident that PolyU's business faculty now has the most extensive professional skills programme in Hong Kong. It counts for two of the 36 credit-bearing units in the part-time MBA, but this may increase to five or six.

'People believe we still need to strengthen this area,' Dr Chiu said.

Recognising a more general demand for professional skills, the School of Business and Management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is offering a two-day open enrolment programme in negotiating strategy and skills.

According to Betty Lau, the school's director, participants are senior-level executives from diverse industries and with a broad range of management experience. The teaching format is very interactive, with a mix of exercises, case studies, lectures and discussions.

The aim is to give participants the ability to understand what is really going on in negotiations. With that knowledge they should be able to analyse and control the process more effectively and therefore achieve better results.

Rami Zwick, associate dean of the HKUST Business School and chair professor of the department of marketing, said: 'Effective negotiation is not a single skill. Rather, it is a complex collection of elements.'

These include strategising, communication, advocacy, persuasion, and 'the cognitive packaging and repackaging of information'.

Professor Zwick said the course focused on four tactical objectives. These were to explore the other side's bottom line; identifying the most likely candidates, or focal points, for reaching agreement; finding ways to resist demands, while making it easier for the other side to concede; and managing the other side's beliefs about your own bottom line.

To demonstrate the importance of fair consideration and the way emotions could affect negotiating behaviour, he cited the example of the 'ultimatum game'.

There are two players, a proposer and a responder, who interact only once, thus allowing no reciprocation.

The first person must propose how to divide a sum of money between them. If the responder accepts, the players get the money in line with the proposal. But, if the responder rejects the proposal, neither gets anything.

Professor Zwick said that most proposers made offers close to a 50:50 split, but slightly in their own favour. In the game, these were regularly rejected, leaving both parties empty-handed, but confirming something important about underlying motivations.

'People are averse to being treated unfairly. [If that happens], they are willing to suffer just to punish the other player for what they consider unfair treatment.'

Ms Lau said course participants found such exercises useful and practical.

'They can apply the tactics, strategies and principles learnt from the programme immediately [at work and in their daily lives],' she said.

Common mistakes in negotiation

Mythical fixed pie making false assumptions about the other person's preferences

Reaction devaluation revising your own preferences after learning what the other person prefers

Unrealistic assessment of the alternatives which, typically, is too optimistic

Insufficient effort to search for alternatives

Revising the reservation price/ bottom line to conclude the deal

Ignoring valid alternatives because it is hard to put a number on them

Dismissing options which involve considerable uncertainty because they seem 'too risky'