Facing change

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2009, 12:00am

Course equips employees with the skills to deliver results in tough times

Employees with skills in crisis and turnaround management are prized assets of any corporation, particularly in times of economic difficulty.

The MBA programme at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) offers subjects that incorporate these skills. Their main objective is to equip students with the tools to manage businesses and deliver results during tough times.

'Many of our students are what we call 'fair-weather captains', who have not experienced any crises in their careers so far,' said Marcus Schuetz, an adjunct professor of the faculty of business and economics at HKU.

One course focuses on the theory and techniques of crisis and change management. Another is a management consulting course featuring many classic cases, including the Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive turnaround, which Dr Schuetz was responsible for between 2003 and 2006.

In the course Doing Business in China, Dr Schuetz takes students through the entire life cycle of a company in China, from its establishment, merger and acquisition involving other corporations, crisis and turnaround management, bankruptcy, to its exit from China. Students look at cases compiled from various sectors.

The courses expose students to all aspects of the management of a crisis-hit business operation. 'We begin with going through the tool sets, such as the way to structure and carry out a mass layoff properly. These tools are designed based on my own working experience [with several multinational corporations] and they are integrated with the frameworks from textbooks,' Dr Schuetz said.

Students must complete assignments using the skills and techniques learnt in the classroom. The assignments take various formats. Students are required to individually work on and propose solutions for business cases presented in class. They also form groups and approach target companies and offer them consultancy services and present their recommendations in class. 'I want the end results to be of professional quality which they can propose to the management of companies,' he continued. 'The only difference is that the students don't get paid.'

Dr Schuetz said he drew on his experience of working with top international consultancy firms such as McKinsey when he offered students advice on their projects, and later when he graded them. 'I compare my students' work with that from renowned consultants,' he said.

An increasing number of MBA students are recognising the importance of crisis-management skills. 'All of my courses have been oversubscribed because students find them particularly relevant,' Dr Schuetz said.

International business also calls for individuals who factor in cultural sensitivity and embrace different points of view when they formulate crisis management strategies. This is reflected in the design of the OneMBA Global Executive MBA programme at Chinese University.

Through in-depth discussion and analysis of cases with fellow study group members from diverse cultural backgrounds, Kenneth Mok, a 2007 graduate of the course, said he had learnt to develop a 'globalised' approach to crisis management. '[Because of the different cultural backgrounds of group members], sometimes even the definition of a crisis varied,' he said. 'The OneMBA programme inspires students to explore diverse perspectives and integrate them to reach a 'globalised' consensus.'

As executive director of the KGGroup, an education centre for children, Mr Mok said while he did not think there was a single method for tackling all crises, the OneMBA programme helped him sharpen his skills in identifying problems when a crisis emerged, formulating timely and effective solutions, setting up a taskforce to address the problems, and conducting a review of the process and getting feedback from all stakeholders.

'This process has become the standard operation procedure for us,' Mr Mok said. A globalised approach to crisis management is essential to the operation of his company which employs staff from different countries.

Executives who wish to develop a globalised approach to crisis management should adopt an open-minded attitude in their interaction with students from other cultures, and be ready to embrace different points of view, Mr Mok added.

In today's increasingly specialised business environment, Dr Schuetz said in order to handle a crisis effectively, executives need more 'hard skills' such as real team management experience, corporation finance, accounting and other quantitative skills, in addition to soft people skills.

'I have had students come over to me and say they want to work with Google on a project, but they did not even know how to build a website,' he said. 'Effective business executives should know the technical details of various operations of a company.'