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Business schools prepare EMBA and DBA students for greater connectivity, competition and disruption in Asia

Hong Kong’s business schools have prepared EMBA and DBA programmes for more competitive, disruptive times

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 January, 2018, 10:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 5:35pm

Business schools offering advanced courses in Hong Kong for senior executives from around the region know they are dealing with high expectations and a very demanding constituency.

Therefore, when teaching executive master of business administration (EMBA) and doctor of business administration (DBA) programmes, they have to find a formula that combines coverage of all the essentials with cutting-edge topics and far-reaching insights in order to provide that distinctive something extra.

In some cases, the latter aspect comes via seminars led by notable academics or entrepreneurs, from the extensive choice of electives, and the chance for on-site visits and international study tours.

In others, it results more from the chance to conduct detailed research, leading to a thesis, on a subject that addresses questions of direct relevance to a major industry and, ideally, the broader business world too.

For faculty staff, though, finding the right balance is a constant challenge and a skill in itself. And that’s especially so at a time when economic power is clearly tilting towards Asia; competition on all fronts is intensifying; and new technologies are accelerating the pace of change and causing a major rethink of corporate strategies, practices and procedures.

“Our philosophy of education teaches the fundamental disciplines in statistics, accounting and economics, as well as psychology and sociology,” says Richard Johnson, associate dean for the executive MBA programme – Europe and Asia, offered in Hong Kong by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “Students are taught to draw on these, using a set of frameworks, in order to think about business problems from a structured, data-driven perspective. As a result, they are well-prepared to make better decisions and face any challenge they are presented with.”

Indeed, Chicago Booth created the world’s first EMBA programme back in 1943, and is planning suitable celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary next year. A key to meeting the needs of students in Hong Kong, Johnson says, is to fly in teachers from Chicago, thereby giving each class the chance to interact with the top researchers and thought leaders in their fields.

For instance, Professor Richard Thaler, the 2017 Nobel Prize winner in economic sciences, is set to teach an EMBA course on “managerial decision making”, and Professor Eugene Fama, another Nobel laureate in economics, meets incoming students each year for a special Q&A session.

“Today’s business landscape is changing rapidly, which means students are working in companies and leading organisations with a lot of uncertainty,” Johnson says. “Therefore, they have to stay on top of new ideas and shifts in the marketplace. But they also need a solid foundation and frameworks they can use to navigate effectively.”

To this end, the school’s EMBA electives now include options such as data mining, the fintech revolution, and technology strategy. These provide an understanding of the most up-to-date thinking in the respective areas and of the broader implications for modern business practice.

In addition, the school has made a name for itself in providing instruction and support for entrepreneurs. EMBA students can benefit from this by taking an elective on entrepreneurship, as well as by taking part in the “global new venture challenge”. This is a widely commended competition to launch start-ups run by the university’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Participating teams are asked to create a new business and then have the opportunity to pitch their ideas and get feedback on their business models from faculty members, successful entrepreneurs and potential investors. The ultimate winners receive funding to take their plans further.

“This is not only an excellent learning experience, but has also resulted in many real company launches,” Johnson says.

To keep pace in other ways, he notes the school will move to a new state-of-the-art Hong Kong campus late next year, and that efforts will continue, in partnership with The Hong Kong Jockey Club, to strengthen the social sector by helping to develop charities and NGOs through conferences, seminars, and board development programmes.

Such initiatives are seen as a great way to promote social innovation and encourage students to get involved in meaningful projects. More generally, technology will obviously play its part, but within clearly defined limits.

“All of our courses are taught on campus because we believe you can’t substitute the learning gained from classroom interaction and discussion,” Johnson says. “However, we do offer online review sessions during the downtime between classes to supplement the teaching.”

For the Kellogg-HKUST EMBA programme, which was recently given top spot once again in the Financial Times global rankings, continuous review of the curriculum is a priority. The aim is to ensure all courses and topics are current, relevant and have a direct relation to problems and challenges encountered in the real-world business environment.

With that in mind, cutting-edge workshops have been introduced along the way to give the necessary perspective and insights on areas such as corporate governance, family business, fintech, and the evolving economic and political scene in mainland China.

Each year, there is also an “entrepreneurial boot camp”, lasting two and a half days, which shows students how to evaluate business ideas, discern potential problems, and put forward workable solutions. These sessions develop skills essential for aspiring leaders and provide a framework for translating ideas into action.

With technological advances rapidly transforming businesses around the world, the programme is also now covering subjects like Bitcoin, e-commerce and data analytics, besides arranging visits to or from leading tech players such as Tencent, Google and DJI.

One newer course on digital marketing deals specifically with the impact of digital and social networks on customer behaviour. It also explains how to formulate and implement effective marketing strategies for the online environment.

In addition, the programme now offers a number of “hybrid” global electives, which allow students to complete several modules online before attending classes in locations like Lisbon, San Francisco or Miami to complete each course.

This is a logical extension of the current status which sees global electives made available on seven international campuses, including in Toronto, Tel Aviv and Beijing. The classes there are taught by local faculty with an unparalleled level of expertise in their respective subjects and regions. Each of these electives also gives students the chance to be immersed for a while in new markets, learn about different industries, and appreciate other aspects of today’s complex global economy.

“Our students are looking for practical and transferable skills from the EMBA to help them harness future opportunities,” says Professor Tam Kar-yan, dean of HKUST business school. “Therefore, we offer a rigorous and innovative curriculum, providing a unique, enriching and value-added learning experience for participants.”

The DBA offered by City University of Hong Kong’s College of Business deliberately differentiates itself in other ways. The initial courses, supplemented where appropriate by electives from the school’s MBA programmes, bring senior executives up to speed in areas outside their normal scope of activities. But later on, the emphasis is on undertaking research, in line with approved academic methodologies, designed to resolve real-world business challenges and generate new ideas which can improve day-to-day management practice.

“Our students come to us with the intention of studying an important business problem in depth,” says DBA programme director Professor Muammer Ozer. “Our role is to provide advice, direction and support as they conduct research and work towards their thesis.”

Some applicants, he notes, want to study highly topical themes like fintech or China’s Belt and Road economic initiative. Others prefer to focus on a management, regulatory or structural issue affecting productivity or efficiency within their particular organisation and sector.

A clear objective is that their findings should lead to conclusions – and practical solutions – which can also have a wide-ranging impact. Therefore, if an initial proposal has promise but, overall, appears too narrow or company-specific, faculty supervisors will tactfully suggest an alternative focus or approach.

Unlike in a typical EMBA, much of the work of reviewing relevant literature, devising surveys and tapping into industry expertise must, of necessity, be done independently.

“We do, though, offer various courses on methodology and constant one-on-one supervision,” Ozer says. “We also conduct regular research workshops to help our students develop their topics and benefit from peer comments and suggestions.”

Recognising that the issues faced by companies and industries are changing every day, an increasing number of thesis topics inevitably focus on these new complexities. That can see research on subjects associated with e-commerce, IT security, managing human resources in a changing workplace, raising capital, and how to compete in fast-moving global markets.

“Hong Kong is a place for entrepreneurs and start-ups, so the DBA can also help students with certain needs and expectations in that respect,” Ozer says. “We constantly monitor the research and business landscapes, so that we are able to integrate theory and practice. It goes without saying that our professors have extensive global expertise and in-depth knowledge of China, and they constantly collaborate with researchers around the world to bring new ideas and practices into the programme.”

In similar fashion, the DBA offered by the SBS Swiss Business School (SBS) puts the focus on innovation and making the most of strong ties with different branches of industry.

In essence, the programme is designed for senior executives and management professionals who want to make a significant contribution in terms of practice and policy. It combines the coursework of the first year with a range of seminars, workshops and written assignments before students move on to the research phase, which entails an individual project guided by a supervisor.

This comes after candidates have completed a set of assessed research proposals. The minimum time required is three years, but that can be extended if necessary. The final dissertation should be in the form of a research paper, suitable for publication, which is also submitted for external examination. And, while given scope to study a specialist subject within the general framework of organisation and management, future graduates are expected to make a useful contribution to the fields of leadership, change management or process improvement.

In doing this, they are encouraged to adopt a range of research methodologies and to offer feedback, without reservation, on how the broader curriculum can be further enhanced.

“During the first year, the programme manager and lecturers are the key points of contact for students,” says Dr Bert Wolfs, academic dean of SBS. “In the second and third years, the assigned mentor takes on responsibility for supervision and providing guidance for their chosen research topic. He or she has a 24-hour obligation to respond to student requests.”

Hong Kong Management Association (HKMA) provides facilities and administrative support for SBS on offer in its DBA in Hong Kong.

Much of the background material and research literature can now be sourced from online libraries and databases. However, changing needs and expectations mean that other types of support are essential, and supervisors must be ready to adapt accordingly.

“That is a big issue,” Wolfs says. “It is important to be aware of what different generations of students want and how they prefer to work.”

For example, he has observed that a digitally-oriented “millennial” may not take notes in class, but instead will take photos of any relevant material and use those to revise for future assignments. And while older DBA students usually prefer to communicate by phone, the younger generation expect lecturers to deal with most queries online or via Whatsapp.

“That is just one aspect of keeping up with ongoing change,” Wolfs says. “And because there is a tendency in business to use certain buzzwords for a while and then see them vanish, we have to judge what now belongs in the curriculum and what doesn’t. Sometimes that can be difficult.”

He notes, for instance, that the term V-commerce, with the “V” standing for vertical integration is already starting to replace e-commerce, a reflection of the fact that major players are evolving to produce goods, as well as selling them online.

“That is the future, along with subjects like digitalisation, which now covers many aspects of a business,” Wolfs says. “Also, if you want to conduct research in the field of entrepreneurship, the SBS DBA may well be the right choice for you.”