Perspectives on Asia Pacific business education

Business School leaders from across Asia Pacific talk exclusively about the challenges and opportunities facing them. Interviews by Jack Villanueva and Kevin Lee-Simion

Yang Yang, CEO and co-founder of iPIN

Can you introduce yourself?

I am a founder of an AI company in China, which is developing a platform that will allow people to make applications to help college and high-school students in their personal career development plans, and also help students complete applications for Schools. 

A big challenge of AI is that machines cannot understand highly abstract words such as the US or AMBA. However, all the business areas people need AI to understand, relate to these words.

In order to overcome that, we built a social-economic graph and used it to model the whole economic development of China. This way, machines can understand highly abstract words such as ‘companies’, ‘Schools’, ‘majors’, ‘occupations’, and ‘cities’. Because of this, we can provide some applications to help people plan their career path or help recruiters to recruit people by quickly finding the best candidates among millions of applicants.

How can AI help foster innovation and entrepreneurship in tomorrow’s leaders?

AI gives innovators a lot of new tools. For example, there were a lot of people who wanted to do something before, but they couldn’t because they were lacking AI technology. Now, because of things like deep learning, machines can do many different kinds of work, especially classification work, better than human beings. This has created many new opportunities in many business areas.

How has the use of AI changed the business landscape in China?

AI in China is growing very fast. Many companies in China are using AI to solve different kinds of problems in areas such as finance, education, manufacturing and e-commerce. China has a huge population and can generate large quantities of data, especially data around personal behaviour, and this can help businesses and entrepreneurs in China. This can also help machines better understand people’s behaviour in many different dimensions.

Suresh Mony, Director of the Bangalore Campus of Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS)

In your mind, what does a ‘great’ Business School programme look like?

Educators have a big role to play in creating jobs in society. With the advent of AI, jobs are really being threatened. World Bank research finds 69% of the jobs in India and more than 70% of the jobs in China will disappear within the coming decade. So we must do something drastic. It is SMEs that will create the most jobs per unit of capital invested. The world before 1820 was known as an entrepreneurial society, but everyone had small businesses. With the advent of the large-scale enterprises, it became a society of employees. If jobs are going to become scarce, we need more enterprises and Business Schools should be more instrumental in that. 

The great programmes generate graduates who are analytical, who can synthesise ideas and manage businesses. They are probably not the best at creating businesses.

Entrepreneurship requires people who have critical thinking skills, tolerate ambiguity, and can create. The curricula and pedagogy will have to be tuned to help students create value.

Pedagogy is still classroom orientated. We’ll have to have less of the classroom and more action in terms of enabling students to observe, be apprentices, go out in the market, make their own studies, and make their own decisions. This will help them create a value proposition for the customer.

Do you think today’s students and subsequent graduates are being taught the skills they need to succeed?

Sadly, no. A recent US survey found only 11% of Business School graduates set up their enterprise and of those, only 7% raised capital. 

The mind set for Business Schools is to train students for industry and capture low-hanging fruit. This makes students more job orientated. And the fact that Schools are able to land students good jobs in industry means the hunger is missing in students. 

Business Schools have to have a different structure for entrepreneurship and education, and for faculty. They should not be judged by the workloads or research output, but by how they can create entrepreneurs.

How can Business Schools work to support students’ development of knowledge of entrepreneurship?

A Masters in Entrepreneurship Education, would be a distinct programme and Business Schools should develop it as a two-year long programme with sufficient focus on the action learning part of it; action learning for innovation, and action learning for entrepreneurship.

It would need to be seperate to the conventional MBA, which supplies talent to industry so graduates can become executives. You have to have a different pool of students for entrepreneurship. If you have a creative outlook and innovative ability, I think you will go for entrepreneurship education.

Those who come from business families, even if they do an MBA, after one or two years go back to their businesses, or they go and set up their own enterprise.

Sherry Fu, Director, University of Manchester China Centre

How can Business Schools better support students to participate actively in their own futures?

Business Schools need to provide systematic business knowledge which should build a solid foundation for students. This requires curricula to be continually updated so they keep up with social and economic developments.

Schools need to pay more attention to extra-curricular activities that support students’ career aspirations. The extra-curricular activities and career support are vital. 

In terms of career development, we need the right people to be career advisors. These people don’t have to be academically strong, but should be practical, have real industry experience, and insight into specific sectors that they can share.

We should manage students’ career expectations. Career support doesn’t mean holding the student’s hand; it’s about giving the right advice. We don’t guarantee students a job, secure a job for them, or find a job for them. However, some students will have those expectations that when they sign up to the MBA programme; they will get their ideal job, a promotion in their company, or a better paid role. Students need to take ownership of their own career development.

What we do as Business School educators is support, give advice and make sure we work with students to help make things happen so they can achieve their career goals.

Do you think it’s also about pushing students to become entrepreneurs rather than just employees?

Entrepreneurship is a trend in China because society is encouraging young people to run start-ups and the government has policies to support start-up companies.

We encourage students to have an entrepreneurial spirit so they can be more passionate, but I think Business Schools also provide career support so that students can become more senior within big organisations. 

On the one hand, we encourage students to move forward to gain senior roles, but for those people who want to run their own companies, we can give them more ideas or more education on innovation
and entrepreneurship.

At Manchester Business School, we have an enterprise centre and an incubator for students who want to set up their own companies. The School will invest in them, financially support them, and give them an education in entrepreneurship and innovation.

How can Business Schools nurture the skill sets employees need to succeed?

There are four key areas around which we nurture our students’ skills. The first area is about core skills and the core employability sessions that we deliver via webinars. These webinars are about careers and are given
by industry speakers, practitioners, and our professors. 

Second, we make sure each centre has dedicated staff to tailor sessions to our students with the right information to fit in the local market. 

Third, we provide tailored one-to-one sessions and employ career advisors to provide consulting to students. We ensure the people working for us have real business knowledge and an understanding of the jobs market.

The fourth way in which we nurture our students’ skills is by running events to which we invite industry speakers and we make sure our current students and alumni attend. This means students can learn and get opportunities from their peers, get the right skills sets for career development, and build networks.

We don’t want students just to master the main theories of business. The key is whether they can use these theories to
handle the challenges in the workplace and make a contribution.

As a Business School, we should make sure our students are socially responsible. They shouldn’t just care about making money, they should contribute to their organisation and the wider community.

Robert Yu, Head of China, Lego Education

What’s the concept of Lego Education?

Lego Education believes in learning through play. We empower students and teachers to become lifelong learners through playful learning experiences with our digital and physical education solutions.

Education is about empowerment. At Lego Education we’re very fortunate that we started a journey of this empowerment in 1980. Over the past 37 years, we have learned a lot, experimented a lot, and gained a lot.

Delivering playful experiences at Lego Education is about four things. These are encouraging cultivation of computational thinking; encouraging the building of STEM curriculums; helping and investing in the professional development of teachers globally; and investing in the ecosystem
with global partners.

How does playful learning fit into the Business School?

A playful learning experience should be joyful and socially engaing so that, students find meaning in it. That’s how we define ‘playful’. 

We feel Business School students are facing too many challenges in finding a job, stepping into a career, and solving real-life business problems.  

Can you explain some of your work in encouraging students to be more creative?

We help teachers learn what it means to be a lifelong learner, to be creative, and actively engaged in the classroom. Only when teachers are empowered to deliver a creative classroom can any of type learning happen and that kind of study habit can be cultivated through the teaching process.

We encourage teachers to design a lesson plan, promote different solutions in the classroom, and encourage them to ask students to come up with different solutions and communicate them and in the process, evaluate and reconsider options. Through these processes, students develop computational thinking. They learn to deconstruct tasks, to generalise, and come up with solutions which they will evaluate. At the end, they learn to look objectively at their conclusions which is what we want out of a creative experience.

Does learning in a more creative and playful way lead to innovation?

We have research showing that playful experiences induce deep learning. It’s not just about engaging or creating learning spaces to encourage creativity, it’s about the playful experience itself that includes deep learning which will help learners develop different kinds of skill sets.

Why do you think it’s important for MBAs to collaborate and be lifelong learners?

We live in a world of change and we adapt to this by continuing to learn, being curious, being innovative in the process of solving problems, and coming up with solutions that can help build abstractions. These are all things we are trying to promote, and encouraging learners and teachers to develop throughout the learning experience. 

I feel Business School leaders realise that learning is an experience, and this can be enhanced through different approaches; whether that’s action learning, playful learning, case studies or internships. Once we look at holistic learning in this way, students can benefit immensely.

Why is it important to have that balance between the digital and physical approach to creative and playful learning?

We integrate a digital experience into our entire solution because we know that students are using digital technologies every day, and they will face more digital options in the future.

We believe it is important to give them an understanding and a framework blending physical and digital experiences in a leaning scenario, early on.

Peter Helis, CEO, Helis & Associates

Why is it important for Business Schools to collaborate and build partnerships?

The difference between partnerships and competition is that one is positive and the other is negative. Partnerships are about talking with each other and competition is more about organisations assuming, or not knowing, what is going on in their markets, and not dealing directly with each other.

I would always prefer a partnership because one plus one becomes a lot more than two. We’ve seen that in China, where corporates are very keen to have partnerships with the Western world. Sometimes this is viewed as a joke because people in the West still see China as a competitor, instead of a place for potential partnerships.

In terms of China and Asia Pacific, do you have any examples of exciting and interesting partnerships that you’ve worked on or are working on?

Think of our company as a platform. We don’t build the partnerships directly, we build a platform where people can meet and exchange ideas.

We organise conferences, matchmaking and delegation trips for both sides. We’ve organised very large conferences in southern China and western China. We’ve also organised conferences in Munich and Berlin.

Through these conferences, or platforms, people meet. And then once they meet we can follow up on this. 

When we look at APAC, Vietnam and Myanmar are doing very well, but China is really like a continent, and there are so many untapped areas with huge potential. We can basically copy and paste some of the principles that you’ve already applied in the region in which you’re based.

If you venture to central, western, or southern China, you still have a lot to do before you go to the other APAC countries.

How can a Business School begin to work out a partnership?

Start by doing some research at home and see what areas are interesting. Then, if you don’t have a plan for China in motion, engage with a company such as ours and explore how you can approach potential customers or business partners. If you already have a business in China, take the next step. 

Look beyond your current surroundings and try to set up businesses in southern or western China.

Martin Lockett, Dean of the Nottingham University Business School in Ningbo, China

What are the main elements of evolution for the MBA?

It’s about improving the skills of people who come as students onto the MBA. Some of that will be about deepening knowledge, but a lot of MBAs spend too much time on knowledge and not enough on attitude.

You can give people learning experiences that enable them to experiment safely with new ideas, so they learn the skills needed.

At a Business School where I used to work, we asked students to develop a new business idea. Then we reflected afterwards to get people to think about questions such as ‘what did this mean for me?’ and ‘what can I learn from this?’

In our MBA we ask students to develop a business plan, and we hope they will take that forward. They can experiment and learn in a safe environment and develop their skills as a leader – whether that’s for their own business, developing innovate ideas in an organisation, or for a more general role in an established business.

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