London school keen on China experience

Because of the ever bigger role China plays in global economy, Ortalo-Magné believed that many business courses currently being taught in Western classes are too Western-centric.

THE economic slowdown and media brouhaha surrounding it seem to have done little to undermine China’s appeal to Westerners as a “land of opportunity.”

A particularly telling illustration is the legion of foreign business schools operating in China, intent on meeting the growing demand for quality business education. One of those schools that have joined the “gold rush” is the prestigious London Business School (LBS).

On the sidelines of a recent event held in Shanghai to mark its three-year partnership with Fudan University’s School of Management, Dean François Ortalo-Magné from the LBS spoke about how he had witnessed a shift in the global economic landscape and what that would mean for business education.

Newly appointed as LBS dean, Ortalo-Magné recounted a tale he heard at the Fudan gathering where a LBS alumna cited forecasts saying that “by 2030, the middle class in the world will be 4.9 billion people. And 3 billion of those will be in Asia, most of them in China.”

Staggering as that figure might be, Ortalo-Magné perceived more cause for celebration than just the numbers.

“The numbers are exciting not just because they reflect the sheer size of the economy, but the fact that it is growing so well, as evidenced by the expected enlargement of the middle class,” he said.

As a former real estate professor and agricultural engineer who has been visiting China since 2002, Ortalo-Magné is undoubtedly a front-row witness to the country’s epic economic boom.

And alumni gatherings are far from the only place to hear optimistic first-person accounts about the resilience and vitality of the Chinese economy.

François Ortalo-Magné

Changing reality

A recent conversation with Amazon UK’s director, who was previously based in China, convinced him that the best piece of career advice he could give his students is to “spend a year in China and experience the business there.”

Because of the ever bigger role China plays in global economy, Ortalo-Magné believed that many business courses currently being taught in Western classes are too Western-centric, in other words, outmoded, as they don’t mirror the changing economic reality.

What he desired most is not only to have more Chinese case studies being incorporated into the curriculum of MBA programs offered by LBS, but also to encourage Western academics to learn from China. He didn’t specify what he had in mind, but dropped hints that this learning endeavor had better be all-encompassing, in a way that it focuses not just on curriculum design, but on the humanities and cultural exchange as well.

“Instead of us coming here to teach, we should make this communication a two-way traffic,” said Ortalo-Magné, adding that he kept coming to China to “feel the weight and opportunity that comes out of understanding, respecting its culture and making the most of it.”

The Frenchman admits he is a mixture of both French and Anglo-Saxon influences. Unlike many business school deans given to preaching the religion of market fundamentalism, he has the unmistakable demeanor of a French philosopher, poised to rhapsodize about the beauty of art, humanities and culture — something he said comes from his French side.

That streak is well-balanced with his American side, manifested by pragmatism, certain toolkits, a keen eye for opportunity as well as a belief that “we could introduce a lot better management for everyone who works in business.”

He dismissed a tendency among academics to push aside culture and reinvent how to interact with one another based on “models, simulations and what computers are telling us.”

Lifelong dream

His perception of education may also have been shaped by his dream of becoming a farmer, which he nursed since boyhood but was unable to fulfill. When confronted with the difficult choice between the job at LBS and the farm his uncle offered him, Ortalo-Magné hesitated, before deciding that he could still bring about a positive change in the world for education has “a lot in common” with farming.

With the progress made in education and technology, he believed it is now possible to treat students less as a bunch of raw materials waiting to be molded into multiple shapes, which is a common practice adopted by educators since the end of World War II.

“Our role should be one more akin to farmers who create an environment for crops to really flourish,” he said.

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