For many MBA students, international travel has become a central component of the business school experience. In part, it’s a reflection of the increasing demand for managers who understand how business works in other cultures. Less understood, however, is whether these programmes actually help students become more global in their thinking and business practices.
The emphasis on international travel is more prevalent in US MBA programmes than in other regions, said Matt Symonds, director of Fortuna Admissions, an MBA admissions consultancy, as the majority of students are American and are less likely to have international work and travel experience.
Business schools, responding to demand by students and employers for more global exposure, have started incorporating international programmes into their curricula in the last decade or so. From short-term courses and consulting projects, to semesters abroad, most US MBA students can tick a box during their two-year programme. While some are more for fun, others are designed to build professional networks and a few programmes offer the kind of work exposure that can help secure a job post-graduation.
“ International study experience can really shift perspectives and open your eyes to other ways of doing business,” Symonds said. For instance, Americans often think of Silicon Valley as the dominant technology hub, but it “isn’t the only culture of technology,” said Symonds. “Spending time in Tel Aviv or Berlin or Shanghai opens your eyes to that.”
Still, not all trips are meant to educate—and many are too short or too social in nature to even give students a strong perspective of culture and ways of doing business. Symonds said it’s up to schools to ensure that these trips show the “warts-and-all insight” of doing business in a particular market.
Other MBA travel experiences don’t even pretend to be educational, such as the ski trips that have become a fixture across business schools. And yet, many students consider the networking from these types of trips to be as valuable as any class or internship.
Outside of networking, some programmes are designed to help students learn hands-on skills. Harvard Business School, for example, offers Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development, which includes a consulting project that’s done by students for a company located in an emerging market.
Vincent Ho-Tin-Noe, a 2013 graduate of Harvard Business School and a co-founder of consulting firm MBA Admissions Advisors, spent a week working for a consumer goods company in India.
Ho-Tin-Noe, a native of Paris, said the project was an opportunity to learn about the challenges Indian firms face and business models that would not be viable in North America or Europe.
“ There’s a lot of language around ‘think globally, act locally’,” Symond said. “I think that these international experiences can actually turn that language into a more vivid reality.”