Duke University Alumni Magazine

Global M.B.A.'s
by Robert J. Bliwise

Real-world classroom: DeSanctis off-line
Photo: Les Todd

wo years ago, Business Week reported that the "office of the future" had arrived. "Work anywhere, anytime is the new paradigm. Your car, your home, your office, even your client's office," said the magazine. "Work alone, coupled, teamed. Work in real space or in cyberspace. It amounts to a massive disaggregation of work, spinning outside the walls and confines of the traditional office."

If the virtual workplace has become almost a commonplace, the virtual classroom has been a bit slower to make its appearance. But education in cyberspace has found a constituency at Duke--the corporate executives who will be managing that massive disaggregation. In December, Duke's Fuqua School of Business graduated its first class from the Global Executive M.B.A., or GEMBA program. Now GEMBA's students, faculty, and administrators are pondering the lessons learned--and the significance of those lessons for other spheres of the campus.

And now Business Week is calling the program "the talk of [Fuqua's] B-school rivals." GEMBA is helping Fuqua--and Duke--earn the distinction of an educational innovator. "While most schools have incorporated the Internet and other technology into their educational offerings, few come close to matching the arsenal of cutting-edge applications Duke provides," the magazine said. "If the Duke program succeeds, many elite universities--which have long linked the quality of their executive education to their ivy-covered campuses and personal time spent with professors--could be forced to rethink how they teach."

Richard Staelin, past director for GEMBA and head of the faculty committee that designed the program, says the concept proceeded on a remarkably fast track. "Like any change, the process had to be managed carefully. The initial committee was very supportive; we used them to 'sell' the program to the faculty at large before we took a faculty vote."

The committee started its work in June of 1994. It took six months to lay out the basic design and to do a preliminary analysis of the program's viability. It then took two months to get faculty endorsement, and another two months to get the final go-ahead from the dean. From that point, the school assembled a team to market the program directly to about a hundred global firms; sent out some 10,000 brochures; ran ads in business publications like Business Week, Financial Times, and The Economist; and recruited the first class. According to Staelin, "The program was viewed to be the best way that Fuqua could make an impact on business education, and thus it was an easy sell."

December's graduation culminated a concentrated effort at studying, continuing on the job, and living some kind of personal life for the first group of thirty-nine graduates. They came from eleven countries: Belgium, Brazil, China, England, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Liechtenstein, Poland, Somalia, Switzerland, and the United States. Their affiliations included consulting groups, financial-services companies, the automobile giants General Motors and Ford, and UNICEF. GEMBA administrators expect their students to have an average of fourteen years of professional work experience, and to be employed in a managerial position with "globally focused content."

Will Davie brought a typical international orientation to GEMBA: Now oilfield services coordinator for Schlumberger Oilfield Services in London, he spent five months traveling around the world when he turned eighteen. He has worked for Schlumberger for fifteen years. Having started his career in Tunisia, he has had residential assignments in France, Algeria, Libya, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Congo, Vietnam, and Malaysia. As companies "become more transnational and operate in larger global markets rather than historical regional markets," he observes, their employees will be working more regularly "across time and space." To the extent to which managers understand the capabilities of the Internet--the prime delivery device for GEMBA courses--they will have mastered "one vital constituent of the 'glue' to bind truly global organizations," he says.

Decker: uses "Real Audio" for "virtual" lectures when not in class
Photo: Les Todd

Students found the program appealing not just for its high-tech character and its international emphasis, but also because it allows them to continue in their jobs. (With tuition charges of $82,500--excluding travel costs--most students find it convenient to have their companies as their sponsors.) "It was critical that I did not have to give up two years of work experience and compensation in order to obtain my M.B.A. degree," says Doug Decker '95, who was an economics and Spanish major as a Duke undergraduate. "The opportunity cost would have been too high to justify returning to a full-time, day program. A weekend program that required me to be away from work every other Friday would have been too disruptive." (One student told his Fuqua professors how he signaled his "in school" time to himself and his four children: He would put on a Duke sweatshirt and cap, go into his living room, and sit at his computer, undisturbed, for several hours. When the sweatshirt and cap came off, school was over.)

Fuqua professor Robert Clemen calls the GEMBA students "different beasts entirely than the daytimers. These are executives who are ensconced in some kind of job that requires them to make decisions all the time. The daytimers are mostly career changers; they're here to get an M.B.A. and go into a different field, and they're really looking for tools to help them accomplish that. The executives in GEMBA see things they can use right away." GEMBA students infuse classes not just with executive-tier perspectives; they are steeped in global organizations and are comfortable accommodating cross-cultural business practices. And so a truly global student body spurs global thinking in the curriculum.

According to John Gallagher, one of the original committee members, deliberations at first centered on distance-learning technology that would permit "global" enrollment; surveys of corporate leaders later helped define a curriculum that would have "global" content. Gallagher, director of computer mediated learning for Fuqua, says the committee considered two questions that came to be entwined: "What does the cyberspace revolution imply for what we should be teaching our business students? And how is this revolution going to change us as a business school? GEMBA was the answer to both questions. It addresses the impact of these technologies on business practice, and it creates a new paradigm to deliver the business program."

For each new class, the program begins in May with time in Durham; it ends there nineteen months later in December. In addition to initial lectures and orientation, students are given a fully loaded IBM laptop computer dubbed the "GEMBOX." GEMBA's faculty organizers have, in fact, attached a wry label to the program's learning-on-the-run emphasis--"school in a box." Each of the five "modules," or learning units, includes two weeks of face-to-face encounters. The students--and their instructors--assemble for residential classroom sessions in Salzburg and Prague, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and S‹o Paulo and Buenos Aires. In the virtual and physical spheres alike, students are grouped into diverse teams that change twice during the course of the program. Each team consists of five or six members from different national backgrounds and with different kinds of corporate affiliations.

Classroom instruction features the usual arsenal of business-education formats--lectures, case studies, simulations, problem-solving exercises, and company visits. The focus throughout, though, is decidedly international. At the starting point in Durham, an orientation session feeds into an introduction to "Managerial Effectiveness for the Global Executive." Later modules cover themes like "Interpersonal and Group Relationships in the Global Organization," "Marketing in a Global Environment," "Financial Management in a Global Economy," "Cost Management and Control in Global Organizations," and "Technology, Globalization, and Competition."

When they're out of the virtual world and stepping into the real world, students meet with business, academic, and civil leaders in a particular region. Those leaders range from the president of AT&T; China to a Procter & Gamble vice president for Latin America. Doug Decker, who is a New York-based corporate bond trader with Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co., says he reveled in listening to a Templeton Funds manager who is regarded as "one of the legends in my field of financial services." The talk took place when the group was in Hong Kong. He also mentions an "awe-inspiring" talk during the South American session by a corporate chief executive; the chief executive gave a step-by-step description of how he had turned around a money-losing oil business.

It isn't this more conventional "networking" that gives the program its novelty. Using the Internet and local dial-up service providers, students are able to connect from anywhere in the world and communicate with faculty and classmates. The distance-education segments of GEMBA incorporate the World Wide Web, that vast and undisciplined electronic storehouseĐand a useful resource for business case studies; electronic bulletin boards, on which participants post and receive messages as they see fit; chat rooms, or places for "real-time" conversations--including "office hour" discussions with instructors and online meetings of student teams; so-called File Transfer Protocol servers, through which instructors and students send files back and forth; Real Audio files, which transmit speech digitally; and customized CD-Roms with multimedia presentations. In molding a virtual community, GEMBA also employs experimental applications; one example is ICQ ("I seek you"), a real-time Internet locator system that alertsusers once it finds someone on their contacts list who is also online at that moment.

As former GEMBA director Staelin describes his ideal student, "It is very important for the person to have the right motivation. The program is a 'killer.' " For his part, Decker says on average he spent about twenty-five hours a week doing work for the program. But GEMBA demands more than a commitment of hours; it also demands a dependence on technology.

"I spent the July 4th holiday in 1996 at a very remote beach resort," recalls Decker. "The only phones were rotary-dial models from the 1960s with strange wall plugs. And as you might imagine, there were no modem ports in the rooms. My GEMBA team had been assigned a project over this long weekend which required me to share files with my teammates. I discovered that the only touch-tone phone line--and the only normal telephone wall outlet--at the hotel was for the fax machine in the manager's office. Fortunately, I was able to convince the front-desk clerk to let me in the office several times over the weekend to connect to the Internet, and so to my team."

Decker sees advantages to an M.B.A. program steeped in cyberspace. For one thing, it gave him experience in gathering and evaluating information on the World Wide Web. "The 'Emerging Markets' course required each team to gather information on several companies in emerging markets and on the macro-economic conditions in each of these marketplaces. My team was able to find a tremendous amount of information about Russian utility companies and the macro-economic conditions in Russia, all over the Web. Also, with the professor's help, we were able to e-mail several leading Russian company analysts, and these professionals e-mailed us their latest research reports, usually within one day of sending out our request."

In Decker's view, the professors' lectures that were delivered online had several benefits over traditional classroom lectures. "The student could 'pause' the lecture, rewind if a point was missed, listen to the lecture at any time of the day or night, and replay the lecture at any point in the future for review."

From his vantage point, Robert Clemen, who teaches decision modeling, finds that GEMBA's technology inspires him to rethink the art of teaching. "I was going to have this group here in an executive-education session for a couple of weeks, then interact with them over the Internet. So I would have to break out of the mindset geared to the constraints of class time."

He separated out some core material--material that would normally form themes for class lectures--and developed an online presentation for the students to study on their own. He devoted time on weekends to electronic "office hours" through the GEMBA chat rooms. He experimented with powerful technology like the "screen-cam," which brings a video track and sound track to the computer screen. Committing himself to "an almost paper-less course," he trained himself to read student projects on the screen, and to insert his comments--along with the final grade--in the text. "My eyes get tired, but they get tired reading stuff on paper, too."

Davie: working "across time and space" reflects the future of global business
Photo: Les Todd

And Clemen used a novel way to introduce the class to some of the practicing consultants who use the tools he teaches. "I usually call up a friend and invite him to come to class to give a guest lecture. It somehow occurred to me that we don't have to bring people in; we can give them access to news groups and have an online discussion." By visiting the news group, or chat room, three outside experts from Indianapolis, London, and Penn State University became presences in class. Students were introduced to the trio by Clemen's Web page; the page carried short biographies, photographs, and brief recorded phone interviews. The electronic presentation inspired a sort of electronic feedback--postings on the bulletin board that went on for a week. Says Clemen, "The experts asked provocative questions, the students talked about what was going in their companies, and the experts came back and gave examples about how they worked on similar issues."

All those possibilities weren't a sure thing at the birth of the program. As GEMBA got going in June of 1996, some technological hurdles were quick to emerge, says computing director Gallagher. "One of the critical hurdles was the availability around the globe of reliable Internet service providers. If we had actually started the GEMBA program with the first class three months earlier than we launched it, 20 to 25 percent of our people would not have been able to connect." About a year into the initial run of GEMBA, global Internet providers like AT&T; were spreading the Internet globally.

The global spreading wasn't easy or even. Dutch-born Madeline Klinkhamer, a water- and sanitation-project officer for UNICEF, was GEMBA's one student from the nonprofit sector--and the one student working out of a tent. She was based near Mogadishu, Somalia. "I was in probably one of the most difficult places in the world to do GEMBA," she says. And her list of obstacles to an Internet connection, as she recalls, is impressive: "mosquitoes, snakes, thieves and bandits, adapters, electric shocks, rain." A student in Shanghai had to make a long-distance call to Hong Kong for his course work, since there was no Internet provider in China. Another student, supervising work in the mango fields of Nicaragua, had to rig a digital satellite up-link system connected to his IBM Thinkpad. "For him, there was no telephone available, let alone an Internet service provider," Gallagher says. "We got our projections about service providers just about right, but we cut it a little close."

Connectivity was an issue, though, in a different, even deeper, sense. As Gallagher puts it: "Can you provide a quality instructional experience for people who are distributed in different places for twelve weeks at a time? Can you do that without losing people, without their feeling isolated and lonely? Would they in fact feel connected? Our model was not a correspondence school where you are connected only by a mail system. But it was really unknown what cultural environment we were creating."

The irony is that this is by far the closest group of student and faculty we have ever had in an M.B.A. program," says Gallagher. He points out that as its class gift, this first group donated $137,000 to improve connectivity for all alumni of the business school. "Their sense of community is very strong; they are very connected. Our teaching style depends on a strong degree of interaction among participants. This is not a correspondence school where the instructor tells it all. Participants bring a tremendous amount of perspective; they interpret and elaborate on what is being said."

Gallagher notes that the electronic community is particularly effective for foreign-speaking students. In fact, English is not the first language for most GEMBA participants. "One of the problems you find in the physical classroom environment when you have a mix of native- and non-native speakers is that the non-natives--because of language barriers or cultural conditioning--may not participate as actively. They may have difficulty processing the information coming at them; they may find it harder to keep pace and to compose their thinking. In the electronic environment, they have time to read, time to think, time to compose. Even for native English speakers, there may be some personal characteristics that work against participation. Someone may be less confrontational than his peers, less aggressive in putting across a point, less willing to offer a conflicting opinion.

"So, the playing field is very much leveled out by the fact that discussion does not occur in a real-time classroom environment. The technology is not merely as good as the physical classroom. As an approach to managing discussion, it is much better."

Another member of the conceptualizing committee, Fuqua professor Gerardine DeSanctis, says virtual dealings alone aren't likely to forge close ties. With that notion in mind, GEMBA planners decided that each learning module would feature some real-world togetherness. "One of the conclusions from research on virtual teams is that people form stronger levels of trust if they have some very meaningful social interactions with one another. You can do that online. But it's difficult if you never meet face-to-face. The students look forward to living together, getting together for meals, shopping together, and giving one another the kind of support they need to get through the program.

"At the same time, even our electronic pedagogy has aspects of the old pedagogy--calling on people and expecting participation, issuing assignments with due dates. A lot of the structure in this new world comes directly from the old world. So we're not so much moving from the traditional model of teaching to the cyberworld; we're doing both."

In a forthcoming paper, DeSanctis and colleague Senior Associate Dean Blair Sheppard note that GEMBA transfers traditional labels --"courses," "libraries," "rooms," "calendars," "lounges"--to the virtual learning space. To them, it's not the technological wizardry that makes GEMBA a model for learning; what's vital about this world of the virtual, they say, is how the technology promotes collaboration and community.

One student told them that participants come to "know each other well" through their "conversational writing." As they work electronically on teams, they learn a lot about the attitudes and aptitudes of far-flung peers. "The quant[itative] people outline the intricacies of 'quant' issues, the conceptual people outline the meaning and logic of things, the good writers edit final products, we circulate lots of drafts in a systematized way, and we stick to deadlines," in the words of one team member. DeSanctis and Sheppard say that with such fluid electronic interchanges, professors have an easy time buying into the collaborative learning environment: Students help shape the direction and content of class discussions, and they help identify speakers, business sites, and class activities when the GEMBA classroom shifts from the cyberworld to the real world.

As they consider the impact of distance-learning programs, DeSanctis and Sheppard are skeptical that universities will become nothing but virtual organizations. Technology won't be "the driver" of education, they say; it will be part of the "infrastructure" of education. And it will have a transforming impact, promoting new relationships and new ways of learning. The "classroom of the future"--an array of electronic links--may supplement the classroom of the present. Will it supplant the classroom of the present? An answer of sorts came from last December's experience with the initial GEMBA group, as they gathered in Durham for classes, meals, social events, and a basketball game. The high-spirited camaraderie from that gathering seemed to carry a message: that living and learning can't be confined to the virtual world alone.

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