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Global business schools turn to Asia for inspiration

The IE Business School's WOW Room in Madrid uses the latest technology to connect students from around the world.

What will business schools look like when they are created on the surface of Mars some decades from now? That is the question Santiago Iniguez, dean of Spain's IE Business School, has been asking himself for the past several years.

In October, I attended the launch of his school's groundbreaking new classroom in Madrid, which seeks to answer the dean's visionary question. It is called the WOW Room, short for "Window on the World."

In a pitch-black room, a professor stands in front of a U-shaped screen, like an orchestra conductor facing his musicians. As he speaks, 48 faces are shown simultaneously on the screen. Each of them is a student viewing from a remote location.

Investing 25 million euros ($27.8 million) over the past five years, the school has created a first-of-its-kind digital classroom that incorporates artificial intelligence, simulations, big data, interactive robots and holograms.

I was given a tablet, which immediately zoomed into my face and started to evaluate whether I was happy, angry or disgusted, according to my expression.

During the discussion, the professor posed questions that participants answered via the tablet. The results of this instant polling were shown on the screen. Students around the world took part, some sitting by sunny windows, others participating at midnight local time.

The technology is impressive. But the significance of the WOW Room lies not so much in its gadgets as in what it reveals about business schools' changing priorities, such as the growing focus on diversity in the student body and in the curriculum.

"Diversity is the first reason why MBA applicants decide to apply for IE," Iniguez said. "We currently have 156 different nationalities on campus, and over 94% of the MBA is composed of foreign students. This cultural and ethnic diversity is an important component of the learning process and anticipates what managers may find after graduation when they lead multicultural teams."

The wrong people

The global financial crisis of 2008 has left a scar on the reputation of business schools. Henry Mintzberg, a professor at Canada's McGill University, has criticized the schools for teaching the wrong people, arguing that the young aspiring professionals who typically attend MBA courses lack the experience required to learn management. "Confidence minus competence equals arrogance," he said.

In other quarters, business schools have been accused of promoting elitism, narcissism and a business culture in which the pursuit of short-term gains linked to exorbitant salaries has damaged the long-term health of companies and societies.

In 2007, Citigroup boss Chuck Prince famously said: "When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance. " Adding students from diverse backgrounds might help to make people realize that you don't necessarily have to dance at all.

Collective interests

The growing global importance of Asian business practices will add another level of diversity. It is estimated that Asian nations, led by China and India, will account for 70% of global demand for university studies by 2025. That will have a significant impact on business schools everywhere.

Iniguez thinks schools should also pay more attention to distinctive features of Asian management style, such as the emphasis in Japan on longer-term perspectives and the wider regional belief in putting collective interests over those of the individual.

In his book "The Learning Curve," Iniguez argues that business schools can use diversity to challenge the arrogance that Mintzberg perceived. "Pupils are immediately confronted with a reality of multiple references, thus making it harder to see themselves as belonging to a single, elite group," Iniguez writes.

Diversity is a key yardstick in The Economist's MBA Rankings. Yale School of Management and IE saw their positions rise in this year's table, largely due to an improvement in student diversity. Australia's University of Queensland Business School has struggled to make it higher than 10th place, despite being number one for post-MBA salaries, because its student diversity and internationalism of alumni rank low.

In the past, higher education was about acquiring knowledge and understanding academic theorizing. In the age of the cloud, knowledge and theories can be found on the internet. As the WOW Room so dramatically demonstrates, students no longer need to memorize information; they need to have open minds, and know where to look and how to search.

These forces offer an unprecedented opportunity for Asian professionals to impart their insights, helping to change the nature of business teaching everywhere. Even from the comfort of their living rooms.

Ken Moriyasu is a deputy editor and social media editor of the Nikkei Asian Review; he visited the IE Business School as winner of its 2016 Prize for Economic Journalism in Asia.

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