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Business

Diverse business models pose a test for Asian MBA programs

State enterprises, family conglomerates and startups need very different skills

Asian business schools are attracting students with ambitions ranging from founding startups to working in government. (Photo courtesy of CEIBS)

SINGAPORE Asia's business schools have much ground to cover if they are to blend the region's business models with the old nuts and bolts of MBA curricula borrowed from longer-established Western institutions.

Not only is the region vast and diverse, from wealthy Singapore and Hong Kong to the middle classes emerging in China and Indonesia, the types of companies are also varied.

Students come from or aim for companies as disparate as government-linked corporations, Asian-style family businesses, big Western multinationals, as well as an array of tech-based startups launched by the region's young entrepreneurs.

"The culture and the institutional details are very different," said Nilanjan Sen, associate dean of Graduate Studies at Nanyang Business School in Singapore, discussing the gamut of businesses across Asia.

Asia's nascent corporate giants need talented recruits. "The emergence of Asian corporate powerhouses such as Alibaba [Group Holding] and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Asian companies buying companies around the world, these are huge developments," said Ang Ser Keng of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University.

Another differentiating factor is the presence of big family-owned and run businesses. Such enterprises are less common these days in Europe and North America.

Those businesses are sending family members to join MBA courses as a way to keep up with a rapidly changing corporate environment full of startups and self-described "disruptors."

"Last year a student from a family business that was about to list attended [the SMU executive MBA program], and said our capital-raising course came in handy," added Ang Ser Keng.

No matter what the context, business schools need to keep in touch with companies and keep tabs on the changing economies around them.

"We discuss with recruiters what are the skills and knowledge they need," said Ilian Mihov, dean of INSEAD, a Franco-Singaporean business school. Hoping to leverage its global image to help straddle the Asian-Western business worlds, INSEAD is undertaking a curriculum review aimed at "being more consistent with what employers are looking for."

Asian schools will need to have many faces, catering to local needs while retaining enough of the generics to make sure graduates can chase jobs at Western multinationals as well as Asian businesses.

"We had five of them going to Apple, a major multinational, some joined the government-linked companies in Singapore, some went back to the family business," Sen said, citing the career paths of recent Nanyang graduates.

Such an approach makes sense, as "the MBA is a vocational degree, which is informed by and informs the environment around it," said Mansoor Iqbal, senior MBA editor at Quacquarelli Symonds, an education consultancy.

It is an approach some of the region's lesser-known schools are adopting. Linking his school's curriculum to economic trends in Indonesia, Roy Sembel, dean of IPMI International Business School in Jakarta, said: "We are creating programs related to the digital economy, and because the government is keen to build [the country's] infrastructure, we include maritime and port logistics."

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