A Personal Perspective From the Business Education Alliance: Fan Wang

Fan Wang, a professor at Sun Yat-sen Business School, shares his unique path to becoming a business educator and discusses the merits of being a part of AACSB’s Business Education Alliance.

In this blog series, AACSB reaches out to members of the Business Education Alliance to garner their personal perspectives on business education. We ask educators and practitioners about their professional journey and any insights they can share related to the future of our industry. In this interview, Fan Wang, professor of operations and information management at Sun Yat-sen Business School in China, shares his unique path to becoming a business educator and discusses the merits of being a part of AACSB’s Business Education Alliance.

Tell us why you chose to become a business educator?

Actually, I didn’t major in business administration when I was in university; I instead majored in computer science for both my master’s degree and PhD. I came into the business discipline purely by accident. I worked for IBM Research after I graduated with a PhD. At that time, my work straddled both the business and technology areas. From there, I realized that technology by itself wasn’t enough. Often, people failed to appreciate the commercial value of tech, or that the tech field suffered from a lack of exposure to the commercial world.

Therefore, I found that business education might be more important than technology itself. A good information system might fail just because it doesn’t fulfill the needs of the top clients or because the top clients are not accustomed to using it. People might attribute the failure to technology, but it’s actually a behavioral issue. So I think it’s more important to get buy-in from top clients.

I chose to work in a business school because I thought I could pass on new ideas to the CEOs and board chairs in the MBA program. For instance, I studied artificial intelligence (AI) on campus—if I’d told the executives about AI 10 years ago, they would have thought it was something in the distant future. Today, it’s considered normal to speak about data-driven business models. In other words, it would have been beneficial for the executives if business education had prepared them for this 10 years ago because a good education needs to stay ahead of upcoming technology and practices.

Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues would be fascinated to learn.

Most of the time, my colleagues didn’t know that I was not a business major. I’ve been delivering business courses in MBA and EMBA programs, have published articles in international business journals, and have provided lots of business consultancy services, so my colleagues assumed that I majored in business administration. They were surprised when I told them that I actually majored in computer science. But when they learned about my experiences prior to coming here, they weren’t as surprised anymore. In fact, it was a fortuitous turn for me to be able to straddle both worlds, at a time when artificial intelligence, big data, and fintech were hot issues.

Even though I was not a business major, I am able to survive in a business school because different kinds of knowledge are indeed needed there. You will find that business administration is not only about science but also about art. It’s easy for us to understand the part about science, as it can be described mathematically and logically, but it’s difficult for those who majored in technology and engineering to understand the art of management, such as leadership and communication, which I think is something needed for the more science-oriented people, too.

What are your thoughts on the next generation of leaders graduating from business school?

I think the next generation of leaders will be quite different from the current one. First, they will live in a globalized world. For example, even if you do business in China, you may have foreign suppliers and your customers may come from all over the world, speaking different languages and having different religious beliefs, different living habits, and different needs. So you must have a global vision to understand your partners and customers better.

So the first mandate for the next generation of leaders is to adapt to globalization. Second, one must keep abreast with the development of IT and technology because it’s possible to do a lot of things now that were impossible in the past. For example, in the past when we learned accounting we had to do a lot of documentation, rooting, or operations, but now we can do that with computers, and artificial intelligence can do it better than humans, in speed and in optimization. At this time, we have to think about what else we can do. Many decisions are now data driven. From the data collected, we can create better marketing strategies and have better understanding of human behaviors. Social media can be used for better marketing, and in fact one can run a successful marketing campaign without resorting to advertisements in newspapers or on TV. And I believe more changes are coming.

As future leaders better understand globalization and technology, they will have a lot more to do, including localizing the global, in the end. So, as leaders, you still need to do what you do best since you know it best. For example, we live in the Asia Pacific region and I am a Chinese. Therefore, as I get to know about global trends and technological advances, I will still have to figure out the best way to respond to local demands in order to improve economic development in China, or to establish better business administration strategies. It’s important to have global views or background information, but one should still be responsive to the local.

AACSB’s mission is to foster engagement, accelerate innovation, and amplify impact in business education. What does this mission mean to your business school?

There is a large number of business schools in the world, over 500 in China alone. Each business school has their own orientation. There are schools that merely aim to issue degrees, or just offer some courses. The biggest advantage of AACSB is that it provides universal standards that are applicable to every business school. For example, its emphasis on engagement, innovation, and impact are important to all the business schools. Business schools may differ in their orientation, but they must have some contribution in these three aspects. For engagement, we have to think about how our research combines theory and practice. As for innovation, one should think about generating new theories, new methods, new technologies, new applications, and new paradigms for the business world. A little innovation from each business school can make up a great deal for the business world. Impact is an essential aspect, too. A business school is not meant for just conferring degrees; it should give back to society, in research, education, and many other areas.

The reason AACSB set these three goals is for each school to have a global standard for reference. Needless to say, each school can maintain their differences, but once we set a common goal, schools can learn from each other and synergistically fulfill our common mission. In other words, AACSB gives clarity to the meaning of setting up business schools.

How does membership with AACSB help you meet these same objectives?

Sun Yat-sen Business School is the first member of AACSB in mainland China. We joined AACSB in 2002. At that time, the condition of business schools and the economy in mainland China was very different than it is now. Therefore, we knew we must learn from the West to help complement our experience and knowledge.

Business schools in China are very much driven by the demands of practice. Those in the business world reached out to us when they faced problems, such as the need for talent or research.

Being a member of AACSB at that time gave us an advantage in that we got to know about the practices of business schools at the international level, such as in the U.S., Europe, and other places in Asia. We learned about the standards for achieving AACSB Accreditation and how should we manage the school in a more systematic way. With such guidance, we were able to design a lot of processes and regulations tailored to our mission and vision. AACSB has played an important role in this respect.

Today, AACSB has other roles to play. Over the decades, Chinese business schools have developed alongside AACSB. We not only learn from others but also exchange ideas and let others learn from us. We have a lot of good experiences and methods that we can pass on to other schools via AACSB’s mission and network. For example, when we joined AACSB activities, such as those related to accreditation, avenues for peer-to-peer learning were opened to us. It’s also a good opportunity for networking.

Can you share an example of utilizing a resource available to you through your AACSB membership that has been instrumental in addressing key issues at your business school?

Sure. Take DataDirect, for example. Let’s say we’re interested in data on how many teaching staff a business school should have. I think everyone has their own opinion. Some think there should be a staff of 100 or even 1,000. Some may think it’s enough to have 30 instructors. According to AACSB data, I found that the average number of staff in accredited business schools is 90. We now have 105 instructors at our school, so I think the number of staff is adequate. We don’t want too many or too few, or perhaps we want to keep an instructor but we need to improve his or her quality.

Let me give you another example. There are different disciplines in a school. When we hire someone, it’s normal for that individual to think they are the most important and deserving of the highest salary. But what is the truth? The survey data on AACSB tells me the average salary in each discipline in the U.S. Thus, we know what it’s like in other schools for reference. For instance, accounting and finance are important, so lecturers in this discipline are well paid, especially new assistant professors. Therefore, I can adjust my pay scale accordingly, which also means, if I want to hire internationally, I can do so. My point is, AACSB not only enables us to network, it also has many other resources open to its members. It provides you with a lot of data, materials, references, and case studies, from which you can learn a lot. Of course, they are only for reference. You can form your own ideas and adjust them according to your situation. But undeniably, the reference is of great help.

Finally, the accreditation process with AACSB is quite different from others because a mentor will be assigned to help you. A mentor is different from a reviewer, as a reviewer will only tell you if you have met the standards or not. That’s not consultancy. But most of the time, we want to know why we didn’t meet the standard and how we could improve. A mentor, on the other hand, stays with you as your school grows and provides you with a lot of ideas and suggestions. With a mentor’s help, a school is able to meet the standards quickly. Further, once our business school became accredited, I, too, was able to become a mentor for other schools. I shared with them many best practices in China. Even though the context in the U.S. or Europe is different from us, I still advise other schools to give our ways a try, as it might work. And if our methods work in another school, we can learn and benefit from the school’s success. So this opportunity is very important to me.

Fan Wang is a professor of operations and information management at Sun Yat-sen Business School in Guangzhou, China.