Global Education Is Essential, Now More Than Ever

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Wednesday, February 7, 2024
By Nicole de Fontaines, Christine Côté
Photo by iStock/BrianAJackson
While consensus around globalization’s benefits is eroding, an international business education is still key to thriving businesses and a healthy society.
  • A growing backlash over globalization has led to resurgence of economic nationalism and protectionist policies worldwide.
  • An international business education is a solution that can bridge divisions in the world and provide a path for shaping a better future.
  • Business schools can safeguard the benefits of globalization by equipping future leaders with characteristics such as cultural intelligence, curiosity, empathy, integrity, wisdom, and foresight.

It seems not that long ago that humanity seemed to share a collective vision of an open world, bursting with limitless opportunities for shared innovation and economic growth. This vision began in the 1980s, when countries started to dismantle barriers to trade and investment, enabling the flow of people across national borders and fostering international collaboration.

The years that followed saw the rise of global supply chains, cross-border production networks, and collaborative innovation. Responding to this momentum, more individuals chose to pursue international study and careers.

It was against this backdrop that four business schools—Bocconi University in Italy, ESADE Business School in Barcelona, HEC Paris, and the Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Cologne in Germany—formed the Global Alliance in Management Education, or CEMS. Since then, the alliance has grown to include 33 academic members, 70 corporations, and eight nongovernmental organizations.

From this collaboration came the CEMS Master in International Management (MIM), which provides students with opportunities to freely cross borders to study at different member schools in different countries. Throughout their study experience, students develop the skills to thrive in the ever-evolving global economy.

In recent years, however, globalization has undergone significant challenges and shifts, leading to a diminished consensus about its advantages. Amid the debate, business schools must do more to underscore the importance of cultivating leaders with international perspectives. In fact, it’s now more crucial than ever for business schools come together to advocate for globalization.

An Erosion of an Ideal

The erosion of consensus around an open world is due to numerous factors. In some countries, the backlash against globalization has arisen from a perceived dichotomy of “winners and losers,” which in turn has led to a resurgence of economic nationalism and protectionism. Some nations have responded to increased economic uncertainty and technological advancement by turning inward, adopting policies that protect their industries and workers.

As a result, trade tensions have replaced the once-prevailing ethos of open trade and investment. Many countries have shifted their attention to national concerns, with an emphasis on self-sufficiency and the safeguarding of domestic industries and jobs.

An international business education emerges as a solution to the growing divisions in the world. It is a way to shape a future where dialogue across borders and solutions for the common good prevail.

National responses to the COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the vulnerabilities of a highly interconnected world. By necessity, countries had to turn inward to protect their citizens, shutting borders and prioritizing domestic needs around issues such as the disbursement of vaccines and personal protective equipment.

These factors have been compounded by geopolitical tensions and power struggles among nations, from the chaotic aftermath of Brexit and increasingly cold United States–China relations all the way up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These events have had politicians, business leaders, and academics worldwide rethinking the landscape of global relations.

The Importance of an International Curriculum

An international business education emerges not just as a response to these transformative shifts, but as a solution to the growing divisions in the world. It can shape a future where dialogue across borders and solutions for the common good prevail. Four main reasons support this view:

1. Business drives change, so business must be part of any solutions. The challenges the world faces today—such as climate change, public health crises, and cybersecurity threats—call for collective cross-border collaborations among governments, businesses, international organizations, and NGOs. The business world is not a bystander or peripheral actor in these efforts. It is a key player in addressing environmental, economic, and political challenges.

With their capacity, capability, and resources, businesses can drive positive change. But they can do so effectively only if they can draw on a cohort of responsible leaders at all levels who not only are aware of the issues, but also possess the will, skills, insights, and mindsets to navigate complex environments and implement workable solutions.

Business schools will be a primary source of this skilled cohort of leaders. For instance, in the CEMS MIM, students work with NGO partners as they develop collaborative skills, global mindsets, and an understanding of their important role in supporting an interconnected world.

2. Despite protectionist policies, globalization continues. Although the current landscape might indicate otherwise, globalization isn’t going anywhere. But as the McKinsey Global Institute emphasizes in a November 2022 report, it is changing. The challenge, the report notes, “is to harness the benefits of interconnection while managing the risks and downsides of dependency.” Some experts predict that, in 2024, certain countries might even use “weaponized trade” as a way to further their national interests.

Even so, businesses will continue to expand across borders, and the interconnectedness of economies and markets will remain a fundamental aspect of the business environment. Ultimately, we are all interdependent. 

An international business education provides students with the knowledge and skills to navigate barriers between people, markets, and countries. Business schools should encourage students to delve into why globalization is important and seek ways to overcome its challenges. All graduates should learn the history that led to where we are today, engage with the present, and prepare for a future defined by international trade.

Our students should explore today’s difficult questions: How do laws, regulations, and practices differ between countries? How can leaders balance global and local needs?

3. Cultural intelligence is an essential skill. Cultural context is more important than ever. In the 21st century, business schools should teach business ethics, as well as ignite a deep understanding of cultural differences. Their students should explore today’s difficult questions: How do laws, regulations, and practices differ between countries? How can leaders carefully balance global and local needs?

For example, as part of the Global Citizenship Seminar, a required part of the MIM, participants who are studying at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) travel to the Philippi Village Solution Space, the school’s business and community hub. The hub is in an area of Cape Town that has a large youth population and high unemployment; most residents in Philippi Village live in informal dwellings.

As they work in the Solution Space, students are exposed to the challenges and opportunities of living, working, and doing business in a township context. They learn from UCT GSB colleagues and local entrepreneurs about how the space enables startup teams to build scalable businesses with potential for international expansion.

4. Global networking is still critical for success. As students in international business programs collaborate with each other to tackle complex issues, they form strong bonds with peers, professors, faculty, and like-minded trailblazers. They develop powerful networks that stretch across continents. Corporate partners are especially important to these networks, because they provide graduates with a lifelong source of support.

Essential Skills for a Changing World

So, what essential characteristics should tomorrow’s leaders develop while attending international business programs? We believe the following will be of greatest importance in the years to come:

An appreciation of difference, as well as of the strengths, opportunities, and lessons that arise from the open engagement with different ideas. This requires a global mindset; an empathetic attitude toward others; and an understanding of the interconnectedness of economies, cultures, and societies. CEMS students, for example, develop these attributes through their terms abroad, when they immerse themselves in the cultures of other campuses and countries.

Curiosity, discernment, and a deep understanding of the complexities of our time. Leaders need a nuanced understanding and a strategic vision that go beyond short-term goals and allows them to navigate an era of constant change with wisdom and foresight.

A passion for lifelong learning. Effective leaders must stay informed about industry trends, technological advancements, and environmental and societal constraints throughout their careers.

A willingness to engage with others fully, think independently, and contribute to a more inclusive and sustainable world. An understanding of the impact that businesses have on the environment and society is crucial for a leader’s long-term success. If equipped with this mindset, future leaders will not only foster ethical and sustainable practices, but also align their efforts with the evolving expectations of socially conscious stakeholders.

Future leaders must have the confidence to embrace change, adjust strategies swiftly, and be comfortable stepping into the unknown.

This is the objective of a model conference on climate change that CEMS has run for more than 15 years. This two-day event simulates the climate negotiations that take place at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. During the simulation, students play the roles of government, nongovernment, and industry representatives; they must engage their curiosity, practice their advocacy skills, and hone their ability to see things through the eyes of others.

The freedom to ask questions and to interpret information using evidence, logic, and critical reasoning. This includes the ability to bring together individuals with varied skills and perspectives in ways that enhance problem-solving and innovation.

For instance, during our CEMS Global Citizenship Seminar, which focuses on the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), students delve into questions about what it takes to be a responsible leader and how they can use logic and critical reasoning to design effective solutions. Different member schools can base this course on different SDGs. For instance, the London School of Economics focuses on the relevance of human rights to business and how this area links to other SDGs.

The mental and emotional strength to confront challenges with humility and integrity. Leaders need to cultivate resilience, which will allow them to bounce back from setbacks and learn from failures. They also will need emotional intelligence to understand and manage their own emotions and those of others. To develop this strength, students will need opportunities to engage with the community at all levels.

We provide students in our Global Citizenship course such an opportunity via a field trip to Brazil to study the operations of CEFOPEA, which empowers homeless people through work that supports a circular economy. As they learn about affordable, sustainable solutions in urban agriculture, energy production, and nonconventional food production, students also see firsthand how CEFOPEA is fostering more resilient communities. 

A sense of empowerment to make decisions and lead in a pluralistic world. Future leaders must have the confidence to embrace change, adjust strategies swiftly, and be comfortable stepping into the unknown. This is where consultancy projects come in. When business students work on real-world problems submitted by corporate partners, they learn to work on international teams, make quick business decisions, and devise fresh insights and concrete solutions.

In conclusion, as the world faces undeniable challenges and a shifting consensus on the benefits of globalization, the relevance of an international business education is undeniable. It is the mission of business schools worldwide to equip their graduates to do more than weather the turbulence of the changing business environment. We must make sure that our graduates know how to master its complexities—now and in the future.

Nicole de Fontaines
Executive Director, Global Alliance in Management Education (CEMS)
Christine Côté
Chair, Academic Committee, Global Alliance in Management Education (CEMS)
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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