Why global may not be good anymore
The strategies of all business schools are either international or global. Websites, brochures, leaflets demonstrate the global nature of education, research, and impact. Most business schools have been forming international alliances which cover students exchange, faculty visits, and shared programs.
Strategic mimetism is almost an oxymoron and it calls for attention. If every business school does the same thing, there is no differentiation. With an increasing number of accredited business schools, accreditations and rankings, are no longer sufficient differentiators. What are the expected outcomes of strategic mimetism? Homogenization of quality, competition on prices, and dryness of ideas and lack of originality. It is the entry of Fordism into business education. Would business school leaders mimic Henry Ford “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”. Being global turns out to be a costly commodity. It requires huge investment and becomes non distinctive.
The word “global” is meaningless; you have to be a foul to invest that much into commodities. Moreover, no one can be sure that only global managers meet market expectations. Are all companies multinationals? Are all companies targeting global markets? Are all companies expecting MBA students to have exactly the same knowledge? Being able to offer similar capabilities? Isn’t it about time to offer some counterintuitive insights?
In vino veritas
Would business school leaders be inspired by what happens in vineyards and the resilient wine industry? Around the middle of the past century, the wine market was completely polarized; i.e., either top wines known by the winemakers (Château Lafite Rothschild, etc.) or local wines known by local people, associated with low price and usually low quality. As domestic markets opened their frontiers, wines had to be characterized.
The Anglo-Saxon world promoted generic grape varieties, such as Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah, which are global and disconnected from their region of origin. A generic grape variety is usually synonymous with basic quality, basic price, no character, no personality, and interchangeability. My wine dealer usually calls them boring wines.
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The last years of the XX century and the early XXI century have seen an interesting move: rather than emphasizing a specific “appellation” like “Château something”, some brave winemakers have been rebelling against a race to the bottom; they leverage the terroir, rather than just a name or a generic variety. The underlying idea is that if a wine has been grown and cultivated in a certain region; it reflects the unique character of that region.
Terroir means that wines are not equivalent, not interchangeable. These wines come from a specific territory which is imprinted in the taste, color, smell, and easiness to drink of each wine. Terroir is a way for winemakers to truly differentiate their product, rather than mimic existing ones. The strategy has been very successful as customers are able to identify terroir; they choose tasty and specific wines. Winemakers are also able to charge a premium since they attract discerning customers buying a unique product in limited supply.
What could be specific to business schools and MBA programs? The solution cannot be found in specialization. MBA programs are generalist in nature; they train general managers. Business schools have to offer a general education. In that sense, wine is wine and it is different from beer and whisky.
Since wine grape breeders and winemakers are deeply anchored within a territory and propose products which mirror the characteristics of that territory, it seems reasonable to have business schools that are also anchored locally reflect their territory as well. Rather than trying to train standardized managers or MBAs, business schools must recognize that they are producing students and alumni with all the basic capabilities plus something else which is their unique experience within that business school, within that territory.
Rather than hiding the differences by producing students and managers, who are as interchangeable as possible, a brave business school dean should step away from the crowd and emphasize the true character of a school, the unique and remarkable experience it offers. Globalization does not mean that you are from nowhere. It means that what you have been experiencing somewhere nurtures your ability to adapt elsewhere by bringing out the best of what you accumulated in different locations.
The vertical competition, based on ranking destroys the necessary variety of training and experiences. Strategies must be developed based on horizontal competition, on the specificities of the capabilities and the experience.