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The Swiss International Business Bootcamp

Our students of SIBBC 2017 in Shanghai with executives of Ferrum.

With the ongoing complexity and evolving requirements of dealing with our increasingly interconnected economies globally, business students upon graduating are confronted with challenges that require a new set of skills to tackle these challenges efficiently and effectively. They need to be able to develop actionable recommendations for their employers in an international environment where data is often scarce, at times not trustworthy, and mostly hard to obtain.

Initially developed at medical faculties, Problem-based Learning (PBL) promises to enhance the transfer of professional knowledge into actionable competences and boost self- as well as social competences. Students are confronted with a (authentic/real life) challenge, and on the go acquire and develop the necessary skill-set and expertise to master it. Harvard University later developed hybrid forms of curricula, combining conventional methods with such exploratory approaches, and today such innovative teaching methods are finding their way into our curricula. Given its constructivist setting, these approaches shall strengthen the intrinsic motivation of students to tackle complex challenges in an exploratory fashion, in a team and under the guidance of an experienced coach. They develop competences going beyond basic cognitive functions of memorizing and reproducing, towards understanding, explaining, analyzing, judging, and synthesizing situations and deriving and developing adequate business recommendations. What is more, they develop a hands-on understanding of the dynamics in a team throughout an entire assignment (usually going through the phases forming – storming – norming – performing). In short, they develop international management competences.

Why is this relevant? In a global economy that was supposed to be converging, but where influential players (above all China) take distinctly different paths, what matters for a company’s business success is “contextual intelligence”. Khanna (2014) pointedly raised this issue in his HBR article Contextual Intelligence, arguing that “trying to apply management practices uniformly across geographies is a fool’s errand, much as we’d like to think otherwise.” This statement claims that managers often overestimate their conviction how to succeed in other markets. According to Khanna, this applies especially to business leaders from WEIRD countries (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) countries. Very often, they are driven by mental models that work well in established markets, but fail in new business contexts such as China. In order to succeed in foreign markets, both properly understanding one’s own business success factors as well as a thorough understanding of the conditions in the newly to be tapped market is required. By contextual intelligence, Khanna means “the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which it was developed”.

The solution to overcome the limits of our knowledge is accepting that business models need to change in new markets according to the different framework conditions or market needs.  To that end, companies can no longer rely on pre-fabricated reports and generalized data sets, but must instead closely observe their target audience and develop customized models and frameworks that, however imperfect, will help the company develop an agile and learning mind-set. Essentially, they need employees that have both a contextual knowledge as well as a managerial skill-set that allows them to manage new and complex projects in a challenging international environment. They need customized and actionable market insights.

This is where the SIBBC comes in. The Swiss International Business Bootcamp (SIBBC) is a program run by the Center for Asia Business that allows students to develop their competences in a real-life situation, working out a consulting assignment for a Swiss enterprise with a business interest in Asia. In collaboration with foreign partner universities, student consulting teams under close guidance gather relevant information and develop such market insights. The fast-growing markets of China and the Southeast Asian nations are in the focus. In such projects, student consulting teams establish a concrete market potential with identified business projects in the infrastructure sector (Indonesia), devise optimal market entry strategies for piping systems (Vietnam), or analyze and recommend social media solutions to be integrated into current business models (China), to just name a few. Needless to say, this collaboration between industry and academia provides first-hand market insights for these companies, and the growing network of the Center for Asia Business allows for respective projects to be run in all Asian key markets. What is more, the fact that companies pay for their market insights acts as positive pressure for students to understand the task as a real-life exercise, not a mere simulation.

How does this fit in our mandate to transfer and foster international management competences? The SIBBC allows students to sharpen their competences in a challenging, international, real-life assignment, while the Swiss companies obtain valuable contextual intelligence and relevant market insights. In short, a win-win situation in the true sense of the word.