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India immersion yields lessons in culture as much as business

India is one of three countries that Ivey Global Lab participants can go to for opportunities to work in an international business environment.

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By her admission, Linley McConnell is a "go-go-go" person, usually with little patience for slow service and other impediments to getting her work done.

But this year, a two-month company internship in Pune, India – a centrepiece of her 16-month master of science in management (international business) program at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School – taught her the value of patience and humility in working in a foreign business environment.

"When I came back from India I was the most patient I had ever been," she says. "I learned that you just have to let it be and be ready to deal with obstacles that are thrown in your way and be proactive rather than reactive."

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Her insight echoes a report this year by CEMS, a global alliance of business schools (Ivey is the only Canadian member), and Universum, a Sweden-based consultant on employer branding.

Based on a survey of 1,200 company recruiters, business graduates and students, the Going Global report found that half of human resource managers said they "value candidates who have the ability to embrace the challenges of working in another country."

As well, managers in the survey said "geographical mobility of a potential employee is a strong advantage in the early stages of their career."

As work goes global, business schools are responding with short-stint learning opportunities for students to step outside their comfort zone and immerse themselves in unfamiliar business cultures.

One such example is the Ivey Global Lab, a mandatory 10-week practicum for students enrolled in the international business stream of the school's master of science in management, a specialty program for students with little work experience. Lab students head to India, Nicaragua or Vietnam to deliver real projects for local companies recruited to participate in the course.

Since 2013, the lab's cohort has grown to 62 students in the three countries, from 15 in just one, India.

The lab is delivered by Ivey (with course content developed by organizational behaviour professor Lynn Imai) in collaboration with two travel adventure consultants, Toronto-based Terraficionados and India-based Authentica, which provide on-the-ground logistical and coaching support before and while the students are on the job.

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That combination of immersive overseas learning and collaborative delivery is unusual among specialty master-level business programs, according to Patrick Cullen, vice-president of strategy and innovation for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the world's largest business education alliance that accredits business schools worldwide.

"From everything my colleagues and I at AACSB have seen, and we haven't seen everything, we think this Ivey Global Lab is the most substantial and intensive experiential learning initiative we know of in a one-year master's program," says Mr. Cullen, citing the extent and rigorousness of the global component. "That is clearly distinctive."

Dr. Imai, also trained as a psychologist, has delivered the Ivey course between January and July. "It takes a lot of work to make sure they [students] get immersed in a situation that is going to be transformative for them," she says. "Ivey, with this course, takes it to the extreme in making sure they get that cross-cultural business immersion."

As private-sector partners, Terraficionados and Authentica identify domestic companies and scope out projects that can be delivered by students during their two-month stay and provide on-the-ground coaching to students who must quickly navigate an unfamiliar business culture. Prior to leaving for their assignment, students receive training on cultural and other challenges of working abroad and afterward must reflect on what they have learned about themselves.

"Going and living in a foreign country is a huge challenge," says Christopher Clark, founder of Terraficionados and a former Toronto-based strategy consultant. For students working abroad, he adds, "The big switch is that you can't expect to be just told what to do [in contrast to] a classroom environment where you are handed a computer file.

"You have to identify it [the business problem to be solved] and you have to push and make the case."

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Ravi Raj, a former management consultant who founded India-based Authentica in 2010, teamed up the following year with Mr. Clark (they are MBA graduates, in different years, of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire), and together they forged a partnership with Ivey.

Mr. Raj recruits local companies, not North American subsidiaries, so students get full exposure to a foreign business environment. He also coaches company officials on what to assign students during their placement.

In Pune, Ivey lab participant Céline Zollinger worked for a major wind turbine manufacturer. Multilingual and well-traveled, Ms. Zollinger also choose to earn an additional CEMS designation (with students required to be proficient in two languages, learning a third, and to spend at least one semester abroad at another CEMS alliance school) while completing her Ivey degree.

"Reading about the culture and the country is completely different than getting in there and working with the [company] people," she says. "You always have to get rid of your Western perspective of how to do business."

Prior to her assignment, she signed up for an optional one-week guided tour of India offered through the Lab to acclimatize to her new surroundings.

Ms. McConnell, who had visited India as a teenager, says, "The language barrier, the cultural nuances and how business is conducted, especially their leadership, is very different."

Some differences seem superficial but are important: In India, a manager's head bobble could mean yes or no, and tea time is an essential opportunity for informal networking. Other differences are embedded in Indian business practices, with a more hierarchical management structure compared to North America. "[In India], whatever the boss says, goes," says Ms. McConnell.

After graduating from Ivey this year, she joined Deloitte in Toronto as a business analyst and continues to apply what she learned in India. "Life is just a bunch of things and you can deal with them in a positive way as an opportunity, or as a negative," she says.

Follow Jennifer Lewington via her RSS feed here or Twitter @JenLewington. She can be contacted by e-mail at jlewington@bell.net.

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