Slice of life: Business and pleasure

Slice of life: Business and pleasure McGill University

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McGill Reporter
June 7, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 17
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > June 7, 2001 > Slice of life: Business and pleasure

Business and pleasure

For Richard Wright, the highlight of teaching his course in Japan last summer was visiting a Buddhist temple in Kamakura. "The temples were normally off grounds to the Japanese, so this was a great privilege. We did a meditation overlooking the gardens, and then the rain began to fall. It was truly a transcendental experience."

Wright, if you're wondering, is not a professor of religious studies. He's a management professor who specializes in international business and finance, the globalization of entrepreneurship and management in Japan.

Business, he explains, is not just about transactions of goods and money, "it's about culture, about another way of life. Business is business anywhere; the cultural context in which it's done is more important than the techniques."

That is what he and fellow management professor Peter Johnson, a specialist in the entrepreneurial management of new businesses, seek to get across to their students in each of the countries in which they've taught their respective courses. Wright teaches either "European Economy and Business Management" or "Asia/Pacific Management," depending on the locale, while Johnson teaches "Management of New Enterprises."

Among the countries to which they've travelled are Cuba, Italy, France, England, Germany, Singapore and Vietnam. At the moment, they and a small group of MBA students, management undergraduates and arts students are in Prague, staying at the Czech Management Centre, a former centre for communist administrators.

This is Wright and Johnson's second visit to the Czech Republic and the rule seems to be: study hard, then travel hard. The classes, which include visits to companies, go from morning, often into the evening, from Monday to Thursday, then the group is off for the weekend to travel.

The assignments include going to a large grocery store, choosing a Czech product, then developing a marketing plan for it to be sold in Canada, and doing the same in reverse for a Canadian product.

In a recent e-mail from Prague, Wright writes: "On our two-day trip which we just completed, we visited a Czech furniture manufacturer whose company we had already studied. After visiting the plant, we spent about two hours talking with the management about how the company is re-positioning itself from a purely production orientation during the communist era, to a more market-oriented approach today.

"Being able to actually talk to the owners and managers who had brought a company successfully through the transition was a truly unique experience, for the students and the professors alike.

"After that visit we stayed overnight at a spectacular Renaissance castle, including a personal tour of the castle by the owner; and then the following day we visited the original Budweiser brewery (not the American company which plagiarized their name!) -- and, again, had an opportunity to meet and talk with the managers."

Organizing these trips is no mean feat. It took Wright two years, for instance, to organize the trip to Japan. In part, this was due to the expense of living in the country. Wright used his contacts to get lodgings in a "union" hotel, meant for workers, not tourists, and to arrange for a weekend stay with a Japanese family. The latter was very popular with the students, a few of whom have revisited their hosts.

Johnson, for his part, is already working on organizing next year's trip to Turkey. One of the reasons for organizing early is because the students must be signed up by mid-January and, ideally, before Christmas.

"We've got this down to a bit of a science," says Johnson. "We want the aunts, uncles and parents to give money towards the student's trip." For a three-week stay, including weekday meals, lectures and sightseeing tours, the price is $2,600. Students are responsible for making their own travel arrangements.

It was Johnson who got the ball rolling in his faculty for such study and travel courses. After management professor Alfred Jaeger, returning from a visit to Cuba, spoke to him about the possibility of teaching on the island, Johnson was bitten.

Johnson liked the idea, but his first stab at teaching McGill students in another country was a mixed experience due to a misunderstanding about food requirements.

"I thanked God I was an Outward Bound alum," says Johnson, who ended up having to arrange for extra food from the Canadian Embassy. The weekend scuba diving in Cuba was, however, a definite attraction.

It was also a good place for experiencing and observing business under a communist government, he notes, adding that he would ask the Chinese MBA students what the differences were between businesses under the Chinese and Cuban regimes.

Jaeger, too, alongside management professor Nelson Phillips, teaches McGill students in a locale far from home in May.

Four years ago, he and Phillips began teaching their respective courses, cross-cultural management and managing globalization, in Cuba, but after a few years they now limit their countries to Brazil and Canada.

Last month, two Brazilian professors and 11 students arrived in Montreal from the Escolas superior de propoganda e marketing, where they spent two weeks with the McGill students, making friends and visiting local companies like Peachtree Networks, L'Oréal cosmetics and the Port of Montreal.

In Sao Paulo, home of ESPM, the students visited the American Chamber of Commerce -- of which many Canadian companies doing business in Brazil, such as Nortel, are members -- and Embraer.

While they were visiting the latter, an aeronautics company producing regional aircraft, one of the Brazilian professors expressed surprise at how "polite" the Canadian visitors were in not raising the whole trade war between Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer over the sale of aircraft to the United States.

One of the reasons for choosing Brazil, aside from Nelson Phillips having personal contacts with the ESPM and Jaeger having lived for periods in the country, is the fact that Brazil has similarities with Canada.

They are both sparsely populated big countries with well-developed aerospace, transportation and pharmaceutical sectors, notes Phillips. On the other hand, Brazil has 170 million people, we have 30 million, and the division between rich and poor is far greater in the southern nation.

Jaeger, back just last week from Brazil, commented on how the students got to appreciate the struggles of the developing nation. Plagued in the south with drought for the past two years, electricity, 98 per cent of which is hydro-generated, is now rationed. "The abundance of water resources in Brazil is like here, but we don't have to worry about drought."

Students also learned why Brazil isn't keen to sign the free trade in the Americas agreement right away, due to American quotas on Brazilian sugar and orange juice. Jaeger pointed out to the students that low-end orange juice in Canada is less expensive than in the United States because we don't limit the amount of the juice coming from Brazil -- the world's largest producer -- into Canada, while the U.S. does in order to protect its Florida producers.

Jaeger, like Johnson and Wright, thinks that taking courses overseas is a great way of learning about other cultures' business practices because it's "live." It's also a good forum in which to make new friends and get to know the professors.

"One of the assignments is keeping a journal about one's experience interacting with the Brazilians and reflecting on what they [the Canadian students] are learning, such as seeing their own country through the eyes of a Brazilian. The whole trip is a classroom."

This time round, for instance, the Canadian students learned that Brazilian students never study at the beach, something the Canadians did during their stay in Rio. "It's just not in their nature," says Jaeger. "The beach is for pleasure; that's the last place they'd go to study. They're just not that driven."

In the Canadian and Brazilian parts of the course, Nelson Phillips is concerned with how companies globalize their products. Last year, for instance, he had students do a comparative analysis between companies in the same sector on how they manage globalization. One student who examined two cosmetics companies found that one used the strategy of developing the same products the world over, regardless of differences in skintones and hair colour and texture, while another customized its products for specific parts of the world.

Christine Liao is an MBA student who attended the courses in Japan last year. She enjoyed the experience, especially getting to observe Japanese management in action. "Management is very personal there; the managers care about the private lives of the people. This came out when we asked questions," says Liao, a Chinese national who speaks some Japanese. She also enjoyed getting close with her classmates. "We made good friends."

From Phillips's point of view, these courses are like travelling, only better. "This is more powerful than travelling because you have to think about what you're seeing and make sense of it. When employers see the courses on a resumé, they're impressed: 'What was this about?' they ask."

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