Last year, I visited IESE, a business school set in the hills overlooking Barcelona. Sipping a drink in the warm night, looking out from a rooftop terrace in the beautifully designed campus towards the port and the expanse of the Mediterranean, I thought, now this would be a place to do an MBA. IESE is one of the top European business schools, but it may also be the only business school worth attending just for the location.
Business schools have mirrored the globalisation of business in recent years, prompting enormous migration patterns among MBA students. In the UK, there are more foreign than British MBA students. The London Business School boasts students from more than 120 countries. The Harvard Business School claims around 35% of its students are not American, though many have worked or studied in the United States previously. INSEAD now runs a campus in Singapore, one of several schools which have internationalised their educational offerings by opening outposts in Asia.
I was an Englishman living in France with an American wife when I decided to go to business school in America, to Harvard. I had already worked in the US for four years, had family there besides my wife's family, and wanted to give myself the chance at a career there. But it meant two years, lots of money and a move from France, a country I loved. INSEAD at Fontainebleau was very tempting, and several friends had enjoyed their quickie one-year course and done well since. But HBS it was to be.
The international students I met at HBS all had their own reasons for leaving home to go there. Some were eager to work on Wall Street or to crack the venture capital world of Silicon Valley. Others believed US schools were the most prestigious and hoped that would help when they returned home. Others came because they wanted to understand the American way of doing business, because they felt it was the dominant world business culture. Almost all said they looked forward to becoming part of a global network of Harvard alumni.
But what is the truth? Is overseas business education really the best way into a more varied, rewarding and lucrative career? Since writing a book about my experience at Harvard, I've received correspondence from students who either rave or despair about their international MBA experience. For some it created new and previously inconceivable opportunities. Whether they returned home after receiving their degree or after a few years working in the country where they received their education, they said the experience of studying abroad was life-changing. Their language skills and business skills were enhanced and they met people they never would have met otherwise.
Others, however, have complained to me that the people they met on their international MBA were of no use to them once they returned home and they would have been better off staying put and developing the networks they already had.
In the US, law students have traditionally weighed up the pros and cons of going far away for their legal education. While there is obvious cachet to going to a famous school thousands of miles away, the more practical course might be to attend a school in your state where you will meet the people you will be running into for the rest of your career.
The same can be said of a business education. How are you best served? By trying to internationalise yourself in the somewhat random setting of a foreign business school, with a collection of people who share only the fact that they applied in the same year? Or do you go to a place where you are more likely to make deeper, more relevant connections?
Sir Andrew Likierman, dean of the London Business School, maintains that the 'experience of sitting in a room with so many people from so many different countries gives you a fantastic perspective for doing business around the world'. The same might be said of interrailing or travelling by bus through Africa - although you would be unlikely to learn as much about marketing or strategy that way.
Of crucial import, too, is the perspective of employers. What do they want? With so many large firms now operating multiple international offices, an appetite for going overseas and a foreign language or two are increasingly must-haves for potential high-flyers. You may well stand a better chance of working for a major investment bank if you're willing to forgo London and start work in Shanghai, Hong Kong or Mumbai.
Business schools are trying to meet this need, preparing students for international jobs in an increasingly international business environment. The Cass Business School at the City University in London offers an executive MBA in Dubai and MBA students at the University of Nottingham's business school can spend part of their course on campuses in China, Malaysia or Singapore. Harvard has just appointed an Indian, Nitin Nohria, as its first non-US born dean.
Spending part of one's business education overseas is about more than parachuting for a few weeks into yet another glass-and-metal campus where the only difference is that the sun shines brighter. Studying abroad demonstrates an awareness of the nature of business opportunity and capital flows today and the confidence to meet such challenges head-on.
Even if you aren't about to up sticks to the other side of the world, foreign study pays dividends. Consider the recent purchase of Harrods by the Qatari Investment Fund, or the amount of Indian, Chinese and Russian money pouring into the UK, whether into Mayfair-based hedge funds or iconic manufacturing firms such as Land Rover. Being culturally and commercially savvy enough to work with these new investors is a valuable asset even for those who want to remain working in the UK.
Chandler Robinson, a US MBA student at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, wrote recently that the experience has given him a fresh perspective on the US healthcare system in which he wants to work when he returns home. Non-Americans have a very different attitude to providing healthcare, which can only be fully appreciated by living and studying among them, he says.
Preparing an assessment of medical technology opportunities in the American midwest, Robinson found himself able to draw on a team including an Indian doctor, a Singaporean accountant and a Croatian pharmaceutical sales manager. 'The different outlooks on business force me to think through my own assumptions and have led to better solutions.'
There, in a nutshell, is the case for studying abroad: that combination of widened horizons and access to such an expansive range of talent and experience could take a lifetime to acquire by other means. A two-by-two matrix may look the same in any language, but cut through that ubiquitous business-ese to develop a knowledge and appreciation of different peoples and places and, like any foreign trip, overseas study ends up more than worth the price of the ticket.