KEONG LEONG, Feature Editor, Fisher
College of Business,
INTERNATIONAL STUDY TOURS CAN ENRICH BUSINESS CURRICULA
by Karen A. Brown, Albers School of Business and Economics, Seattle University
With the increasing importance of globalization, many business schools are seeking ways to increase student knowledge and awareness of international business concepts. Courses in international business (marketing, management, finance, accounting, operations, etc.) have flourished. The work "international" in front of any course name can increase its sex appeal by many-fold. (Paradoxically, many of the courses without the international prefix have just as much international content as those that do.) By now, most faculty members have recognized the need to expand their course perspectives beyond domestic issues, recognizing that all business is international. What, then, can we offer that truly extends our standard curricula?
Several business schools have found the answer in international study tours, study abroad programs, and international internships. This article will focus on international study tours, which will be defined here as concentrated international experiences involving intensive schedules of company visits. A typical duration for a study tour would be one to two weeks for travel time, plus several weeks of preparation prior to the excursion. Study tours differ from study abroad programs, which usually involve taking a regular class over a standard semester or quarter duration while in another country. Internships, of course, involve individual students working at meaningful jobs in foreign countries. All of these options have value, but the study tour offers special advantages because it does not require the resources and institutional commitment that the other two demand.
The Study Tour Niche
Many of us would probably agree that a business education should be considered incomplete if it does not include some sort of international experience. This may be particularly important for U.S. students, who come from a culture that is notorious for its global naivete. Some schools have developed partnerships with institutions in other countries, and others have established their own campuses abroad. These arrangements provide wonderful opportunities for students, but they are not the only route to international exposure. What about schools that don't have the resources to develop external facilities or relationships? What about students who can't afford, personally or financially, to spend an entire academic term in another country? What about schools that don't have the resources to support faculty living overseas? The answer to these challenges lies in short, intensive study tours.
I am now preparing to lead my third international study tour, so I don't consider myself to be an expert on the subject. Nonetheless, I have picked up a few insights from my own experience and from conversations with colleagues engaged in similar efforts. A symposium on this topic was held at the DSI International Conference in Pueblo, Mexico, this past June, and I found it particularly helpful to exchange thoughts and ideas with other faculty members. I would like to acknowledge some of these individuals, and suggest their names to readers who are seeking information on study tours: Keong Leong, Ohio State University, Mark Davis, Bentley College, Benito Flores, Texas A&M University, Basheer Khumawala, University of Houston, Ravi Kumar, University of Southern California, Linda Sprague, University of New Hampshire, and Bob Markland, University of South Carolina
Making It Happen
The ease of getting started on an international study tour will vary across institutions. A summer school class may be the best way to begin, given the typically greater flexibility offered outside the constraints of the academic year. A business dean may be willing to fund a summer section on a contingency basis (i.e., if it doesn't fill, it's canceled). Another option is to offer a study tour on a non-credit basis, perhaps as an operations club activity. A successful non-credit excursion may build the groundwork for a curriculum offering later on. An additional possibility is to teach a study tour class as an independent study. This, too, can be parlayed into a regular class sometime down the road, once it develops a good track record. The latter two options do not provide teaching credit for the instructor, and obviously add a tremendous amount to his or her work load. However, there are great personal and professional rewards associated with leading these kinds of tours, and sometimes it is worthwhile to overlook the extra burdens involved in getting started.
What About Budget?
Many faculty members assumed that they can't lead study tours without subsidy from their institutions. This is not necessarily true. I am now in my third year of organizing and leading study tours and have managed to get this far on a strictly self-supporting basis. By working diligently to keep travel costs down, by managing my own budget receipts and payables (i.e., not putting it all in the hands of a travel agent), and by spending just "a bit" of my own money for advance travel, I have been able to operate independently from external funding. Student fees are used to cover travel, lodging, meals, and a bus driver/guide and bus, as well as administrative costs such as mail, faxes, telephone, copying, and gifts for managers at host plants. So far, this has worked well.
A key to my success with self support has been in the selection of a destinationşlocations involving extensive travel and high cost are not options for me, but there are plenty of alternatives that fit my constraints. During the first two years that I led study tours, I took students to visit maquiladora plants in Northwestern Mexico. This allowed us to minimize travel costs in a country where expenses for lodging and food are relatively low. Student fees for the first two years averaged about $800 for one week of travel and allowed me to cover all administrative costs. This year, I'll venture into the heart of Mexico with my students. Costs will be somewhat higher, but still within reason (about $1,000). More power to those who can secure funding for administrative expenses or travel support, but keep in mind that it is not essential.
What I've Learned
Study tours are fun, interesting, and rewarding for a faculty member. They also present challenges in logistics and diplomacy. I've put together a list of tips for aspiring tour leaders to consider and have summarized a few of them here.
FOCUS. A study tour works best if it is focused on a specific aspect of business. My tours have been centered on operations, particularly manufacturing, but I can envision tours in marketing and other fields as well. An operations focus lends itself especially well because it entails the observation of facilities and practices. Such observations can be made in the absence of a common language.
RIGOR. Academic rigor is essential, or a study tour class will be labeled as a boondoggle and its support with school administrators will be short-lived; even more importantly, students will not get the most from the time and money they have spent on the class.
PREPARATION. It is important that students spend considerable time preparing and learning before the actual study tour. Study topics should include a review of the subject matter to be studied during the visit, as well as an intensive analysis of the country to be visited. So, preparation for an operations study tour might include a review of "world class" manufacturing practices and a discussion of service delivery as it differs across cultures. Plant visits at home assist students in developing observational skills prior to the excursion. Additionally, readings, cases, and guest speakers cultivate student understanding of the culture, politics, economics, history, and business practices in the country to be visited.
STAY BUSY. I don't think I need say much here, but a full schedule during the study tour can avert disasters.
PLANT RELATIONS. It is important to establish and maintain good relationships with the companies to be visited. Letters and faxes must be professional and diplomatic. Follow-up letters are essential for ensuring that tour arrangements and arrival times have been clearly understood. One should bring gifts for plant managers and others who help to make the tour possible. Last year, I had Seattle University t-shirts imprinted with the names of all the plants that we visited (the shirts were a real hit with our hosts). Also, thank you letters, written so that they don't look like form letters, are essential to lasting affiliations. Many of the host plants spend several days preparing for a study tour visit, plant managers take time out of their schedules during the tours, and some organizations extend their hospitality to include lunch and gifts for participants. A thoughtful thank you letter will keep the door open for you and your colleagues, as well.
Many students have told me that the study tour experience was the highlight of their academic careers. As one student commented, "I've never learned so much, and had so much fun, all at the same time." Another telling comment was: "It's embarrassing for me to realize how little I knew about Mexico before I took this class."
I've also seen great benefit in taking faculty members as part of a study tour group (last year's group included 12 faculty members and 14 students). As one who sometimes feels frustrated in my efforts to "explain" operations to my colleagues in other areas, it was a delight to have them see, first-hand, what my field is all about. As one finance professor commented, "I finally get it! The operation is the core of the business, and the other functions must support it." All of the faculty members who have participated tell me that examples from their study tour experience have now become integrated into many of their lectures.
The only downside to such a successful class (besides the workload) is the "me too" phenomenon that results when other faculty members decide that they would also like to run study tours. Because demand for such programs is finite, some competition will arise.
If you are interested in international issues and have good organizational skills, a study tour is definitely worth doing.
KAREN A. BROWN is Professor of Operations and Director of Operations in the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University. Her research interests focus on the interactions between social and technical factors in manufacturing and service operations, and her most recent publications have appeared in Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Operations Management, Operations Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, and International Journal of Production Economics. She is an active member of the Decision Science Institute.
Dr. G. Keong Leong