China Lab: A new and deeper partnership

China Lab students in front of the MIT Sloan buildingStudents from MIT Sloan and MIT Sloan's four partner Chinese universities take a break during the School's first China Lab, held in March 2008. View larger version >>

This spring MIT Sloan's partnership with four premier business schools in China was expanded to include an intensive, semester-long opportunity for students from both countries to learn and work together collaboratively. Involving 32 Chinese international MBA students (IMBA) and 24 MIT Sloan students, China Lab incorporated elements of Project Team China and the popular E-Lab and G-Lab courses to give students hands-on work experience as part of a multi-national business team.

Beginning in January, under the guidance of Jonathan Lehrich, manager of special projects, and MIT Sloan Professor Yasheng Huang, students were divided into groups of four or five (several each from MIT Sloan and the Chinese partner schools) and each group was assigned an intensive internship with one of twelve Chinese companies. Meeting first on the MIT Sloan campus during SIP week, the teams prepared for their on-site projects before traveling together one week later to their host cities in China, where they worked to provide consulting-style analysis and recommendations.

More than anything else, explains Lehrich, it is the opportunity for MIT Sloan students and Chinese IMBA students to work together as true peers that makes China Lab so unique. Though MIT Sloan has been working with many of these Chinese universities for more than a dozen years, this is the first time a group of MIT Sloan students have joined forces with Chinese students to tackle real-world business problems, and that, he says, is an invaluable experience. “When we are all one global world and these students have graduated, these are the kinds of people they will be working with,” he explains. “So what we want to do is give them the opportunity to work together now in the relatively risk free environment of being a student, but nonetheless on projects that matter.”

Navigating differences

Ningya Wang, MBA '09, whose team was working for a Chinese airline company in the southwest city of Kunming, says one of the most valuable aspects of the trip for her was learning firsthand how to adapt to doing business in China. Cultural differences and language barriers — as well as differing ideas about business strategy in general — all presented unique challenges for both sides of each team, and navigating them is a skill that would be impossible to learn in a classroom.

Though she is originally from China, Wang had never been a part of the workforce and she says she was surprised by a number of distinct differences she noticed in the way companies do business there. She describes the Chinese business style as much less confrontational than she is used to and the Chinese are more indirect in their questioning. Though it took her some time to do so, she was able to learn to adapt comfortably, something she says would be impossible without the face-to-face work experience allowed by the China Lab trip. “There is just so much non-verbal communication that goes on,” she explains, “and it all helps you to understand the business they are in and what the problems are as well as the general environment in China.”

She says her Chinese counterparts were great to work with and they developed a strong working relationship, which she hopes will be able to make an impact on their host company. “For us it was more about helping them understand what the situation in the U.S. is, not on the surface, but actually helping them understand other similar enterprises or businesses in the U.S. which are in similar situations to what they are in now. That is where our value will come from; if we can find that model or provide this information, that would help them.”

Managing distance

Researching issues as varied as market entry, commercialization, globalization, and financing, teams are responsible for producing a deliverable to their host company at the end of the spring semester. Produced as part of the coursework for Yaheng Huang's class Economy and Business in Modern China and India, this deliverable will be the product not only of each team's experience in both Cambridge and China, but also of continued research and communication carried out remotely in the months that follow. And this distant, more virtual teamwork poses one of the more important challenges to the teams.

“When you are separated by half the world,” Lehrich explains, “working together becomes a more complicated challenge. But if you can solve that now, as a student, you are at an enormous advantage in the future. Whether students go into consulting, banking, manufacturing or any other field, whether it be a services company or an operating company, so often they will have to work in long-distance virtual teams and though many people believe that this creates greater efficiency, it also creates challenges, and we want the students to wrestle with them now.”

An eye to the future

David Yates, MBA ’09, whose team worked for a software provider from Shanghai, had been interested in doing business in Asia for a long time, and he says the China Lab trip, along with the close relationships he formed with his teammates, only solidified that interest. “I really like Shanghai,” he says, “it was extremely diverse, the people were extremely smart and switched on. I think they are in a hurry to get places. And I definitely think it could be a place I could live in a few years time.”

Wang, too, says she would consider working in her home country. And as for the future of the China Lab program, it looks as though it will only continue to grow in complexity and scope into the future. Says Lehrich: “The problem with the classroom environment is that it is sometimes overly safe. If you do a case in class, what is the worst that will happen? You might say something stupid and it might affect your grade, or your classmates might think a little less of you. But when you walk into a company you have to give them the full benefit of your expertise, and, more importantly, you have to really listen, throw off your preconceptions and listen clearly in a focused and collective way. Our lab courses suggest that companies, time and again, are so thrilled with the results they get from our students that they start using them right away.”