A Meeting of Minds

By Foster, Geoffrey | Management Today, February 1990 | Go to article overview

A Meeting of Minds


Foster, Geoffrey, Management Today


If money is the mainspring and measure of business, it's only proper that business schools should be intensely concerned about it. In Britain, at least, they have at no time been more concerned than at present. For the reducing proportion of taxpayers' money available for vocational training in management means that the schools have to strive, as never before, to raise funds from the end-users of their products - the employers. These efforts have produced a huge surge, not only in the quantity of management education, but in the variety of its forms. Hence the flurry of novelties: single company and consortia degrees, part-time programmes, modular programmes, distance learning programmes, and so on.

Many of these innovations are designed to permit fuller use of resources, while catering for an insatiable demand from those who wish to be trained in the crafts of management. The professors are fortunate to be living in boom times. The danger is, as always, that more could mean worse; that, in the pursuit of market share, scarce resources will be spread too thinly so that quality and reputation fall off. The prized initials MBA don't always count for much, even today.

It will surprise no one that much the same pressures can be found across the Channel, especially among the few business schools that teach in English and award MBA degrees after the American pattern. The biggest of these academic cuckoos, INSEAD (European Institute of Business Administration) at Fontainebleau, has lately been expanding at a phenomenal pace. Over in French-speaking Switzerland, its two almost equally well known rivals, IMEDE (International Management Development Institute) at Lausanne and IMI (International Management Institute) in Geneva, officially merged at the beginning of this year, in a quest for 'critical mass'. This was probably the first merger of previously unrelated institutions in the history of management education, and it created a new school whose character and aspirations could well have lessons for UK educators.

'Industry had gone though all the restructuring of the '80s. Education has to do the same,' observes juan Rada, director general of IMD (International Institute for Management Development), as the product of the union is known. It remains to be seen how well this general proposition will stand up, given the very different structures of industry and education. But the logic is infallible as applied to IMEDE and IMI. The two schools were barely 60 kilometres apart, of comparable size, and depended on attracting custom from all over Europe and beyond. As English language schools in Switzerland, Rada points out, both needed to cultivate an international reputation.

A merger of the schools had regularly been mooted since shortly after IMEDE's founding, by Nestle, in the late 1950s. IMI had been established (under a different name) within a year or so of the end of World War II, by Alcan Aluminium. However, the distinctive personalities bequeathed by the parents may have helped, as Rada suggests, to keep the schools separate. Alcan inhabited a capital-intensive world of long trade cycles; Nestle was in fast-moving consumer goods, preoccupied with marketing, distribution and short-term cash flows. Although Alcan dropped out of the picture after 10 years, IMI continued to concentrate on longer-term and more senior management issues; and therefore, paradoxically, on courses of shorter duration. Indeed, one of IMI's chief claims to fame was its ability to lure away board members of giant companies on short, three-day exercises, in a way that few other Euro-business schools could hope to do.

Money, or the lack of it, was what finally brought them together. When the subject resurfaced in the 1980s, IMI was facing the prospect of having to spend substantial sums on its Geneva facilities. IMEDE was at that time well into a major building programme at Lausanne. But Nestle had wearied of its role of principal fairy godmother to DUDE, and a merger of the schools offered a convenient way of escape. …

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