David Wheeler. As universities seek to be global, they should consider an obvious model: multinational corporations.
What leads me to suggest using a corporate lens to look at global universities? I’ve heard Qantas talk about forming alliances with other airlines, a process akin to creating university consortia; tried to understand how the University of Melbourne snagged a partnership with IBM; and been fascinated by the strategies of companies like Johnson & Johnson to recruit the best university graduates. Universities might learn from multinational corporations in a few areas in particular, including employer branding, human resources, and partnership management. Lastly, universities can learn from corporations how to more effectively connect with them. Obvious, but often not done.
In a presentation I saw last year, Johnson & Johnson representatives talked about how they had taken a look at the companies that students in different parts of the world aspire to work for. In China it was Procter & Gamble. In India it was Google; in Japan, Sony. Johnson & Johnson then thought about the “employment life cycle,” from when students might first hear about a company to after they are hired. Companies such as Johnson & Johnson often conduct research in two phases. The first phase is to find out how their organization is perceived. The second phase is to find out how positive perceptions can be reinforced or shifted. The process isn’t, ideally, about spin but about discovering and communicating an institution’s core values. Those values can be ferreted out by research, which universities should be good at.
An organization, whether it is a company or a university, can identify two arrows. One is what people are looking for in jobs, and the other is what the institution has to offer. An organization that can find the intersection of those arrows can build powerful, long-term success. Universities, like companies, may need to make the transformation from being a national brand to being a global one. Siemens, once thought of as a German company, now says that it is “a global powerhouse in electronics and electrical engineering, operating in the industry, energy, and health-care sectors.”
Global brands can be adapted to various local markets, while still staying globally integrated. I just gave away a collection of international Coke cans, consisting of many different shapes and bearing Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish words, among others. But they were all instantly identifiable as Coke cans. As some universities seek to be global, they often emphasize that a degree in one country will be exactly identical to a degree in another. I’m left wondering if a little more flexibility might be in order. Human-resources departments may need to rise in importance as universities seek to become more global. The complexities of managing different people in different places are high, and human-resources departments, which are often simply the servants of academic departments at many universities, need to acquire and share their expertise on how to manage a mix of expatriates and local workers in a variety of countries.
I was intrigued by a recent Wall Street Journal article headlined “Don’t Unpack That Suitcase.” It suggested that multiple overseas assignments give rising corporate managers more chances to be promoted: “Time spent overseas develops their ability to manage complex, interconnected enterprises—skills that just can’t be developed back at headquarters or in one brief foreign assignment.”
I’m less sure that American universities share the sentiment that overseas experience improves managers. Lastly, I think that universities can learn from corporations about how to better manage partnerships. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it: Universities approaching partners need to think of programs that would benefit both parties. Approaching a computer company and asking for money or machines to take back to the university doesn’t work for the company, without some benefit being offered. Companies have their own problems to solve. Partnership management is a profession, not just the avocation of people working in other jobs. Universities need to make it someone’s job to manage international partnerships, to sustain relationships, to make sure the institution and its partners are getting what they want from relationships.
If the partnership managers are not part of the senior leadership team, senior managers may not hear directly about how global operations or partnerships are going. The international director doesn’t get quick decisions and can’t be responsive to international partners. Decisions get slowed down, partners lose interest and end relationships. My goal here has been to suggest that when universities overcome their natural resistance to comparing themselves to multinational corporations, they can think in new and useful ways. And learning to think differently is, after all, what universities are all about.
Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from a speech on “President’s Day” at the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators.