Thunderbird School of Global Management Case Study

Thunderbird School of Global Management Case StudyBackground
Founded in 1946, Thunderbird is the first and oldest graduate management school offering MBA degrees focused exclusively on global business.

Thunderbird is considered the world’s leading institution in the education of global managers with operations in the United States, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Central and South America, Singapore and China. In 2007, the Financial Times, U.S. News & World Report, and The Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive Survey of Corporate Recruiters ranked it No.1 in international business education.

Thunderbird is dedicated to educating leaders who create sustainable prosperity worldwide by facilitating the development of a global mindset. More than 38,000 students have graduated from Thunderbird and its alumni live and work in more than 140 countries.

Thunderbird is known for attracting students who have a cosmopolitan attitude about the world. Students all have global life experiences. For example, many American students have lived outside the United States for large portions of their lives.

Technology and communications advances, including the Internet, are causing the world to shrink, creating greater opportunities to work with others in wider geographic areas and in virtual teams scattered across the globe.

One of Thunderbird’s main concerns was how to teach students to fully appreciate and overcome cultural differences among the people with whom they would be working.

Thunderbird was looking for an assessment tool to help its students understand these differences and overcome “cultural dissonance”.

Approximately five years ago Thunderbird formed an alliance with TMC.

In This Case Study
Through the voices of two Thunderbird professors, Karen Walch, Ph.D. and Denis Leclerc, Ph.D., we get a sense of the critical importance of understanding cultural differences and leveraging similarities to achieve success in international business.

The professors also explain how Thunderbird’s alliance with TMC plays a major role in this process.

“We researched every cross-cultural assessment tool available,” says Professor Karen Walch, Associate Professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management. Thunderbird selected the Cultural Orientations Indicator® (COI) from TMC, a statistically validated online cultural assessment that measures a person’s work style preferences against 10 dimensions of culture to identify potential conflicts users may encounter when working with team members and colleagues around the world, and offers recommendations to manage them.

The COI is used in two required classes (cross-cultural communications and global negotiations). More than 1,200 students a year complete TMC’s COI assessment as part of their class experience.

“The COI is easy to use and meets the demands of our particular type of sophisticated student,” says Walch. More than just a basic program, TMC’s COI is a scientific, analytical tool which our diverse student population can use on demand online.”

“Before we had TMC’s COI it was “like using a typewriter” adds Denis Leclerc, a Ph.D. in intercultural communication. “Now students can go beyond theory to evaluate their own communication styles.”

The COI “is a compass to navigate around cross-cultural preferences,” says Alessandro Nobili, a recent Thunderbird MBA graduate from Italy.

Why is it important for business professionals to understand their cultural differences and know how to leverage their similarities?

Professor Walch tells a story from her own life.

Early in her career Walch worked as an investment consultant in Puerto Rico. One of her clients was a U.S. millionaire planning to relocate his business there. He didn’t understand the cultural differences between mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico and quickly became disappointed with the progress he was making. This disappointment rapidly grew into frustration, judgment, paranoia and finally aggression. Walch understands now that the Cultural Orientations Indicator (COI), a tool that she uses in her cross-cultural communication and negotiation classes, could have prevented these problems and resulted in a more favorable outcome.

“If we can manage our disappointments before they get to aggression, we can actually get business done,” Walch says. “And we can actually be successful, create value and have really good relationships.”

“Soft skills are very hard to teach,” she explains. Cultural learning affects what we do in marketing and in general management and impacts negotiation.”

As part of their program, students must negotiate a complex issue playing the role of buyer or seller. Cultural communications is a key component in those negotiations. Students are profiled using the COI before negotiations begin to identify cultural gaps and understand cultural differences to build working trust among each other.

Professor Leclerc enjoys watching students in his cross-cultural communications classes overcome challenges and discover how to thrive in a global business environment.

“We get a great reaction from the students,” says Leclerc “Having a tool that all our students use from the time they enter to the time they leave reinforces that Thunderbird is a global school providing very
different experiences for students.”

“The students realize that sometimes the issues they have in class teams are miscommunication,” he says. Students come to understand that it is not about personality differences or accents, but about cultural gaps, which can be overcome.

Those who fail to make these discoveries rarely succeed in complex global environments.Cross-cultural communication class “is the DNA of what the school is all about,” Leclerc says. Thunderbird uses TMC’s COI to help its students and corporate clients make these key discoveries.

Student experiences with COI have shown promising results in developing global business leaders. By understanding cultural differences students can learn how to “style shift” to negotiate business deals, build trust and get along better with global colleagues.

The COI from TMC gives Thunderbird an open platform for discussion, an advantage that allows students to look at their own communications styles from a graphic perspective.

“You can almost see the light bulb go off,” Leclerc says. “Students from different countries see they are not using the same communication framework.”

One African student, a member of a diplomatic family living in Europe was able to better understand conflicts arising from basic cultural differences and preferences.

“She had that ‘aha’ experience,” Walch says.

“Some of our Jordanian students thought all American women were like those on the TV show Desperate Housewives,” Walch continued. “They were surprised to meet Americans who did not fit their pre-conceived ‘profile’ and who shared their own values, such as caring for their families.”

A U.S. male student with a military background was having difficulty making progress in his job negotiating with colleagues in Mexico. Using TMC’s COI, he was able to overcome these cultural differences and build successful relationships.

“What is comes down to is the perceptions we have of each other,” Walch says. “TMC helps our students deal with the cross-cultural issues that are critical to global management, which is what T-Birds are all about. The COI has become a part of our brand.”