For the winter 2020 term, the Ross School of Business is offering a new cross-cultural business course that virtually connects teams of faculty and students in Michigan, Libya, Egypt and Lebanon. Facilitated by the William Davidson Institute, an independent non-profit research and educational organization, this course aims to help students bridge cultural differences and navigate the real-world difficulties of collaborating internationally by working together on consulting projects and experiencing a global classroom.

The class itself, Business and Culture: A Virtual Practicum, is the first virtual cross-cultural course to be offered at the University. The idea began when the William Davidson Institute received funding from the U.S. State Department and support from the Stevens Initiative to bring together students from the U.S., the Middle East and North Africa using a virtual exchange. Amy Gillett, vice president of the education sector at the William Davidson Institute, explained their initial interest in pursuing the idea of creating a virtual exchange class that lines up with the mission of the grant.

“A virtual exchange connects students with peers in other countries to collaborate and learn together and ultimately collaborate on a team project,” Gillett said. “We were really excited about the power of virtual exchange to connect students with peers in other countries to learn together, and specifically to learn about other cultures and about how to do business in other cultures.”

John Branch, the course designer and an assistant professor of business administration at the Business School, said he was drawn to this project because of its unique goal of bringing students together. 

“The primary purpose of this initiative… was to bring young people together, however, the initiative wanted to bring people together without actually physically bringing them together,” Branch said. “It has a very nice humanistic notion to it — how do we increase the understanding between young Americans and young people in other countries in the Middle East?”

Branch said the course allows students and faculty from three other global universities, including American University of Beirut in Lebanon, American University of Cairo in Egypt and an institution in Benghazi, Libya, to learn from each other and collaborate on various projects and lessons through virtual classrooms.

Branch said he was excited at the prospect of allowing students of all universities to collaborate on consulting teams and navigate the assignments from across the world. 

“They will be forced to work in cross-cultural teams, so learning about cross-cultural business and also learning how to manage in cross-cultural teams, how to communicate cross culturally, how to negotiate cross culturally,” Branch said. “It’s a really wonderful opportunity for a very realistic simulated cross-cultural experience without students having to jump on an airplane and live and work in another place.”

Gillett said she was enthusiastic about the awareness students will gain by participating in these teams, explaining the necessity for this skill set of cross-cultural communication. 

“The global workplace is increasingly interconnected; the world is increasingly global. People are going to enter the workforce soon, and they need to be able to work with people from different cultures,” Gillett said. “That’s what we’re looking to explore: Where are we the same? How do we differ? How can we build bridges and understand each other better and function more seamlessly?”

Business sophomore Kyle Geiger said he is interested in the new course as well as the unique opportunity it would provide to apply business knowledge in a new setting. 

“I think it’s definitely a great opportunity,” Geiger said. “By having this class and this course, we’re able to apply what we’ve learned. A lot of the time, what we’re taught is to have this multicultural perspective, but there really is no way — especially on campus — to fully apply what we’ve been taught. So, I think having this, it’s really going to be a great way to combine what is learned by students with what we actually do on a day-to-day basis.”

Gillett added this is an opportunity for the administrators and professors at all universities involved in the exchange to collaborate and create the course curriculum together. 

“We all agreed that there are certain cultural frameworks that would be valuable for students in all four countries to learn,” Gillett said. “There we got an amazing contribution from both Egypt and Lebanon with cases that they use successfully in their classroom that they felt illustrated the points well.”

Branch also shared his personal thoughts on the necessity of cross-cultural communication and the benefits of diverse cultural perspectives for young people entering the workforce.

“Companies fail because of cross-cultural misunderstandings, intolerance and other issues in and around culture,” Branch said. “So, at the end of the day, this course is really about culture, how to become better at cross-cultural situations.”

LSA senior Andrew Levey, president of Alliance Consulting Group, said he appreciated the opportunity to interact with students outside of Ann Arbor and develop new teamwork skills using technology. 

“I think it’s important to have as many team building skills and as much experience working on teams with different types of people,” Levey said. “Not only do you need to know how to work with people in person, but you also need to learn how to work virtually in an ever-evolving work environment.”

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