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When Jim Ellert began teaching young managers in what was then Yugoslavia in 1991, he was abruptly made aware of the gulf in business education culture between the capitalist west and communist east.

Prof Ellert, a Canadian, discovered very few students studying at what was then the Executive Development Centre — now the IEDC-Bled School of Management, Slovenia — had any sense of finance or financial markets, and even those with good English struggled with basic western business terms.

“Most had never heard of accounting terms like depreciation or amortisation of goodwill: even the word ‘profit’ had to be used and explained carefully in the beginning,” he says.

Prof Ellert, emeritus professor of finance and strategy at IMD in Switzerland, also found that students had little or no exposure to case studies, and were unused to interactive learning.

“They had rarely seen cases, and they were very uncomfortable with a method of teaching in which they were encouraged to challenge the professor: for many, it was considered rude. The teacher was a fount of wisdom. They listened, and didn’t say anything. Initially it was quite difficult to encourage students to take part in a participative [class],” he says.

Prof Ellert’s experience was mirrored across central and eastern Europe: in the early 1990s, as states from the Baltics to the Balkans struggled to throw off a history of dictatorship, their universities and newly established business schools grappled with the task of turning managers who were steeped in a top-down ethos of central planning into leaders fit for new market economies.

Helped by visiting professors, exchange programmes and development courses run by western management schools, the quality of teaching in the new democracies advanced. But progress was patchy, says Krzysztof Obloj, professor of strategic management at the School of Management at Warsaw university and Kozminski University, Poland. While the content of subjects changed relatively quickly, the form of teaching was slower to develop, he says. The number and power of multinational corporations settling in the region also accelerated developments — at least at the executive level.

“They trained and retrained people, and these people very quickly caught up with the west. [By the late 1990s] if these people were sent to an executive MBA, many were already overtrained,” Prof Obloj recalls. Such factors, together with the advent of the internet and the ability to access content from leading business schools, “created pressure on Polish and other professors to update [their materials]”, he argues.

Yet even in Poland, where students under communism at least had a tradition of class discussions with assistant professors, teaching methods changed only slowly. “People were used to lectures: the professor was the one who was speaking. A talking head,” he says.

Meanwhile, by the end of the millennium, despite — or perhaps because of — the continuing needs in the region, the initial enthusiasm from western schools was flagging. Sensing this and the size of the task remaining in its core countries, the Central and East European Management Development Association (Ceeman) in 2000 launched the International Management Teachers Academy, a two-week development programme designed to raise teaching standards in business schools across the region.

Joe Pons, then a professor at Iese Business School in Barcelona and who helped design the programme, remembers the inaugural IMTA in Bled, Slovenia, when the old ways were clearly still prevalent. “Having to answer ‘why?’ three times was something [the students] were not used to,” Prof Pons says. “Having read a book or two, some would throw out a generic statement from one of the management gurus. So I would say, let’s probe and see how deeply you have considered what you have just said. Let’s ask why, then why and why? They were shocked [by the challenge].”

But 15 years into IMTA, and the changes in the classroom are dramatic, particularly since the programme has expanded to include participants from beyond the former communist bloc, including developed markets.

“You see how the people from eastern Europe fare compared with the others,” adds Prof Pons, who has taught on every IMTA course. “Many are as noisy and as interactive as their [western] counterparts, and then you realise, to have produced people of such calibre and potential, how quickly some of those institutions have developed.”

Many of today’s young academics “know what it is to stand in front of a bunch of executives to deliver in-company programmes, and to do consulting”, he says, whereas 15 years ago, their forebears “could not even dream of going into executive education”.

IMTA apart, it is clear how much business education in the region has come on. Ceeman, which launched its accreditation system IQA in 1999, now lists 18 schools on its roster, including 10 from Poland and the Baltics. And while the Brussels-based European Foundation for Management Development and America’s Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business have accredited only seven schools between them, the UK’s Association of MBA schools has accredited an impressive 22 programmes — although only five taught purely in English.

Formal accreditation, however can only tell part of the story. Andreas Antonopoulos, rector of the University of New York in Prague, insists issues in the 1990s about the quality of local academics have all but disappeared. “We don’t see much difference in the quality of programmes in the region to many in the west, bar a few Ivy League schools,” he says, rather it is local corporations who “need to catch up in terms of supporting MBA studies of their promising employees”. Indeed, in terms of newer subjects on business education curricula, such as environmental care and ethics, Prof Ellert highlights that academics in the region are, because of their first-hand observations in the “wild east” decade after 1990, arguably more aware than their western counterparts.

Prof Obloj also has no doubts: “Young faculty today are absolutely on par with those in the west, partially because of programmes like IMTA,” he says.

But he adds a caveat. “It is a complex art: good teachers, teachers who can engage their students, are still a rare species, whether in the west or east.”

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