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Executive MBA grads discuss Hitotsubashi's strengths

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Developing “captains of industry” has been the mission of Hitotsubashi University since its founding in 1875. The university’s School of International Corporate Strategy (Hitotsubashi ICS), established in 2000 as the first professional business school in Japan, serves in that tradition in delivering a world-class MBA program and leading-edge executive education. In 2017, ICS launched a new part-time executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) program that is designed to develop global executives at more senior stages of their careers.

The Japan Times recently sat down with three graduates of the EMBA’s inaugural class at a roundtable organized at ICS in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. Participants were Cameron Brett from Canada, managing director of the professional division at Randstad Japan K.K.; Naheel Wafa Dajany from Germany, director of corporate communications at All Nippon Airways Co.; and Jayathura Samarakoon from Sri Lanka, manager of digital services, solution areas at Ericsson Japan K.K. All three are working in Japan.

Professor Tomonori Ito of Hitotsubashi ICS, the director of the EMBA program, moderated the discussion.

Tomonori Ito, executive MBA program director of Hitotsubashi University
Tomonori Ito, executive MBA program director of Hitotsubashi University | MASANORI DOI

Ito (I): There are many business schools at home and abroad. Why did you choose the Hitotsubashi ICS EMBA program?

Brett (B): The primary reason was the strong brand of Hitotsubashi University, while the second was the duration of the course; I’d rather spend one year very intensively. Also, the international component combined with a strong connection to Japan attracted me. I could learn about international business in Japan and Japanese companies becoming more international, thanks to “the Best of Two Worlds” concept at Hitotsubashi ICS.

Jayathura Samarakoon from Sri Lanka, manager of digital services, solution areas at Ericsson Japan K.K.
Jayathura Samarakoon from Sri Lanka, manager of digital services, solution areas at Ericsson Japan K.K. | MASANORI DOI

Samarakoon (S): It was a tough decision to be a student, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone after working for the same company for 10 years. In addition to the school’s reputation and the one-year program, the English medium was the deciding factor for me.

Dajany (D): In my case, my company chose the school for me. We had seven nationalities in the class and freely shared our opinions about Japan, Asian business, as well as American and global companies. What’s special at ICS is the balance between Japan and the Western world. We take the best of the two and combine them to get the best outcome. I understand why my company chose Hitotsubashi ICS.

I: Was it a tough experience for you to complete the EMBA program in one year?

B: One classmate said that for him, the experience redefined the meaning of the word “busy.” Yes, we were extremely busy continuing our jobs while pursuing the program, but it was manageable. One of the skills that I improved was time management.

S: Yes, it was tough. But in the end, it taught me a good lesson about how to manage my time. Now I know how to prioritize.

D: It’s very challenging, but I would say more rewarding. When I look back at the materials, I always ask myself, “How did I do that?” The video conferencing system was a big help when I was on business trips. I attended the class for two full days from Germany through the conferencing system.

I: How were your experiences with the immersion programs — the two Global Immersion Experiences (GIEs) to learn firsthand the latest global business practices; and one Global Network Week (GNW) that gives Hitotsubashi ICS EMBA candidates access to one-week programs at 11 other leading business schools from the Global Network for Advanced Management?

S: For my GNW, I attended IE Business School in Madrid. The focus was on digital transformation, and it gave me a different point of view on how we can apply digital technologies in business. There were 50 students from different universities around the world. I talked with them and understood how important it is to interact with peers from diverse markets and contexts.

D: For my GNW, I went to the Yale School of Management. There were 80 students. It was a good course, but I could see the advantage of the small group at Hitotsubashi ICS. I also learned about real diversity at Yale. There were so many nationalities among those 80 students. The group work was not easy. You could really see the challenge of managing so many cultures at once.

Cameron Brett from Canada, managing director of the professional division at Randstad Japan K.K.
Cameron Brett from Canada, managing director of the professional division at Randstad Japan K.K. | MASANORI DOI

B: The GIE trip to Bangalore was my most memorable event. I came to understand the scale of India — the scale of opportunities and the scale of problems and complexity. Everything is huge. We discussed the market size of India as a class, but it’s hard to grasp without firsthand experience. Another GIE trip, to Silicon Valley, was eye-opening for understanding that ecosystem. Not just the entrepreneurs — it’s also money, investors and giant companies, all interacting with each other. People are not afraid to fail and keep going. This ecosystem protects them in a sense.

I: How did the EMBA program change you over the past year?

S: The program gave me confidence. I used to set limits on my career, but this program gave me the courage to break walls and go forward. We had opportunities to meet with senior management of major Japanese companies. We also met people working at high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. These opportunities reminded me that I can talk and ask questions to anyone. That gave me confidence.

B: I became more open-minded. I was exposed to diversity in ways of thinking and different viewpoints on the same topic. Here in the EMBA program, people defend their views logically or explain why they believe something. It was sometimes completely different from the way I had interpreted, and I realized that there is often no clear right answer to a problem. To get to an optimal answer, we’ve got to bring in people and communicate with them.

D: At first, the program revealed my weaknesses; because it focused on points that I was not good at. But I think confidence comes with knowledge. Not only from books, but you learn a lot also from the cases and discussions with your classmates. To be honest, it was a form of torture to show my weaknesses, but then it’s so rewarding to be able to turn them into strengths. Now I am ready to go to the next step and take on new challenges based on the strengths I did not have before.

Naheel Wafa Dajany from Germany, director of corporate communications at All Nippon Airways Co.
Naheel Wafa Dajany from Germany, director of corporate communications at All Nippon Airways Co. | MASANORI DOI

All three graduates were promoted after completing the EMBA program, which includes the Capstone Project, a strategic proposal to their respective companies.

Since April 2018, Hitotsubashi ICS is the global face of the newly created Hitotsubashi University Business School (HUB), which houses the university’s graduate business programs in Japanese, along with the global, English-only programs offered by Hitotsubashi ICS.

Business education, the ICS way

On Sept. 7, in the Chiyoda classroom of Hitotsubashi ICS, 14 executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) students listened in rapt attention. Professor Ken Kusunoki, a well-known specialist and writer on business strategy, began the class with: “The competitive strategy is basically pursuing differentiation from the competitors in the industry. That’s what it’s all about. Can I finish there?” The students, business professionals hailing from seven countries and regions, burst into laughter.

Professor Ken Kusunoki teaching in the EMBA program at the Hitotsubashi School of International Corporate Strategy in Chiyoda Ward on Sept. 7.
Professor Ken Kusunoki teaching in the EMBA program at the Hitotsubashi School of International Corporate Strategy in Chiyoda Ward on Sept. 7. | THE JAPAN TIMES

No, that was not the end of Kusunoki’s class. An interesting and humorous lecture that only increased the students’ anticipation of an excellent learning opportunity, followed.

Kusunoki’s Pursuing Differentiation is one of the 10 core courses offered during the first two weeks of the EMBA program. The “Foundation Launchpad” builds both a common starting point for advanced management learning and promotes cohesion within the class.

As American businessman Harold Geneen (1910-1997) wrote, “You cannot run a business, or anything else, on a theory.” Kusunoki, explaining the difference between theory and logic, clarified that the objective of the course is to understand the logic of sustained differences in firm performance.

“There is no theory in management. Yet, you can rely on logic. Logic can be your axis of thinking in a very quickly changing business environment,” he said.

Next at issue was, “What is strategy for?” Kusunoki asked students to name the best performing company, and explained during the ensuing interactive session that the goal of strategy is sustainable superior profitability. Caught up in Kusunoki’s art of speaking — slow, but very clear, English — the students responded actively, spontaneously asked questions and shared their experiences from the workplace.

They were intrigued by the relatable examples from Kusunoki’s rich experience in consulting with presidents and CEOs of many leading Japanese and global companies, including Tadashi Yanai, the founder and president of Fast Retailing Co. The rest of the session was devoted to empowering students to internalize fully the core message of the course, which is that the essence of strategy is about “being different.” The final presentation slide promised, “The next session is competitive structures of industry.”

These lively and interactive classroom meetings owe in part to the small class size at Hitotsubashi ICS EMBA, which boasts an extraordinary faculty-to-student ratio of 1 to 1. This allows for focused, impactful interactions, which some of the 2017 EMBA graduates described as “unlike typical professor-student relationships” and “good for encouraging different ideas.”

Onsite sessions are integrated carefully with online (video-conferenced) sessions that enable students to continue working while pursuing the program.

Of the Capstone Projects that students present to their employers toward the end of the EMBA program, Kusunoki said: “You have to create your own strategy and management for your business, by yourself. I hope to offer you perspectives by asking, ‘Hey! Why don’t you think from this angle?'”


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