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"We Understand Diversity More Than US"

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Founded in 1881 by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry HEC Paris is one of oldest French Grandes Ecoles - a concept introduced by Napoleon to channelise "the best and the brightest" into his armies and engineering corps. The 130-year-old B-school is ranked among the top business schools in the world with a focus on high quality research and close corporate connections. HEC Paris now offers a unique range of programs for the 20-year-old student to the international senior executive in France and across the world. Bernard Ramanantsoa, the dean of HEC Paris spoke to Businessworld Online's Chetna Mehra about the institute, French higher education system, and more. Excerpts.

What is HEC Paris' strategy to become not just a renowned business school in France but across the world?
One of the top objectives of HEC is to be recognised as one of the top business schools in Europe. The competition among business schools is probably in three clusters. There is one competition among the US business Schools, one among the Asian business schools, and one among the European business Schools. Even if we see the global competition, it is not exactly a global competition; it is a three cluster competition. So, if you are at the top of the European group it is clear that our colleagues from Asia and United States consider that we are at the top worldwide. So, our strategy is to attract top students from all over the world and to attract more top talent than other European business schools. At the same time we want to attract top faculty.

Also, the key to tackle the competition today is to be recognised as one of the top research schools. There are two tiers among the business schools. The first tier is made by business schools which carry out research. The second tier consisits of those who only teach. So, we have to attract top researchers. The strategy is to enter alliances. The first one is alliance with business schools i.e. exchange of students and faculty. We have gone a step further in this direction and are offering double degree programmes with other business schools. This is the first dimension of our alliances. Now we have dual degree MBA and MSc with leading business schools such as Freie Universität Berlin, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Faculty of Business Administration, Fundação Getulio Vargas-EAESP, the Graduate School of Management of St Petersburg State University, IIM Ahmedabad, the IIM Bangalore, the London School of Economics, the MIT Sloan School of Management, the National University of Singapore Business School, the Stern School of Business New York University, Tsinghua University School of Economics & Management, Oxford Saïd Business School, the Keio Business School in Tokyo and more recently, Technische Universität Münche. We have formed alliances with top business school across the world. The second set of alliances that will be a key challenge for the coming years is alliances with academic institutions which are not business schools. We are doing this with institutions inside France and outside. These are the main interests of HEC Paris.

Is your dual degree more like a way-around to tackle the presence of international students in the campus? Or are you being less aggressive by not asking students to come to Paris for a two-year programme and take the courses in their own country?
If you look at the MBA programme today we have 85 per cent of students who are not French. They are foreign students and to be able to attract such a number at the MBA level, I think my team is quite aggressive.

When I am saying a double degree, it is not a degree for say just Indian students but for any student who is studying in HEC Paris. An HEC student if he wants to get trained in say, India may spend a year at IIM Ahmedabad. It is not an exchange but a double degree. This possibility is open to all.

We do that because the key challenge today for companies' business leaders is not to be trained through one best way approach, which happens in the top US business schools. They do that perfectly. But the main challenge is to cope with diversity. The main challenge for businesses in the coming years would be to be able to cope at the same time with Danish, Indian, Brazilian and all kinds of customers. And all these customers don't behave in a same way. The globalisation doesn't mean uniformisation and it's very important to train our students in different cultural environments and that's why we prefer to have double degrees than to send our students to different economies just for a few weeks or months. We want them to be trained in local institutions.

What are your future plans?
It is probably delivering a Phd. or doctorate. How can we come up with better research - it is a key question for all the business schools today. We want to be more multi disciplinary and teach not only finance, marketing or strategy but also other important subjects which require intensive research. For instance, we have two issues today, sustainable development and corporate social responsibility. In my opinion, we can't take such issues without research. So, a Phd. on such related issues can be very enlightening.

If we are successful to bring out a Phd. programme on these two issues, it will be easier to do the same for new master programmes. And that will be a key advantage in the global competition.

Financial forescasts are grim for the coming time. How are you equipping your students for the coming situation?
The good news is that we had already anticipated that and we have been telling our students that in three years, they are going to face several crises. In my opinion, things are changing so rapidly that you can't promise any student that you will find a job for lifetime and there will be no accidents in your professional life. So, we try to train them in two ways. First, to face these accidents and second, to remember as managers and leaders they will be in-charge of other people and don't consider that these other people will not suffer with such accidents.

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It is important to train the students so they know that one day the will be taking decisions, not just financial decisions but also decisions with some human consequences. We teach them that they are responsible for human consequences and that's why it is difficult to be a leader in a company. Because it is not only a technician's approach you have to take into account a humane dimension. We cite a difference between managers and leaders. We tell them, if they want to be managers, it's okay the techniques will do, but if they want to be leaders at the end of the day they will have to take responsibility for anything happening to them and their team.

As a part of revamping the French higher education system government is encouraging the business and technical institution (Grande Ecole programmes) to become a part of the universities? Do you think it will hurt these institutes' autonomy (including yours) in any way?
I hope the advantages of being in the university are more than the disadvantages. The key issue here is the brand. It doesn't mean that we don't want a university brand to be attached with us. It means that we don't want people to forget the brand that HEC Paris is. Business education is a brand business in itself. It is not just a brand but an evolution of brand.

You mentioned 85 per cent of the batch in HEC consists of international students. How do you create placements opportunities for students with such a wide array of nationalities?
Forty per cent of the students find jobs outside of their home country, which means that some Indians may find job in France, some in india and some in other countries. Banking and financial institutions and luxury industry recruits from HEC.

What you seek in an HEC student during admissions?
We need two things - first is top analytical skills with a lot of emphasis on the quantitative part of the GMAT. Second, at the same time we look at the candidates' sense of business too. We emphasis on work experience too and want to know if they truly understand what it means to be in business. Also, we test them on the human dimension, even if the candidate has top analytical skills, but no human dimension we reject them.

Does HEC offer any financial aid to international students, especially Indians?
HEC Paris' scholarships are available to all applicants. The scholarships fall into various categories - merit based, need based or on specific criteria, as in the case of Forte, and L'Oreal, etc.

Lastly, why one should choose a European business school and not a US business school? 
I am not very objective about that but when I am meeting US applicants I tell them, once again, if you want to cope up with diversity do come to European business schools. By tradition and history we understand what is diversity much more than US. And after you decide to come to Europe, which is a good choice, do come to HEC.

Also, better payment is one of the consequences. What I am looking for is, first to make sure they become fit for the evolution of the market and are likely to be trained to acquire the different sets of competencies. This is going to be the key issue for top leaders. In other words, in next 5-10 years top leaders will be the people having strong and dual competencies. For example, business and law or business and technology, may be business and biology. So, minimum two sets of competencies is probably the key driver of our strategy.

chetna(at)bworldmail(dot)com