THE BLOG
12/02/2015 11:20 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2016

Global Experience as a Necessary Learning Context

The current globalization of business, combined with the mobility of a global workforce, drives today's professional to live, work, study and relocate in many diverse cultures across their lifetime. The labor market continues to evolve with more than 1 billion people entering the labor force worldwide. Recently, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that the global workforce will reach 3.5 billion people by 2030. This puts students earning degrees with experience relevant to the needs of global organizations and their workforce in high demand.

However, many argue that higher education is underpreparing students-- particularly business students--for the demands they will face upon entering a global workplace. Whether it's the management of international employees, the understanding of ethics across cultures, the oversight of complex global supply chains or the navigation of global markets, the necessity of developing a pipeline of globally competent professionals is urgent and essential. Unfortunately, decades of debate within management education have centered on the definition and measurement of the concept known as "cultural competence." Questions such as which attributes are necessary to define and become culturally competent and what does it take to develop cultural competence among new talent in an organization have dominated our discourse. This ongoing debate distracts our attention from the larger issue of how to develop the levels of cultural competence that drive organizational outcomes. It is time for us to focus on what it takes for an individual to demonstrate proficiency rather than merely cataloguing a laundry list of attributes that will never lead to consensus across industry and cultural context.

I argue that such a shift in our dialogue is needed to develop effective tools and programs for the next generation of globally conscious business professionals and leaders. Recent projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics predict that college degrees in international business will grow 19 percent by 2020, with those individuals spending a significant portion of their careers outside of their country of origin, either on prolonged international assignments or frequent short-term international travel. This means that while our previous emphasis on cultural awareness (sometimes also referred to as consciousness) is a legitimate topic, the challenge for us is to shift away from looking at cultural competence as a trait that one either possesses or does not and move toward an outcome-based competency view that we can develop and show its impact. Refocusing our attention also generates more efforts to develop tools that help students and young professionals move away from merely acquiring knowledge about culture to actually developing the skills needed to proactively use this knowledge to manage diverse cultural relationships and interactions, and create value-added results.

This perspective closely follows the notion of "situated learning," in which what matters most is a person's level of ability to respond in a specific (such as a culturally-specific) way in terms of actions, reactions and interactions. We must look at learning as the result of a social and a cultural process that shapes ways of thinking, perceiving, problem solving and interacting with others who are different from our cultural backgrounds. As a result, the learning process is not separated from the world of action but co-exists in a way that challenges us to respond to environments that are dynamic, complex, social and global. Therefore, the tools we must use to develop cultural competence must be situated within a meaningful experience that is both context-specific and professionally relevant.

At Pitt Business, we have found that our most powerful tool for developing an outcome-based cultural competency is global experience. We can leverage early and ongoing global experience to facilitate real-world situations as the pathway for the development of students' ability to not only understand, but to also act, react and interact across diverse cultural settings. Our Global Business Institute is not a separate study-abroad experience, but an integrated approach that uses global experience as a necessary extension of business classroom learning. Developing the capabilities for our students to navigate as either employees or leaders within a global workforce means moving beyond awareness and focusing on readiness, collaboration, behaviors and outcomes. It is important that we focus our attention on the need for meaningful and integrated experiences that are an extension of the learning environment. This is what adequately prepares students for what lies ahead, both locally and globally.