France, SFU collaborate on business course

November 04, 2004, vol. 31, no. 5
By Diane Luckow

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Managing cultural differences in a global work group is fine in theory. The reality can be a little different, as specialist MBA students discovered in an unusual international marketing course.

Taught by associate professor June Francis, the course requires students to collaborate with colleagues at l'Ecole Superieure de Commerce et de Management (ESCEM) in Poitiers, France to create a global marketing strategy for Stella Artois beer.

The students started off with a web conferencing session to establish their relationship. They then began working together on their task using internet options such as online chat rooms and a classroom video-conferencing system run through SFU.

“Both groups of students' marks were dependent on the successful outcome of the project, so they all had to do a good job,” notes Francis.

Interestingly, each group included students from countries around the world. Students in the French group came from a variety of European countries, including Germany and Spain.

Their professor, Aidan O'Connor, is Irish. The Canadian group included students from Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Jamaica, and Canada. Francis is Jamaican. On each of the work groups were several representatives from the French and Canadian groups.

“It was really interesting to watch the representatives from the two groups approach the task differently,” says Francis. “Among us, we had quite a diversity of beer consumption perceptions - is it a party thing, do you drink it at home, with friends or is the point to get drunk? The Germans came from a beer drinking culture and had their idea of what beer is all about. The French are wine drinkers. Then, there was the issue of what beer should taste like.”

The result? Students learned a valuable lesson about how to manage a global brand when everyone had a different perspective.

A greater lesson, however, was the cultural differences they encountered as they tried to work together.

“The French students weren't as willing as our Canadian students to work around the clock,” notes Francis.

“Our Canadians were frustrated by that - they got a little taste of what it feels like to have completely different expectations around when and where the work gets done.”

The French group, she says, couldn't understand why the Canadians were so obsessive-compulsive about their work ethic. “I think they would have liked more relationship-building,” says Francis.

“My impression is that instead of having a cyber beer with the French students, our students just said, ‘Here's a task, let's get it done.' I think the French students were put off by that. Our students didn't get the significance of building trust - of hearing from the other side and not just feeling like their job was to charge ahead.” In the end, however, Francis was pleased with the high quality of work the students produced and presented during a joint video-conferencing session.

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