School of the dark arts

WILFRIED VANHONACKER explains that it was one of the more difficult admissions decisions he has had to make. The dean of Skolkovo Moscow School of Management, perhaps Russia’s only internationally recognised business school, was considering two candidates for his executive MBA programme. Background checks had shown that they were both members of large crime families.

He initially recoiled. “My natural reaction was to think about the headlines in the New York Times or Economist,” he says. “But it rather made the point: if you want to prepare executives to function in Russia, this is the reality.” And so both were accepted. The dean says that they will bring an interesting perspective to the class, although, at least half jokingly, he worries about the first time he has to give either a bad grade.

Skolkovo celebrated its fifth anniversary over the weekend with a flying visit from Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president and chairman of the school’s advisory board. In that time it has moved three times, only settling this year into its permanent home in an enterprise zone just outside the capital.

The school unabashedly takes a different perspective from its Western counterparts. The ambition is to prepare entrepreneurs to function in what Mr Vanhonacker describes as “difficult economies”—particularly Russia, but also India, China and Brazil. Getting by in these countries, he says, sometimes means coming to terms with institutional gaps, limited availability of talent and graft.

There is no ethical proselytising. Unlike many Western schools, Skolkovo does not harbour “rather arrogant ambitions” to change Russia’s business environment. When one of Mr Vanhonacker’s American students, who had been sent to complete a project in a “difficult” region, phoned him to express horror at the business environment she had encountered, he told her she was simply learning a practical lesson that would stand her in good stead in her career. “Western schools focus on knowledge,” he says. “We focus on how to get things done.”

Around half of the students on the full-time MBA programme are foreigners, many from other “difficult economies”. The debates between the outsiders and local students on Russian business values can be lively. But it is perhaps enlightening that some foreign alumni have gone on to start successful firms in Russia. Indeed, around half of all of the students on the MBA programme set up their own companies. The dean says that when they do, nothing scares them. They have already seen it all.

The school was set up with the backing of Vladimir Putin and with donations from a handful of Russia’s oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich. By not openly challenging the country’s business environment, it leaves itself open to the accusation that it is helping to prop up a system that has served its masters well. But the dean insists that Skolkovo is not a cornerstone of the status quo. Although it enjoys strong political support from Russia’s rulers, he says it has refused to accept cash from Mr Putin. Furthermore, much of the funding, he says, comes from straightforward entrepreneurs, not just the wealthy elite.

With only a handful of exceptions, business schools from outside Europe and North America have failed to make an impact on the world stage. When the best students from developing countries decide where to take an MBA, heading west remains the ambition of many—even when they intend to return home to work. Yet, for those keen on a career in one of Mr Vanhonacker’s difficult economies, it might be that those well versed in the dark arts of business will hold an advantage. Whether you approve of Skolkovo’s approach perhaps comes down to whether you believe that it is a business school’s purpose to preach ethics, or to furnish students with the skills to become effective managers.

Poll: Should business schools be prepared to teach MBAs shady business practices in order to work effectively in difficult economies?

Current total votes: 620

The Economist

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