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Developing CEIBS MBA in the Digital Era

Interview with Associate Dean and Director of MBA Programme Professor Juan Antonio Fernandez

Volume 3, 2017

By David Yu

After teaching Organisational Behaviour in every programme at CEIBS for 17 years, and spending three years serving as Global EMBA Director, Professor Juan Antonio Fernandez has now been entrusted with a new mission: Associate Dean and Director of the MBA Programme.

“I didn’t volunteer for it,” he says with a smile. “After my sabbatical leave I was asked if I would take over the MBA Programme. I thought it was a good transition so I said yes.” Professor Fernandez was offered the position last December, and officially began the post on July 1, 2017.

How does one differentiate and even improve on an MBA Programme that is already largely recognised as #1 in Asia? The professor of management has a vision, “to have the most advanced MBA programme in Asia-Pacific”, in which, “people and the digital revolution can co-exist”.

The world is becoming more digital and business and office culture are undergoing radical changes – so are business schools. “Let’s take my son as an example; see what his school offers to Grade 8 students,” says the professor, as he shows a photo of his fourteen-year-old’s course registration sheet which has “Robotics” and “Big Data” at the top of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) category.

“This is the future that teenagers are getting prepared for,” he says. And it is the future that CEIBS should be preparing for as well. According to a report issued by McKinsey Global Institute in August 2017, China has one of the most active digital investment and start-up ecosystems in the world. The country is among the top three in the world for venture capital investment in key digital technologies, including virtual reality (VR), self-driving vehicles, 3D printing, robotics, drones, and artificial intelligence (AI).

“Imagine how early and how much the kids today are getting prepared for these new trends,” says Prof Fernandez. “We are recruiting them when they are in their 20s or 30s. A good business school should certainly respond to this change, and get well prepared ahead of the business leaders of tomorrow.”

So what will CEIBS do to tackle this challenge? Professor Fernandez explained his plan for making the MBA Programme “a very personal experience for students” with digital ingredients – courses that pilot students towards the “future of business”.

The competition in business education is becoming increasingly intensive in the MBA field, and digital and other technologies are having a greater influence on both format and content. “Highlighting experience makes perfect sense now, especially given the fact that many traditional business education providers start embracing digital through online programmes,” explained Professor Fernandez. “You are already seeing big names in the ‘best online MBA in the US’ ranking.” Faced with this challenge, Professor Fernandez thinks the CEIBS MBA Programme should provide students with an experience its online counterparts cannot offer.

As the school’s motto “China Depth, Global Breadth” indicates, he says, “The CEIBS MBA has much more for candidates to experience, much more than a computer screen can offer.” Besides daily interactions and exchanges with inspirational peers from around the world, and the most up-to-date business and management knowledge from a world-class faculty, a number of school-led initiatives ensure that the best experience is delivered to students, covering every step of their MBA journey at CEIBS. These include Chinese language and kung fu classes, career treks, plus a mentoring programme that connects them with more senior FMBA and EMBA students as well as alumni from all of CEIBS’ programmes. There are also regional alumni chapters and industry-focused clubs that help to integrate students into the powerful CEIBS community. All these measures are in place to facilitate their personal and professional development.

There is also the day-to-day office work to oversee. “Somebody gets sick, somebody is not happy about something – the operational work at the MBA Department, it’s just complex,” he says, noting that MBA students have different needs than those in the GEMBA Programme. “The GEMBA students come here once a month, while the MBA students are here every day; they need to find a job or start a business of their own after graduation, while the GEMBA grads are all company executives.” Thanks to a highly competent team, the MBA Director juggles every aspect of the department’s operation – from admissions and marketing to career development. “What is the secret to keeping all this well organised? First of all, the team. The directors are all very experienced, they have been here for many years and they know their job very well,” says Professor Fernandez. “My predecessor, Professor Chen Shimin, also helped me quite a lot; he explained to me what is important for the programme and what the issues are. We had many meetings between last December and this July when my nomination became official.”

Communication, not only with colleagues and predecessors, but also with students, is another factor Professor Fernandez says contributes to the success of his work. A big tradition at CEIBS is a regular lunch between the MBA Director and student representatives at the school’s canteen. “Basically my idea is to keep the communication frequent and the channels open,” he says. In fact he is known to invite the school’s Dean and other faculty members to join these relaxed lunch talks. “We try to give our students some personal attention which, in return, contributes to making their CEIBS MBA journey a more personal experience.”

On the academic side, one new project Professor Fernandez and his team have initiated this year is the introduction of digitally-oriented electives. “Besides the traditional elective categories such as marketing or entrepreneurship, after finishing the fundamental subjects in the first year students now have a new option to choose a strong digital business concentration,” he explains. “They can choose from a variety of courses like Digital Marketing, Digital Strategy, Creativity and Design Thinking.”

“I will teach Creativity and Design Thinking myself,” says the professor, who already has a reputation at CEIBS for his eccentric craft lessons which students have dubbed “manual trainings”. Innovation is critical for every business, especially in China, an economy that is undergoing the strategic transition from being labelled the “world’s factory” to becoming the world’s leading innovation and entrepreneurship powerhouse.

“Students who choose this subject will discover things like Go-to-market Strategy, Innovation Trends, and Big Data,” he says, adding that CEIBS MBA students also have the chance to go to Germany or Israel for innovation-themed overseas modules. “Plus, to encourage our students to take initiatives and promote autonomous learning, we will also reduce the credit proportion of the compulsory core subjects to enlarge students’ flexibility in choosing electives they are interested in. This proposal was approved by the school and will be implemented next year.”

When asked what advice he has for prospective MBAs, Professor Fernandez says dedication is key. “CEIBS is a great platform, it offers almost everything you can expect from an MBA. The rest is up to you. Since you made the decision to invest in an MBA for yourself, what you need to do is remain dedicated to achieving your goal.”