February 15, 2013, by Duncan Shaw

International projects – a university’s vast untapped potential

This is the first in a series of special blogs about setting up and supervising international and inter-campus projects based on the experiences of staff at the Nottingham University Business School (NUBS) in the UK and Malaysia. This first blog post looks at setting up an international project from a UK perspective based on the experiences of Dr Duncan Shaw who is a Lecturer in Information Systems and MBA Management Projects Co-ordinator at the UK campus.

Setting up an international project – a UK perspective

About seven years ago they gave me the admin job of finding projects for MBA dissertations. I used to work for Motorola and I did consultancy projects for lots of firms, so when I became an academic the Business School in the UK asked me to work with firms to get company-based projects for our MBAs.

Many MBAs love doing projects with external organisations because it gives them access to the full commercial context of their work, they can see how it helps the firm and they have a much more compelling addition their CVs than a normal thesis. In the best projects our MBAs tackle a hot topic that a whole industry might be wrestling with that summer – which makes a great subject to talk about in job interviews and the project can also generate a new network of job-finding contacts.

But it is sometimes difficult to convince firms that the effort of hosting an MBA project – even just answering questions from the student – is worth it. Also, MBAs are commonly attracted to high profile and international firms – they like the glitter.

A few years ago I was looking for a source of new projects that would be interesting and attention-grabbing enough for our MBAs. Then I got thinking about how we have three international University of Nottingham (UoN) locations plus partner agreements, like in Singapore, and I started the process of setting up an inter-campus project.  Here’s how I did it:

  1. Plan the international project – I have done many MBA projects over the years so I knew I’d need a supervisor from the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) plus the strong support of colleagues from the business school there.
  2. Get some contacts – I didn’t know anyone at UNMC but one of my colleagues had worked there. She very kindly advised me on who I needed to talk to and then she make introductions by email.  I think the most valuable thing she did was to communicate, either implicitly or explicitly, that it was worth having a chat with me – i.e. I wasn’t some strange mad guy.
  3. Visit your new colleagues – you need more than email to start new relationships. People need to see and hear each other to start building trust and getting to know each other. Fortunately there are several budgets available in the university – for teaching development or inter-campus development – that can be used to fund a trip. You will have to justify it well – I pointed out how inter-campus projects would help our forthcoming accreditations for some important business school associations – but make sure that you go over and meet people. There are always extra people to talk to and a teaching-related trip can easily start a new research-related relationship and vice versa.
  4. Listen to your new colleagues – what even happens next has to work for everyone. Do not assume that your new colleagues will have the same objectives and ideas for activities that you do. Listen to their advice.
  5. Do what you promise – meeting people on international trips is very exciting but it is easy to forget about what was agreed when you get home and are confronted with 500 emails from students and colleagues. But if you do not keep moving the project forward then the relationships will wither and die. When I came back from UNMC I found a firm that wanted to research new market entry opportunities in South East Asia. This was a great opportunity to hold a joint project with a student from UNMC and one from the UK campus.
  6. Make sure that the project works – a first international project is the foundation for future projects of different types. But you can only build on success. In this project we were lucky because the two project supervisors were highly professional and very experienced at working with firms. Make sure that you pick great people to implement the project.
  7. Build on the project – on the back of the project we ran last year I have got funding to travel to China to try and do the same thing again at University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNCC). More importantly, I have got to know a small network of people that are interested in projects that are above the level of a single campus. There is a vast untapped potential for The University of Nottingham in projects that are above the level of a single campus. Not just teaching-related, i.e. any projects that use the capabilities of one of our diverse locations to satisfy the needs of another – it’s a sort of ‘capabilities-needs arbitrage’ between continents and countries. The University of Nottingham has vast arbitrage opportunities in teaching, research and helping society because it is actually a platform for linking campuses in three very different countries. I would love to do a project that looks into the potential for a three country approach to research, teaching and business engagement.

Future blog posts in this series will examine:

  • Setting up an international project – a Malaysia perspective
  • Supervising  an international project – a Malaysia perspective
  • Supervising  an international project – a UK perspective

This post is shared with the ‘Talking of teaching’ blog, the University’s blog looking at teaching culture and practice.

Posted in Higher EducationMalaysiaPartnershipsTransnational education