Design Thinking for Teaching International Business

By Long S. Le

In the field of international business education, we know that we want students to combine analytic reasoning with the ability to function effectively in complex scenarios in which context-rooted problems require creative thinkers and problem-solvers. Often times, however, business instructors have overemphasized formal lecture and case method at the expense of active learning and experimentation. In addition, the methods of lecture and case study sometimes reduce problem solving to analysis, thus making students become detached actors looking to “get it right” or arrive at the “best” answer. At the same time, if students don’t have the opportunity to get out of the classroom and gather feedback during a course – by addressing innovation and ill-structured real-world situations – this can create an imbalance that graduates might carry into their careers.

In an effort to change the above classroom situations into preferable ones, I started to utilize and apply  design thinking for my Introduction to International Business course. In particular, I’m reframing my classroom into a collaborative learning environment, emphasizing to students that it is not my classroom but our classroom.

Using the five phases of the design process, I have defined and refined my problem statement in teaching international business (step 1), which I think is probably one of the most challenging steps. In the collaborative context of “our classroom,” I want students to learn to be persistent in their pursuit of problem-solving while being and becoming more reflective. In addition, as a designer of “our classroom,” I too need to be persistent and reflective in my  “art” (based on imaginative insights) and “craft” (based from practical experience) of implementing design thinking in order to: effectively build empathy with students (step 2), brainstorm with students and faculty (step 3), create collaborative learning activities (step 4), and test whether the activities meet the identified needs (step 5).


Designing an Effective Collaborative Learning Environment

Through design thinking, I have been able to observe and prototype (steps 1 & 4) in ways that have enabled me to structure learning activities that better support the course learning objectives.  One example is the use of two or more learning style approaches so that the matching learning activities could result in higher levels of students’ academic performance and more lasting student learning in the course. On the first day of class, I collect my students’ learning preferences through a VARK questionnaire. After some discussion with students about how to understand their results in terms of the VARK modalities, I then design “response essays” in which students are expected to take a position relating to particular debates in international business.

Students have the option of drawing their response with pictures and diagrams (the visual of VARK), doing an audio/video of their response (the aural of VARK), writing their response as an essay (the read/write of VARK), or sensing commenters’  experiences and reflecting on their own life examples on the debate (the kinesthetic of VARK). Depending on how many response essays I assign during the course, students are required to do response essays in at least two different VARK modalities.


(Click to watch) A student’s “response essay” via the aural option on whether Apple can make iPhones in the US that are good for the company and good for US workers.

From observation and feedback, I do get the sense that many students are generally appreciative of having more choice to demonstrate course competencies, and some students are willing to be challenged to use learning approaches with which they have less comfort.  In terms of testing and refining, I have not yet done substantive assessment in regards to whether providing some choice in the use of learning preferences has a positive impact on students becoming more effective problem-solvers and creative thinkers.

Another course  learning objective that, to some degree, I have been able to prototype and test is that of designing a team-based project. Here, students are collaborating with me to provide zero interest loans to appropriate borrowers in California and in developing countries. Students are asked to develop microfinance proposals that could generate revenues through eco-friendly consumer products, from which the profits could then provide zero-interest loans to targeted communities.  Under the testing and refining stage that brings in new ideas and improvements, I was able to anticipate that, after teaching a course or so there would be a number of team-based microfinance proposals that could be ready to be prototyped and tested by subsequent student groups. In fact, I have been able to offer subsequent student groups the opportunity to choose from and implement a number of prior microfinance proposals for which I provide seed capital as well as instructional feedback.

Currently, my students act as both “makers” and “doers” in team-based projects through which profits for zero-interest loans have been growing and more potential borrowers in California and in developing countries have been identified.  With each new class, another new team has the opportunity to not only uncover conflicting goals and constraints, but also to implement better ideas and solutions. Moreover, the collaboration between students and myself has gone beyond the classroom. A few students from these team-based projects formed a registered student microfinance organization on campus to further scale student-run microfinance projects. In fact, these students are now serving as “peer educators” in my course, which could contribute to better ideas and improvements to collaborative learning and project-based learning.

Overall, design thinking has provided me with a process to transform my international business classroom into an effective collaborative learning environment.  At the same time, design thinking has also allowed me to anticipate that dynamic collaboration may expose additional challenges and solutions. For me, design thinking indeed serves as a complement to the analytic tools and methods taught in business education by offering a framework for students to become creative thinkers and problem-solvers within a course and beyond the course.


(Left) A student group interviewing young women entrepreneurs in The Gambia. After conducting due diligence, the group had decided to provide zero interest loans of $240 to two women. Through a local partnership with Starfish International and the school’s Global Fellows program, the two women entrepreneurs have received the loans and business training, as they are implementing their small businesses. The revenues for the above loans came from developing and selling eco-friendly consumer products, which were  created and sold by previous student groups (Right).


Top Blogging Platforms for Teaching and Learning International Business

Long S. Le

In the field of international business, blogs are becoming an established part of the public conversation. One of the leading sources for international business knowledge is Michigan State University’s globalEdge Blog, and its search will find you almost anything. Compared to academic research, blogs — based on the idea that blogging and research make a difference in the world — can be shorter, better, faster, and free. In particular, in multi-author blogs, authors tend not to write posts beyond their expertise and whose posts are professionally edited. Moreover, blogging platforms that aim for an “authentic audience” can be more effective in facilitating teaching and public engagement, especially those that are linked to a university or a media outlet.


I have utilized New York Times‘s Room for Debate in which students are required to write response essays. Students are expected to take a position with implications from more than one worldview frameworks or recognizing the interconnectedness of the local and global.


Admittedly, I do have a hard time motivating students to do their pre-class work. Although business students tend not to prefer reading/writing as a learning style relative to students in the humanities, others have noted that getting students to do their readings before coming to class is a common challenge, regardless of what we teach or where we teach it. Consequently, I am in the process of “rightsizing” the amount of reading that I require in my international business course.

One of the things that I am doing is assigning students to read more from professional and media blogging platforms, of which I think could work for students. At least for me, it makes academic sense to assign more readings that reflect the sort of reading I do for pleasure and for my work. For example, when I consult Americans doing business abroad, I would recommend them to check out the official blog of the International Trade Administration, rather than any text book or peer-review articles. In general, the representation of knowledge for an audience that drives blogging might make learning more engaging for students. By some account, studies have found that today’s students prefer, and say they learn more in, classes with online components.

To this end, I have searched and selected various academic, professional, and media blogging platforms that align with the learning objectives in my international business course. That the blogging platforms serve to inform the week’s lectures, as well as well as providing the background on class discussion and online discussion assignments. Below is my “Top Blogging Platforms” for what to read, how to read it, and why be engaged on important topics and issues related to international business:

  1. provides insights on the complex laws, regulations, policies, and procedures related to U.S. export-import of goods and services.
  2. aims to prepare business students in handling supply change management issues within and cross industries and in various institutional environments.
  3. presents variety of scholarly debates on the challenges and opportunities in the emerging world, of which contribute to about 45% of the global GDP.
  4. generates public debate platforms with numerous viewpoints on diverse issues related to international business that could easily be implemented in a course’s response essays.
  5. provides insights and practices for companies to strengthen and promote efforts to prevent corruption.
  6. provides practices on effective use of media for non-profit organizations and social entrepreneurship organizations that operates in the developing world.
  7. is a great resource for business students to be introduced in comparing national cultures and managing organizational cultures.
  8. focuses on how businesses (those already in or those planning to go China) can navigate the complex business environment of the world’s second largest economy.
  9. is an undergraduate student journal promoting global citizenship — building bridges where markets fail to do — could be embedded in an international business course in which students are encouraged to be published writers.

Thinking About How Student Learning Abroad Could Be Better: Top Five Study Abroad Blog Articles

Long S. Le

Last night I gave a brief talk to Santa Clara University’s Leavey Global Fellow Students, as they are preparing to learn, immerse, and intern abroad this summer in Ghana, the Gambia, Bolivia, India, China, and Indonesia.

Part of my focus was to share with students my experience in managing faculty-led study abroad programs — the challenges and shortcomings of teaching students cross-cultural and intercultural interactions as a means to work and lead in the 21st-century global marketplace.

While students have come to increasingly recognize that education abroad program is one of the best ways they can acquire the valuable international experience, a recent report by the Chronicle of Higher Education declares that study abroad could be so much better. It appears that, for many students, what they are not learning is the ability to feel and sense different values and attitudes shared by a society and shaped by its environment. Students are not aware of culture – feeling, judgments, and mental constructs of which are subtle in nature – and thus they won’t be able to respond appropriately, perhaps even inhibiting their ability to communicate. By implication, some have advocated that all study-abroad programs should mandate cross-cultural preparation, training, and reintegration programs.

There are several reasons for the “decoupling” of culture from study abroad programs. At least on the surface, it seems that study abroad today has become directly linked to students becoming a global citizen and an educated, well-traveled citizen in order to compete in the international economy. However, if being a global citizen and having business savvy are study abroad objectives, cross-cultural and intercultural experience would have to be glued to that education abroad package. That is, one can’t unstick culture from study abroad because of lack of time or ignorance about how to approach it.

Importantly, while currently only 1.5% of US students study abroad, 50 percent of students have reported that they want to. Although much more efforts are needed to make global education part of every US student’s degree program – including the need to account for ethnicity, income, and field of study – we do know that most employers believe soft skills are just as important as technical skills in which working and communicating effectively in many environments alongside a variety of people are highly valued. To this end, my top five study abroad blog articles are those that effectively address some of the above complex issues.


  1. 8 Most Common Regrets of Study Abroad Alumni” by Annie Bierbower
  1. The Dumbing Down of ‘Global Citizenship’” by Missy Gluckman
  1. Culture Shock: Chinese Americans in China” by Yin Yang
  1. How to Impress Employers with Your Study Abroad Experience” by David Nesbitt
  1. The Wanderlust Student’s Guide to Domestic Cross-Cultural Opportunities” by Paige Dabney

The Challenges of Teaching Globalization in B-Schools: How to be Open-Minded

Long S. Le

Global strategy professors, such as Pankaj Ghemawat, have noted that, despite advertising that they are globalized, many business schools fall short in teaching globalization – struggling to internationalize their curriculums in order to prepare students for a globalized environment.

According to Dean Bob Bruner of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, who chaired the recent task force report for AACSB International on “Globalization of Management,” the curriculums of many business schools are not very global:

Some are setting up special courses, other schools enforce that all courses do a bit about globalization and a third group combines a flagship course with doing a bit in other courses as well. But overall I would say that we have a long way to go in globalizing the content of our degrees… In the future business schools will need to focus more on building competencies like the ability to influence others, sell, negotiate, deliver difficult feedback, and lead or win the support of others. Globalization stretches these competencies. Our graduates need to understand the global setting and local cultures, know law variations across borders, and market imperfections from region to region.

However, getting to “global” or becoming globally competent, implies an explicit choice. That is, whether globalization at business schools should be taught as an end in itself or simply a means to an end. For the AACSB International’s task force report, it believes that when the underlying objective is to be perceived as “global,” there can be fragmented or disjointed activities and programs that may bring little added value to the stakeholders being served. On the one hand, the task force recognizes that each business school’s mission and environment provide a unique set of circumstances that require a customized approach to globalization. On the other hand, the above task force promotes the view that business schools should globalize as a means of achieving other objectives – educating young adults, mid-career professionals, and seasoned executives. To that end, some authors of the task force report focus on the “what” global content a business curriculum should be included, and “how” the global-related materials should be included through approaches that account for differences and distances.

Far Harder to Teach an Attitude that Embraces Many Globalizations

Even among the elite and largest business schools, they can only give their students a taste of global-related content along with what it implies and the understanding of working globally, especially at the undergraduate level.

For some, the above is probably not enough. That is, the key to good management in a global world is to be open-minded, of which is not something that is learnt but rather developed. In particular, the world is not as globalized as business students think it is. For example, when professor Pankaj Ghemawat polls his students, on what percentage of phone calls are international, they guess 40 percent – the reality is closer to 2 percent.

For me, it is no longer surprising that many business students cannot entertain the idea that China can be statistically labeled as a developing country — a per capita income of $6,500 (2014) and where about one-sixth of the population still lives on less than two dollars a day. Indeed, China contains multitudes in which party leaders and diplomats take pains to communicate that the country is “developing,” whereas American leaders think the phrase “developing” only provide China excuses about contributing more to resolve international problems.

Importantly, I learn that business schools and their faculty also need to be open-minded. For instance, some surveys show that only a small percentage of business deans, business executives, and business students see globalization as basically bad or mixed, whereas the general public (particularly those in developed countries) are skeptical about or hostile to globalization. While many business professors avoid spending time in the curriculum on anti-globalization perspectives or sociological perspectives of globalization because they amount to nonsense, doing so leaves business students ill-prepared for real-world actors that conceptualize or embrace the various dimensions of globalization very differently. These dimensions include the phenomenon of globalization, the philosophy of globalization, the process of globalization, and the patterns of globalization. If business students can become more open-minded towards “globalizations,” perhaps they are more apt to understand and communicate the underpinnings of diverse foreign environments of business  along with the cross-cultural differences in business management.


Developing Skills for the Global Environment of Business

Long S. Le

Today’s corporate officers in charge of learning management have been seeking a new, specialized set of skills that will enable their managers to integrate multiple geographies, cultures, nationalities, ages and styles in enterprises around the world.

Indeed, business leaders with such a potent combination of geographic, political, economic, governmental, legal, cultural, technological and environmental savvy would be informed when they formulate and execute their business strategy. The above search has led Chief Learning Officer, a leading integrated media publication on the management and workforce development industries, to derive practical implications from Five Minds for the Future authored by development psychologist Howard Gardner. Especially, as the context of leadership has significantly changed in recent decades, learning leaders could embrace Gardner’s five sets of cognitive capabilities so as to see beyond the boundaries of the organization, national culture, functional responsibilities and corporate gain.  Such capacity to engage in boundaryless and synthesizing cognitive process would lead to new opportunity and innovation in complexity.

According to Gardner, the kinds of minds that will be at the highest premium for leaders to have going forward include:

  1. the disciplined mind that thinks critically, analytically, historically, and artistically;
  2. the synthesizing mind that knits ideas from different disciplines into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to oneself and to others;
  3. the creating mind that seeks new ideas and innovation of which have value and merits;
  4. the respectful mind that truthfully regards human beings and human groups;
  5. and the ethical mind that fulfills one’s responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen.

Writing as a policymaker, Gardner prescribes the five kinds of minds as most important in training and cultivating young people today and tomorrow, as well as in thinking about the professions and the workplace. However, Gardner also acknowledges that there are tensions among these five kinds of minds, such as the quiet tension between being disciplined (i.e., learn to do things in the proper way) and being creative (i.e., the need to overthrow things out and to be iconoclastic). To be sure, ethical tension can also arise in which one should be a whistle blower when one finds somebody doing something immoral versus being nice or relating to the situation of others while, all at once, deciding the risk of getting in trouble by telling the truth. Overall, Gardner argues that the ultimate act of synthesis for each person is how she or he puts these five minds together in an integrated whole.

Not unlike today’s chief learning or chief knowledge officers, international business educators also need central frameworks to prepare students to understand the relationships among the major environmental forces — macroeconomics variables, political variables, sociocultural variables, technological variables, and geographical variables. In so doing, students can examine the ways in which these environmental forces differ within and across nations as well as over time. Importantly, students would not only analyze how these environmental forces may impact corporate strategies, but also how multinational enterprises develop and utilize their resources and capabilities to create competitive advantage in such a globalized environment.


Source: David Conklin, Designing a New Course: The Global Environment of Business, Journal of Business Education

Perhaps the major challenge in international business education is that globalization’ of business has grown much faster than the ‘internationalization’ of business schools. Therefore, there is a growing gap between the international business skill set needed by multinational enterprises and traditional business education programs. In addition, while international business education is fundamentally interdisciplinary and of which cultural sensitivity and language skills are necessities for global business, the teaching of international business is often reflective of the disciplinary research interest of the instructor. For example, financial faculty teaches exchange markets and risk management, economists teach trade and comparative advantage, and political scientists teach the development and enforcement of the multinational trade regulation. Thus, developing a curriculum that integrates all these disciplines is at best challenging and a daunting aspiration for a business dean.

Pedagogical Challenges and Opportunities 

There are indeed studies that are more critical of international business education, as evidence suggests the likelihood of faculty being internationally trained in their graduate programs is minimal. The shortcomings of how best to provide knowledge and competences to enable business students to function in complex international scenarios have raised central questions. That is, what should be taught, how and by whom and what extent educational programs should be instructional or learning oriented?

Notwithstanding, there are resources and opportunities – at the university, community, and government levels – for business faculty to develop knowledge of countries, international organizations, economies, culture, interpersonal skills  in international settings, and foreign business practices. Perhaps a key word for faculty to develop such skills is collaboration – particularly if that collaboration is institutionalized (rather than individualized) within the college and cross-college, with other universities both domestic and foreign, and with businesses and organizations both domestic and foreign.

Moreover, by some accounts, international business appears to lack central frameworks that are needed to unify the discipline. Therefore, a framework that can integrate international business as multi-disciplinary, multi-level, and multi-functional will help students to think more critically, analytically, historically, and artistically with regards to what determines the success and failure of firms around the globe. Like other professors, I have tried to design an introduction international business course that frames the relationships among the major environment factors and how they affect business strategy along with how the internalization process of firms can affect the where, when, and how they internationalize. Although ongoing changes in external and internal environmental forces will create a need to update the design of such a course, the underlying goal is to connect the macro-micro variables of the international business ecosystem; for instance, wide enough to include that global environmental sustainability is not achievable in the near to midterm future and deep enough to include the need to understand the logic of leadership in state-owned enterprises and faith-based finance.


Last but not least, and probably the hardest, is the ability of faculty to collaboratively develop creative modes of learning that provide real-world experience for students to engage in international business; in particular, experiential learning that embeds potential tension between being creative and being ethical, or being disciplined and being respectful. In general, given the scarce educational resources for student learning, it becomes incumbent for business schools to collaborate with various stakeholders in order to mainstream real-world international business experiences. These include business laboratories, role-play in simulation of business situations, and development of venture startups. Otherwise, as successful as these modes of learning are, they will be accessible only to relatively small number of students.

What Does Being Global Really Mean?

Long S. Le

According to the World Savvy’s Global Competency Poll among 502 high school graduates (18-24 years old), young adults are overwhelmingly interested in having, and recognizing the need to develop professional skills for, global literacy in their lives today.

At the same time, however, the competency survey reveals that global issues were not regularly discussed in high school, and that instruction appeared to be US-centric and the exposure to the rest of the world was limited. Thus, young adults’ knowledge about globalization is “somewhat lacking.”

In business schools, there are increasing efforts to initiate pedagogical strategies and cognitive skills development to support international business curriculum. There are indeed influential business professors who are advancing the above dialogue, setting agenda for continued advancement and sustainability of international business education across the globe. For instance, such educators have acknowledged that US lacks global leaders because they lack cultural empathy that requires a degree of egolessness; many business majors are not required to have adequate functional knowledge in the arts, humanities and languages; and that leaders do lose their way because they lack self-reflection and a system to support centered values-centered leadership.

In moving forward, there has been a significant focus on promoting and developing a global mindset among business majors and business minors. That is, those with a global mindset are able to interpret and decode situations from multiple, even competing, points of view. Moreover, leaders with a global mindset do not exploit one community to benefit another, but rather they bring about prosperity to more in which business is not a zero-sum game.

Limitations of Being Global

However, it has been noted that current managers, business school professors, and business majors have had and shared particular blind spots.

Here, it appears that instilling the above global mindset often reinforces neoliberalism, emphasizing market-readiness and competition. That is, proponents of a global mindset, in general, would recognize rootedness and affiliation but tend to believe the convergence of traditional of self will hybridize and relocate within a hypermarket global economy; or are denationalized and at the same time do not fully embrace global civic sense of responsibility. By contrast, related tenets of a global mindset are also supported by individuals in China, but Chinese citizens are relatively nationalistic about the realities of international politics and sustained economic development. In between are movements, such as citizen actions in Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution, who embrace some versions of localism (i.e., preserving the locality’s distinctiveness) as well as some versions of legal cosmopolitanism (i.e., supporting the conditions of universal hospitality); and on the horizon are hackers who hack for social change in which some are more radical, believing the flow of data they are collecting can result in some ultimate truth.

All to say is that a global mindset whether from neoliberalism, a national perspective, a legal cosmopolitanism or grass-root democracy perspective will have limits (if not negative externalities) in decoding multiple competing points of view.

Not to be overlooked is the potential gap between internationalization and multiculturalism, of which might emerge among business students. A qualitative study by Matthew Mitchell and Darcie Vandergrift at a private university in American Midwest found that some business students, specifically White students, have high levels of enthusiasm for international competency but have much lower level for domestic multiculturalism. In the latter, White students tended to operate from a “colorblind” perspective and saw themselves as the “norm” against which non-White and international students might be compared to. Overall, the study sought to raise awareness for business schools to better prepare students to succeed in increasingly diverse domestic and global work environment.

So what to do with all of the above?

For the first time as an instructor, I started the first day of class – the global and cultural environment of business course – with two assessments. The assessments are both for students and me to become aware of their learning styles using Neil Fleming’s VisualAuralReadKinesthetic (VARK); and to recognize their mindsets using the same focus group’s questionnaire in Mitchell and Vandergrift’s study.

The assessments were informal and exploratory where students could assess their learning styles and where they could assess their own mindsets relative to other students. For me, the assessments were also talking points: 1) how to develop a holistic approach in understanding and becoming competent in local diversity, cross-cultural, and cross-national interactions; and 2) whether preferred learning styles or multi-dimensional learning can facilitate international business skills needed for the global nature of today’s business environment.

In a later blog, I will discuss these two assessments — which are class exercises and not data collection for research publication — how I interpret what students say and adjust class assignments where I steer the path at times and at other times students do the steering.