A bit of profit and gloss

International Business - Global Business Today. First edition - International Business - Business - International Business - Global Business. Third edition - business.today
March 2, 2001

Here is a bewildering array of teaching material -seven business textbooks, poised like missiles ready to be fired into the struggle for market share, each with a payload of over 1kg (it is a heavy subject) and price tags up to £32.

Alongside the hardware comes the software -weightlessly sleek and seductive -tempting us with updates, new cases, quizzes, banks of test questions, games, videos, electronic atlases and Powerpoint acetates (in colour).

How on earth are we to make sense of what is on offer? In the spirit of a modest service to hard-pressed colleagues, let me try to tease out some of the major differences between a battery of textbooks that cover much the same ground.

The most immediate discriminator is academic level, yielding two texts - business.today and Business: An Integrative Approach - that are clearly aimed at the introductory "what is business?" course in degree or sub-degree business studies programmes. Their focus is on business, its organisation and behaviour, in a largely national or domestic context.

The remainder are specialist international business texts, and are perhaps more suited to the typical global business module on MBA programmes but with possibilities elsewhere, for example in international marketing, trade and investment and so on.

The introductory texts cover similar material, packaged differently, but sharing a promise that "integration" is the key feature. The similarities are strong, with each chapter beginning with "learning objectives" and offering plenty of case studies, stories from the business press, colour and glossy presentations with photographs, charts, graphs and webpages by the e-cartload.

business.today goes further, lacing the text with biographies of "business heroes", successful young entrepreneurs who travelled hopefully from rags, never failing to arrive at riches.

Tempting though it may be to think that here are two books ideally suited to the first-year "integrated" business studies course, there are some drawbacks. First, the material, the institutions and the actors are almost exclusively North American and, since all our authors agree that business students must develop an acute and sensitive appreciation of the impact of culture and environment on business activity, it is not clear that they travel well to our side of the "pond". Second, and more important, the "celebration of business" that these texts embrace, while yielding an impressive business vocabulary, may not be the best way of encouraging students to think critically.

An uncomfortable edge runs through both books, where even the wider social sciences are drawn on (a plus), not for any wider perspective they yield (a minus), but rather to be pressed into the service of business and the bottom line. Profits are undoubtedly important, but surely even in our introductory business programmes we want students to see a bigger picture and to be prepared for the unexpected and... er... to think?

With an instrumental emphasis on "history, politics, sociology and anthropology in support of corporate strategy" it is perhaps not surprising that a degree of complacency creeps in. Where, for example, one author discusses the "orderly and predictable" election system in the United States, another notes that "companies like General Motors have built such power and scope that they are respected throughout the world", to which all I can say is "but not in Luton".

International Business is an altogether more glamorous subject and these five textbooks broadly serve it well. The approach adopted is again remarkably similar. Learning outcomes are de rigueur , mandatory bullet points the first salvo in each chapter, and case studies (often highly topical) pepper the pages that follow. A consensus seems more or less to exist on the range (and depth) of material that should be covered. Each text embraces globalisation, regionalisation, trade and investment, the forex and international money markets, the business environment (politics, culture, religion, ethics and values) international marketing, human resource management and operations management.

A great deal of ground is covered in these thick, weighty and generally multidisciplinary volumes, almost certainly too much to compress into a single undergraduate module of the type that is probably standard in the UK. One of the most regrettable features of the headlong drive to "modularisation" in our universities has been the damage done to integrated studies of the type favoured at the cutting edge of textbook design. These textbooks bring things together and our modules tear them apart.

It is easy to imagine any of these texts on international business being used for a specialist course in trade and investment, the multinational company or global business, but in most cases this is likely to mean use of fewer than half the 20 or so chapters. Matters may be different in MBA programmes, where a more genuine integration of business disciplines is likely. Yet even if the texts are similar, the ingredients in the international business cocktail get different emphases.

The four North American texts - Global Business Today, International Business: Competing in the Global Marketplace, Global Business and International Business: Environment and Operations - share a style that is compelling in its glossiness, use of colour, photographs, cartoons, case studies, charts, diagrams, maps, margin notes and sophisticated technological back-up, with CD-Roms, and even, in some cases, hypertext versions. International Business: Environment and Operations has excellent maps -surely a "must" for any self-respecting global business text -and a website that ticks over with impressive smoothness, taking me effortlessly in trade theory from "mercantilism" to Adam Smith and an online The Wealth of Nations . Elsewhere, Charles Hill, the author of Global Business Today appears in his own webcast, giving an interview on the significance of the euro. All a bit gimmicky maybe, but, one suspects, not without some student appeal in livening up the material.

Global Business meanwhile wins the race to be up to date, proclaiming that its material reaches February 2000. It also offers (uniquely in the texts reviewed here) a Spanish-English glossary of business jargon. But the busy delivery generates occasional clutter. With its quizzes and culture tips ("Japanese generally prefer discussing business in the hotel's reception area and not in your bedroom") it becomes clear the book is, in fact, part handbook for the (US) trainee international manager.

From North America to Europe and International Business: Global Competition from a European Perspective , the only UK product, offering a much-needed, potentially refreshing, but, sad to say, only partly successful read. After six highly glossy textbooks, it is disappointing to return to the "utility" equivalent published by Oxford University Press.

The material remains steadily similar -from the international firm through its environment to theories of trade and foreign direct investments -with a worthwhile attempt to strike out with fuller coverage of European Union developments and an entire section devoted to post-communist transformation. But this well-intentioned project stumbles by being badly dated. In a particularly fast-moving business scene, the transformation experience in the first half of the 1990s looks rather different from that of the more recent period, but this book is too heavily locked into early 1990s source material to be truly useful. A web-based rescue attempt with an update to the Putin succession in Russia is poor compensation.

Teachers' needs across international business are diverse, but for a sophisticated, thoughtful, lively coverage of most of the key thematic issues as well as recent events (such as the crisis in Southeast Asia) with first-rate technical back-up, Global Business Today is impressive. International Business: Environment and Operations , in its ninth edition, is in the same league, an engaging presentation that also adopts a critical edge, with splendid maps. But perhaps a gap in this market still remains, one that could be filled by an authentic international and trans-continental approach, bringing together obviously excellent US textbook/learning package design with UK/European perspectives and issues.

George Blazyca is professor of economics, University of Paisley.

International Business: Global Competition from a European Perspective. First edition

Author - Andrew Harrison, Ertugrul Dalkiran and Ena Elsey
ISBN - 0 19 878213 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £22.99
Pages - 491

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