A noble, but sadly unrealized, idea

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on March 2, 2012

About a half a century ago, a group of Filipino executives led by the much admired, near-legendary business icon Washington SyCip decided the Philippines—at the time a center for world-class education in Asia—needed a business school that would produce top managers with an Asian perspective of doing business. The Ayala Corporation donated land for the project on Paseo de Roxas in Makati, and the Eugenio Lopez Foundation donated the buildings.

With assistance from the Ford Foundation, advice from Harvard Business School, and the cooperative goodwill of Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University, the Asian Institute of Management was founded in 1968. An international board of governors was formed to ensure relevance. The non-stock, non-profit institution was governed by a board of trustees, with Mr. SyCip as chair.

It was a noble idea: Educating Asian managers.

The school’s establishment was accompanied by much fanfare. It boasted a faculty equipped with advanced degrees from mostly Ivy League universities. AIM was the place to pursue a management degree for much of Asia in the 1960s and the 1970s, when the Philippines was among Asia’s richest economies. If capacity to attract top students was a measure of success, AIM was seriously successful during its first decade.

But financially, the school struggled. Its two boards uninterested in providing supplemental funding, it fell to the faculty to resolve AIM’s cash flow dilemma.

It did so by introducing short-term executive training courses. The first and most enduring program was the four-week Basic Management Program. It was followed by a variety of other largely opportunistic short-term offerings, mostly well-received. CEOs and HR managers were ecstatic that they could send managers off for a matter of weeks and when they returned, they could read a financial statement, manage people, and think strategically!

Mr. SyCip was among those who admired what the faculty had accomplished, and resolved that it had earned the right to manage the institute without interference. The Board of Trustees handled the formalities of corporate governance, The Board of Governors offered sage advice, and the faculty increasingly argued among themselves about priorities, policies, and profit sharing while shrugging off competitive threats around the region.

(Disclosure: I was previously employed by AIM, and my departure followed a disagreement with my boss and much, if not all, of the faculty.)

The faculty was indeed responsible for the institute’s financial survival. But eventually it would become every bit as responsible for the demise of the noble vision of its founders, to be Asia’s business school.

Last weekend, AIM alumni gathered for their annual homecoming, excited to see their former classmates, eager to show off their big-time executive titles to their professors, and anxious to share their triumphs and defeats post-AIM. And to lament the institute’s steep fall in stature around Asia, and in the Philippines.

Remarkably, none of the alumni I talked to rejected the notion that AIM has fared poorly for most of its almost 50 years’ existence on a number of fronts, but particularly in terms of influence and visibility within Asia. As regional economies outgrew the Philippines, many potential students dismissed outright the idea of studying management in an institute headquartered in a country that couldn’t manage itself.

Perhaps for that reason AIM and its faculty grew increasingly isolated, and more Filipino than Asian. Its irrelevance quickly accelerated because regional governments shared Mr. SyCip’s vision for Asian education—within their own countries. Aside from building strong local management schools, respected international institutions such as Northwestern’s Kellogg were invited to offer their degrees in Asia’s dragon economies.

The Kellogg program is a partnership with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Its MBA is ranked one of the top 10 business degrees in the world by the Financial Times. It’s EMBA—an executive program—is ranked number one.

Singapore was successfully building a reputation as a center for management education. The National University of Singapore sent faculty off to top universities in North America and EU to obtain not just working executive MBAs, but teaching PhDs to ensure cross fertilization of ideas, diversity, and influence in both business and academic communities. They undertook substantial research initiatives meant to impact best business practice.

The Singapore Institute of Management was reconceived as Singapore Management University. Nanyang Institute of Science and Technology established a business school. Meanwhile, the Singapore government welcomed The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to the island state, granting 100% ownership rights. It did the same thing with Insead, the respected European business school.

Today, Asia’s top business schools are in China, India, Korea, Singapore, and Japan, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s closely watched Top Asian Business Schools ranking. AIM doesn’t come close to its top-tier competitors. Sources say it narrowly missed being sold to a diploma mill in recent years. Can AIM be fixed? I suppose anything can be fixed. The bigger question may be, “Why bother?”

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2012 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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