Embracing a Global Future

Professor Houmin Yan

Professor Houmin Yan is Dean of the College of Business and Chair Professor of Management Sciences. Before joining CityU he served as Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and as Associate Director and Science Advisor for the Hong Kong R&D Center for Logistics and Supply Chain Management Enabling Technologies. He has also worked as a tenured Associate Professor at the School of Management, University of Texas at Dallas. Professor Yan's main research areas are stochastic models, simulations, and supply chain management. Professor Yan talks about restructuring and the changing dynamics of CB's learning culture…

Dean Houmin Yan takes a small ornately patterned blue box down from the shelf in his office. The metal box is delicately designed, looking almost like porcelain. He walks over with two cups of tea, and we wait. The leaves obstinately refuse to sink, forming a layer on the surface.

"This is my favourite tea," says the Dean. It is Yungang Bai Kui, white tea from Langxi County, Anhui Province, in central China, and it has a long tradition – all the way back to the Song Dynasty. It turns out that white tea is pretty rare and, according to a Treatise on Tea written by Zhao Jie, Emperor Huizong, found only in remote cliff top areas.

Finally the leaves settle to the bottom of the cup, and it's possible to take a first sip. It tastes deliciously fragrant.

Then it is down to business, time to get the story of the Dean's first year in office.

What have been the highlights at the College of Business over the past 12 months?

In the past we have done very well to get international accreditations. But this is what I call Entry Level. It's like you can't run the shop without them, like a restaurant needs a licence. Still, the real challenge for a Business School is running an internationally competitive MBA, and restructuring the MBA programme has been quite an achievement. It's meant working on the quality of our students, moving our MBA programme back from Shenzhen to Academic 3 on the main Kowloon Campus, and offering new specialist streams.

What is being done in other programmes?

We've been very busy with the BBA too. We did some curriculum benchmarking against local and international competitor universities and found some places where we could usefully make changes. So the BBA has been restructured to emphasize basic skills and communication. Take communication for example, there are three parts to this. Firstly language communication in English, then the analytical ability to be able to deal with the problem logically and sensitively, and lastly tools, these days that means IT tools that help to deliver an idea or communicate a business plan. So we have English language courses, and we hope to enhance critical analytical ability through case-based business communication courses. We also include two new economics courses, micro and macro, two accountancy courses, and one statistics course. In addition we reckon that BBA students need exposure to law for matters such as contracting, so we have added an elective with the cooperation of the School of Law. And lastly, IT has transformed all disciplines over the past 30 years – so therefore we've added a programming course. After making these curriculum changes our BBA is comparable with top schools worldwide, but it has required lots of hard work and dedicated effort to do it.

Professor Houmin Yan

"We have to adapt to student needs, be mindful of what our peers are doing, and we need to continue to innovate."

It all sounds pretty labour intensive…

Yes, what we are saying is that students come first in resource distribution. We have to adapt to student needs, be mindful of what our peers are doing, and we need to continue to innovate. A lot of substantial work has been done, and I am very proud of my Associate Deans and Programme Leaders. Of course we need to make this a good place for colleagues to pursue their careers as well, but firstly we need to keep the students in mind. At the end of the day it's all about the students.

What is the most important driving force in education these days?

I believe internationalisation is key. I've recently been talking to potential incoming students, and they are all talking about the possibility of becoming exchange students. Even parents of prospective students are talking about exchange. You see many of our students do not come from privileged backgrounds. A semester of exchange is one of the few chances for them to get overseas. And the benefits of exchange flow both ways. When you meet with inbound students you find they are bringing their culture into the classroom. I see a change from teaching as transmission of knowledge to more of a learning process. Exchange students bring fun to the classroom – this is a big push in the direction of teaching as learning process. And it also happens to be a push in the direction of the Discovery Enriched Curriculum.

Partnerships are an important part of this drive?

Yes, we have been working with exchange partners all over the world for many years, and now about half our BBA students have the chance to go on exchange during their programme. In the past couple of years we have also been working at the programme level, signing international collaborations with the National Taiwan University, and we have a dual degree programme with Columbia University launching in September 2014. And in research we are taking a more interdisciplinary approach including working with executive education partners. For example, the recently launched China Business and Economic Development Research Centre is underpinned by our collaboration with Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings Limited and HNA Capital.

How useful are Key Performance Indicators (KPI)?

KPIs are only a reflection of what we are doing. They are important so we can demonstrate our accountability to tax payers, but we have to be mindful that a business school is different to a business, and even in business there is a difference between short term and long term objectives. Data gives us a shaft of light, but we are promoting excellence, and that cannot always be represented by simple numbers. I also want to give our colleagues room to do their own things, so we can support people who are doing great work. We will not measure only with numbers; one size does not fit all. Otherwise we could leave this work to administrative people. As Dean of a business school judgement calls are involved.

Hong Kong can be hectic. Do you think we should schedule quiet time for reflection in our daily lives?

Of course, sometimes, we also want to help ourselves be a better person. You know Nelson Mandela passed away. I was very sad – if you reflect on the life of Nelson Mandela – he was both a fighter and a peace maker. After he got out of prison he organised and he extended his arms to both black and white people and made South Africa a good country where people can work together.

So as a College Dean – of course this is not such a noble a vision like Nelson Mandela – I have to look after the entire college, and sometimes I have to make hard decisions. When I took this decision to become Dean I asked my PhD advisor – he is close to 70 – how to approach this job and he advised me. He said to me: Houmin, if you talk to the university, don't ask anything for yourself; ask for the College. And that's what I try and do. I try to reflect on what he said. Of course I'm busy, taking hard decisions, and sometimes talking to colleagues to seek their help.