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MBA programmes need to embrace uncertainty, placing agility, creativity, digital savviness and sustainability at their core to be responsive to the leadership paradigms of the future. 

On November 15 the earth’s population is estimated to have reached 8-billion, marking a drastic slowdown in growth, with expected global population plateauing at about 10-billion by 2050. Much of this is attributed to less than replacement (two children per woman) global fertility rates. But this aggregation masks severe geographical distortions and power imbalances. 

According to the UN, 1.5-billion people will be aged over 65 by 2050, most of whom are residing in developed countries. These demographic peculiarities will be manifested in the worsening of global risks such as climate change, cybersecurity and geopolitical conflicts.

The emerging consensus is that all leaders must strive to increase institutional resilience to contend growing incidences of so-called black swan events. The 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic are not isolated events but rather the triggering of social forces unable to contend with a world that is overpopulated and severely out of sync with nature.

Much of Africa’s brain drain is attributed to socio-economic slumps, intractable crime levels, deteriorating infrastructure and rampant corruption. Media reports of skilled professionals emigrating en masse compounds this gloomy picture and adds to the despair with which Africa is often associated. However, the brain drain discussion can also be viewed as a rebalancing of the globe’s skills, which may have potential benefits for developing nations.

SA, like much of the continent, has a population with an average age of 19, compared with the world average of 43. It is therefore logical that the rest of the world will look to talented African youth to fill the skills gap and sustain social and pension fund liquidity.

Youth dividend

This anticipated surge in youth immigration will add to the export of local expertise and may lead to a significant repatriation of funds and economic benefit for developing nations. The silver bullet would be to fully develop and exploit this endowment of the youth dividend.

In that context that societally focused MBA programmes engendering skills fit for future leaders remain a valuable asset for any South African looking to unlock opportunities at home and abroad. Skilled workers need to be trained in such a way that they will be able to manage and protect the planet. 

That means the MBA programme will need to be redesigned to develop leaders with the requisite agility, analytical skills, and ability to combine creativity with design, and sufficient technological savviness.

If we are to reduce poverty and inequality and reach net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century, leaders with empathy, understanding and an appreciation of the impact of reckless planet management are needed. They need to view humankind and the Earth as inseparable.

A redesigned MBA

Future-fit leaders can come from anywhere. The problem is that a limited number South Africans have access to or can afford to enrol at business schools. Today, many programmes still require students to physically attend classes, and this incurs the added expenses of travel and accommodation. The pandemic has accelerated the need for virtual programmes and hastened the deployment of technology to enhance delivery and pedagogy.

Thanks to quality connectivity, virtual classrooms and recorded lessons, the online MBA has collapsed time and space, reaching candidates in far off areas and chipping away at the qualification’s reputation as exclusive to city-bound elites.

The Johannesburg Business School carousel system is a novel response, allowing students to work at their own pace. They can hop-on and hop-off when they need to, and they can register per module with flexible payment options. The system provides students access to experienced businesspeople who can help them along their MBA journey. Despite the ability to drop off in between modules, our retention rate for online studies remains above 90%, well more than typical online rates. 

So far, it has attracted students from five SA provinces and from abroad, including Spain, Canada, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, and several other African countries.

Future-fit leaders

The question of the MBA’s relevance resurfaces repeatedly. The likes of Elon Musk further intensified this doubt by saying it did not teach people to think, and that too many MBA graduates were running corporations and therefore harming the business sector. But the argument for the MBA’s worth can be made, especially when it intends to create future-fit leaders. 

In SA an MBA degree still gives professionals a leg-up in the corporate arena. It can secure careers and personal finances within a tumultuous economy. And it can open up prospects within SA and abroad.

While those are the immediate concerns of any student, the bigger question is whether the MBA can address today’s urgent national and global challenges. These include ineffective leadership in a digital future, social and ecological sustainability, and inequality.

An effective MBA course can address these concerns; and in the SA context it can help create a pool of initiative-takers who can reverse the crisis of leadership. For a long time we have had to endure leaders who lack the imagination and grit to navigate an increasingly chaotic environment. Our future leaders will need to have the skills to put the house in order.

Just over a decade ago MBAs were still designed according to a Newtonian paradigm. Predictability, order, norms, and standards were highly valued. Today, this paradigm is outdated. 

The programme must be redesigned along Einsteinian lines of thought. We have to embrace chaos, unpredictability, and complexity, as demonstrated by living with Covid-19 for more than two years.

• Prof Carolissen is dean of the Johannesburg Business School at the University of Johannesburg.

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