Sink or swim: fast-thinking and agile action in a time of change
There’s more to life than sitting in front of a computer screen, and despite the advantages of online learning, contact engagement will never die out, says the dean of Milpark Business School
Crisis can bring out the best in people, says Cobus Oosthuizen. There was a standing joke during the anti-apartheid sanctions era that long-term business planning in SA meant knowing what you were going to do after lunch.
Covid-19 has brought its own uncertainty – yet people are coping, says Oosthuizen, dean of Milpark Business School. “In December we were all oblivious about what was going to happen, yet many companies have adjusted and learned to do things in a different way,” he says. “There are no guidebooks telling you how to mitigate this kind of risk, but some companies have become Covid-fit.”
The key, he says, is to be fast thinking, agile and experimental. To use the latest business jargon, companies must be able to “pivot”.
The same applies to business schools – none more so than Milpark. Ownership of the school and its parent company, Milpark Education, has changed hands twice in recent years. Most recently, in 2018, it was bought by the Stadio Holdings group, which invests in private higher education.
Oosthuizen says his school is still feeling its way in the group, which describes itself as a “multiversity” because of its diversified interests. He says: “Stadio is on a long journey with its subsidiaries. Integration takes time. I suspect it will be a couple more years before we are all completely bedded down.”
None of this can get in the way of managing the fallout from Covid-19. Like other schools, Milpark has seen clients postpone executive education programmes while they try to make sense of the new world order.
The wholesale shift to online teaching has made huge demands on schools and clients alike, but Oosthuizen says Milpark is coping with the changes – even if “it’s still far from clear how things will eventually unfold”.
He says: “It’s like dipping your toe in the water, then someone comes up from behind and pushes you all the way in. You either sink or swim. We splashed a bit at first but now we are swimming confidently.”
Online education, despite its advantages in terms of cost and convenience, lacks the intimacy of face-to-face teaching. “It’s human nature to want personal contact,” Oosthuizen says. “It’s very hard to create an immersive educational experience in a virtual world. Contact engagement will never die out.”
Virtual business meetings are the same. The proliferation of meeting platforms like Zoom, Skype and Teams has led some people to predict the days of office meetings and business travel are over. Oosthuizen isn’t convinced. “Never mind the convenience. There has to be more to life than sitting alone in front of a computer screen all day,” he says.
Whatever the long-term impact of Covid-19, he says, business in future must be more sensitive to the needs of society at large. The pandemic has devastated not just economies and businesses around the world but also the lives of many millions of people. Never has the interdependency of business and society been so evident.
“As business schools, we have a responsibility to help develop leaders for the common good,” he says. “Someone once said that the longest distance in the universe is that between heart and heart. It’s no good having great economic recovery ideas if the heart is not involved. We can’t ignore poverty, hunger and environmental impact. Awareness of these must permeate everything that business sets out to do in the future – and everything that business schools teach.”
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