JON FOSTER-PEDLEY: A new manifesto for business schools in South Africa
The country has some of the best international and local business schools in the world, but it also has one of the largest underdeveloped talent pools. This calls for a fundamental rethink of the role of these institutions in building the economy
From Martin Luther King jnr and Nelson Mandela to Alice Walker and Chinua Achebe, great leaders and writers have exhorted us to dream of a better future. As a metaphor for the task facing entrepreneurs and businesspeople trying to start and run businesses in South Africa, this could seem like the only option available.
Between the ongoing energy crisis, mounting student debt and youth unemployment, we desperately need to reset our status quo — but this can’t be about escaping from reality. We cannot build something better unless we first make reality our friend; logic, not magical thinking, is required to get us out of this spot.
The reality is that we are sitting on a trove of renewable energy resources, yet we lack the ability to turn these into power to keep our lights on. We have some of the most sophisticated businesses and standards of living, but these are contrasted with widening inequality and poverty. We have a young and growing youth population that represents fantastic opportunity and a bumper growth dividend, but these talented individuals are not getting the education they need to make the difference they can.
In fact, startling research from Nic Spaull, formerly at Stellenbosch University, shows that only one in 15 pupils who starts grade 1 in South Africa ends up with a degree, compared with about 50% in a country such as the UK. This is nothing short of a tragedy. We are sitting on a volcano of talent in this country — and on the continent — but are not able to draw it out because our education systems are failing us.
As a result, our organisations and institutions are hollowed out due to a lack of skills and management ability. According to the department of public service & administration almost 2,000 senior managers in government at national and provincial levels are considered not to have the qualifications for the positions they occupy.
When you have people who are not sure of themselves you can’t build an economy, especially not a diversified and modern one of the sort South Africa should be striving for. And if, as business schools, we are in the game of providing the talent to build economies, this calls for a wholesale reimagining of what we do and how we do it.
We can work together to fund and grow an entire generation of South Africans to build a movement of brilliant managers and leaders
At the vanguard of change
There is no question that business schools need to continue building business acumen in our students and creating new knowledge and value. We need to continue holding ourselves to the highest international standards to ensure the continued credibility of our institutions and the quality of the degrees we dispense. But, truthfully, we need to do more.
Specifically, there is a requirement to retarget learning radically, moving away from an ingrained focus on the elite MBA, which is arguably training a small percentage of people who are already pretty good at what they do to be a little bit better. Instead, we need to create space for the swathes of undereducated South Africans, many of whom are already working or trying to build businesses and for whom the additional business acumen and confidence they would gain from a quality business school education could be transformational.
In this it is important to acknowledge that not all business schools can or should be all things to all people. Rather, we can leverage our individual strengths while pursuing more intentional collaboration to expand more broadly the collective scope of business schools in South Africa and on the continent. We must commit to more than building our own institutions and look to collectively build Africa.
We can use our position to bring together stakeholders from business, government and civil society to help us address the enormous challenge we face and to join us in a commitment to build our economy.
By collaborating more closely we can ensure that we are developing the skills our economy needs right now. We can work together to fund and grow an entire generation of South Africans to build a movement of brilliant managers and leaders who can make things happen.
Our reality in South Africa is that we have some of the best international and local business schools in the world, but we also have a huge pool of underdeveloped talent that will ultimately undermine the country’s economic prospects. The dream must be to find new ways to use our collective strength to liberate this talent, to build the future we all want and deserve.
* Foster-Pedley is the dean and director of Henley Business School Africa and chair of the African Association of Business Schools. These insights formed part of a discussion on the future of management education hosted by Accelerate Cape Town
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