Business schools are rarely speechless but are often voiceless. In fact, when we dissect the phenomenon that has been state capture; of corruption and its hand maid collusion, we realise that our role as business educators has to be more than merely improving the skills of managers. We need to create leaders who will craft businesses who will create profits not just for their shareholders but benefit the communities in which they operate, impacting them positively, but most of all, business schools need to have a voice.
Having a voice doesn’t mean taking a political stand, but it does mean taking a position in society.
Likewise having a South African Business School Association does not mean subsuming academic freedom, but rather ensuring the work we do is geared towards a common good. Having competitive and fragmented business schools fighting among each other to provide qualifications doesn’t go to the heart of the purpose of education, definitely not in developing countries, but even more so in developed countries which have been blighted by corporate scandal and malfeasance.
The question we need to be asking in South Africa is how can we work together, not to compete, but to engage, to work to promote fantastic quality and fast-tracked effective education not just at a post-graduate level but at multiple levels. We need to ask how we can be serious partners in the post-state capture era.
The South African Business Schools Association began as an attempt to bring business schools and academics together to advance the interests of business schools with government, but there has been an evolution to a position where its members are less concerned about their own personal lobbying and more focussed on getting all institutions – from the poorer regional universities to the bigger public metropolitan universities and the private business schools to work together to develop educational solutions designed to fast-track transformation of the economy.
In game theory, this would be effectively collaborating to make the pie bigger – and then competing to divide it up. In the past, we have never been collaborative enough as business schools. It’s been inherent and tacit, but now we have to consciously architect it and drive it through. We have to work towards providing not just skills and talents, but creating the knowledge that will foster the motivation not just to help today, but to build tomorrow.
Working as a collective of business schools, we don’t just speak to government but to organised business. To, for example, Business Unity South Africa and through that when we can access other business-specific lobby groups and begin to understand the needs on the shop floor and in the boardroom and come up with educational solutions.
We have to be relevant and we have to understand that as educators our mandate is human development, otherwise , there is little to no purpose to what we do. All of that though is easier said than done. There are tenured academics researching areas that might fascinate them but have little application in practice – all in the name of academic freedom; there are less well-resourced institutions desperate for enrolments, big metropolitan universities having to be servants of government and private universities subordinate to the needs of their major corporate sponsors.
All of these tensions have to be understood, managed and harnessed because great education has a dual edge of not just serving current and often competing interests but also looking to the future, sparking a dynamism and incubating a vitality in the emerging economies.
The inherent risk is a particularly Schumpeterian one, the creative destruction of the old by the emergence of the new. The best corporates understand that by being cleverer and more innovative they can continue to create value rather than being rendered rent-seeking monoliths teetering on the edge of obsolescence.
Business schools face the same challenge. They cannot solely serve yesterday’s institutions but must start thinking about what the needs of the new economies will be; speaking to the provocateurs and positioning themselves in the post-mining, post-agricultural era and the new highly creative world of entrepreneurship and fin-tech among others, where economies will be highly diversified.
The good news is that this zeitgeist is reflected in the association, there is a real awareness and a commitment to increased collegiality, not in a Pollyanna-ish fashion but rather rooted in cold pragmatism that the future of what we do rests in the creation of mass skilling .
We need to collaborate and then compete because first we have to build and that means serving the national interest. South Africa cannot survive in a corrupt economy where unskilled people get jobs and the money is stolen. It can’t survive in a privileged economy where access is denied to those who could diversify it and it cannot survive in a cronyist economy where the exclusion is sharply focussed on those without friends in high places.
It can survive and flourish though in a human economy where the focus is not fixated on race but addressing the Gini co-efficient premised on the understanding that our greatest resource is the overwhelming intelligence and ability of our population despite the historically constructed pigeon holes.
This is not a campaign to create capitalists and perfect a consumerist society at all, but rather a movement to give people the capability to empower themselves, to innovate and create thriving economies in which the benefit is not measured in the profit returned to shareholders but in the bottom-line impact to communities in terms of jobs, investment, ethical practice and accountability.
I have a dream that we can educate tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands even millions of South Africans, so that their lives improve. The Chinese do it – with a population of 1.6-billion – because they understand the scale and the need to support the national interest. We can do it too.
* Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa and vice chair of the South African Business Schools Association.
This article is sponsored by