To stay relevant and competitive, business schools in South Africa need to pay attention to five key emerging trends.
1. Bringing learning and practice together
The traditional MBA model is steeped in business theory, but for the last 20 years or so, the relevance of this approach in a complex and emergent world has been increasingly interrogated. Rather than focusing exclusively on core business principles, we believe that the future of business education lies in bringing the worlds of learning and practice closer together.
The reality is that managers and leaders don't operate on a plane removed from the world around them where they can employ abstract, rational thinking to lay out their options and pick the most applicable theory. They are constantly in situations that require on-going adjustments and adaptations rather than pre-determined plans. To be successful in this kind of context you need a certain amount of practical wisdom that only comes from experience.
Augmenting the MBA’s business fundamentals with experiential learning is therefore vital to ground students in the realities they need to face to lead in a complex environment. This needs to be achieved through a variety of approaches including the study of relevant case studies, reflection on one’s own experience and practical or consulting assignments.
Graduates who understand their context are better prepared to be effective leaders. As Scott Derue, Dean of Michigan Business School in an interview with Harvard Business Review points out, organisations that recruit MBAs assume knowledge of core business functions as given, what they are more interested in is horizonal or cross-cutting skills – the ability to build and lead collaborative teams across units. Businesses want people who “can really thrive in the context of highly ambiguous, highly complex situations and not get overwhelmed by that – but simplify it, make sense of it and lead to action.” 2. Cultivating resilient leadership capabilities
Klaus Schwab’s seminal speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2016 pointed to the accelerating rate of change facing the ways we live and work, and the difficulties in training a workforce for a future we cannot yet imagine. In such a world, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production.
Organisations and people need to be adaptable, innovative and responsive, which requires MBA programmes to cultivate essential capabilities such as creativity and emotional intelligence in order to develop resilient leaders. The WEF’s Future of Jobs report identified the top three skills that will be most needed in 2022 as: analytical thinking and innovation; active learning and learning strategies; and creativity, originality and initiative. Many of these are already part of good MBA programmes, because we have long understood the importance of the softer skills of human interaction in effective management and leadership.
Also important is the need to instil in students an attitude of lifelong learning. Graduates should be accomplished and knowledgeable, of course, but they also need to be humble and emergent. They need to understand that even though they have a degree under their belt, they may have less agency than they would like in a complex system. To navigate this world, they need to be able to reflect on their context and who they are, in order to make sense of where they have come from and step boldly towards the future. 3. Creating formats that speak to different demographics, experience and business needs
The traditional MBA programme was all about developing a “well rounded” manager.
It was, in its essence, a generalist degree developed in the age of industrialisation, but this is changing. Fifty years ago when the UCT GSB launched its first MBA, the class was exclusively white and almost entirely male and all came from industry. Today, our classes reflect a much wider demographic and experience base that needs to be valued and accommodated.
Both the kinds of skills needed and the way students acquire those skills is changing. An increasing number of business schools globally now offer a range of options both in terms what you can study (specialisation streams) and how you can study it (modular, part-time or blended learning).
We are also seeing a heightened degree of collaboration between business, government and educational institutions to co-create relevant curricula that meet current and future needs. Educators supply industry with critical skills, and industry should have a hand in shaping the talent pool and informing educational institutions of the changes they foresee and the skills they wish to develop. 4. Responding to the rise of social and environmental concerns
One field of study that is enjoying more and more interest, especially in South Africa, is social innovation and entrepreneurship. MBA students are increasingly motivated to make a difference in the world and view business as an agent of change, rather than just a way of generating profit. A recent GMAC study surveyed 5 900 MBA applicants across 15 countries and found that 12% fall into the “impactful innovators” segment. In Africa, 32% of applicants are in this segment. Another global study conducted at 29 top business schools concluded that students overwhelmingly consider environmental protection as vital to improving economic growth and providing employment, and that one-fifth expressed unwillingness to work for organisations with bad environmental practices – no matter what the salary.
In a country that is known for its stark wealth gap and mounting social and economic troubles, an MBA programmes that aligns its teaching, processes and content with a societal focus will stand out from the rest. 5. Widening access through support and funding
Last but not least, the MBA is a premier degree and it comes with a high price tag, particularly for full-time MBA programmes, where students forego income in order to study. In this country there are many strong candidates who meet the entry requirements for the degree but lack financial resources. It is therefore critical to make funding and scholarships available to high-calibre applicants. Scholarship opportunities further any school’s objective of increasing student diversity to better represent the market that they serve.
Additionally, in a country of unequal access, we need to recognise prior learning as part of the entrance criteria for those who may not have the prerequisite degrees. Recognition of prior learning is the identification, assessment and acknowledgement of the full range of an individual’s skills, knowledge and work ethos obtained through informal training, certificated learning, non-accredited courses, workshops, on-the-job experience and life experience.
It is our belief that widening access to the MBA is critical for mending the skills-gap in our economy. Increasing student diversity – across race, gender, age and educational background - ensures greater societal impact but also enhances the experience of each cohort through offering a wider perspective.