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South African Business schools working together to build new hope and a new economy.

As I look back on the last two years I spent as one of the two vice-chairs on the South African Business Schools Association (SABSA), I am struck by the fact that this body – and the schools it represents – has never been more vital than it is today. We live in a world…

As I look back on the last two years I spent as one of the two vice-chairs on the South African Business Schools Association (SABSA), I am struck by the fact that this body – and the schools it represents – has never been more vital than it is today.

We live in a world turned upside down by the greatest global health crisis in living memory; lives have been lost, livelihoods destroyed – the new normal is terrifying and daunting. Here in South Africa especially with its scandalous inequality, the increasingly strident cry is to build back better, but how?

The pandemic has accelerated our digital transition, reaching into every corner of our lives from health to retail. We are learning and unlearning, intuitively, every day. Brand new jobs are being created while professions and trades we once considered indispensable are going the way of the blacksmith and the typewriter mechanic.

The growing legion of those jobless is as frightening as it is all-encompassing, matched only by the hopelessness from those who had already given up looking for work for the only jobs they were qualified for – but which now no longer even exist.

In the midst of all this is the injunction to build back better, to use the pandemic as the great societal reset, but who will do this? We have a skills shortage, yet our great universities all too often provide graduates unable to survive and to flourish in a world of volatility, uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity:  A world that is more disrupted, more diverse and more fragmented by the day.

And this is precisely where business schools have such a vital role to play. Business will be the engine that drives growth, that creates the companies which employ the people – both of which will pay the taxes that fund the necessary infrastructure development that we need and the vital social welfare grants that a third of our country depend on every month.

Universities train lawyers, accountants and doctors – journalists, musicians and artists even. But they aren’t teaching them the skills that the future economy will require. And universities certainly don’t teach their soon-to-be graduates to be entrepreneurs. 

Being an entrepreneur means being agile, being sustainable and in these uncertain times having the resilience to keep on trying, irrespective of how many times you fail, until you do succeed – precisely the skills you need in a future economy where our only guarantee is uncertainty.

And, when those graduates do succeed, it takes an entrepreneur’s mindset to scale up that success. That success must become a force multiplier for the benefit of everyone around them in the supply and the value chain, because the true meaning of business isn’t profit, it’s about creating prosperity by unlocking value – whether you are a CEO of a multi-national or the local plumber or electrician. 

It’s only business schools that teach that.

That mantra should be on everyone’s lips; from universities to governments to economic think tanks. The fact that it isn’t is the challenge that should be front and centre of every member of the SABSA executive.

Our role as business school leaders must be to evangelise the need for business schools across the country to take up their rightful position at the vanguard of this revolution that is upon us. We teach our students to become business leaders – at every level of the ecosystem, from the shop floor to the boardroom. We prepare business leaders by using the very same toolkits we teach them. 

Business schools are entrepreneurial; we are agile, responsive and resilient. We have to be because we are not part of the traditional academy; cloistered in the quadrangles, hidden behind the ivy. Instead, we are in the frontlines, sometimes entirely off-campus altogether, sometimes in a different city or even continent.

We don’t just present MBA degree programmes, we adapt. We develop new lines of academic enquiry at a master’s level rooted in real-life, real-time pragmatism, as well as producing shorter, highly focussed courses that are outcomes-based.

We are rooted in systems thinking, unpacking complexity in at perhaps the most complex, confusing and contested time in the human era. We are the catalyst that this country’s economy needs, the custodian of skills that the state so desperately seeks.

This is the message that SABSA needs to take out into the world, as our advocate and our representative, expounding on what all of us can offer as South African business schools. 

We are not just open for business; we want to collaborate and work with everyone and anyone who needs us. Call it ubuntu; “we are because of each other”. Or be guided by one of my favourite African proverbs: “if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together”.

Whatever the case, this is our new dawn. It’s time for us to go fast and far – together, as an association of business schools and as a nation. We must take this opportunity and use it for everyone’s benefit – and for those who come after us.

  • Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa

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