Here’s a experiment to try at home: ask the next person you meet what they think a business school is for.
Odds are that the answer will be sounds like a production line that charges enormous fees to churn out MBA graduates, who then go on to command incredible salaries as consultants in sharp suits who introduce an efficiency here, a synergy there and a few thousand job cuts over by the water cooler.
There’s a chance that they’ll have a kinder view: that a business school provides South Africans who want to enter the professions with essential skills and a veneer of respectability which, in a country which instinctively distrusts its own education systems, may be lacking but essential for securing that job at corp.
Whatever the answer is, it will almost certainly involve an MBA. The ability to earn – at some personal cost – those three letters after your name that smack of Harvard, Wall Street and the titans of business and finance in the modern world.
“Business schools and MBAs are synonymous,” ponders Jon Foster-Pedley, dean of Henley Business School in Johannesburg, “What’s that about? What an abysmal artefact the business school is in our psyche. It’s allied to a construct that only the elite have an MBA, and only MBAs are leaders of business.”
Foster-Pedley says that business schools have to evolve and, indeed, are evolving to reflect the demands of modern business and our better understanding of the world.
“Most progressive people are talking about shared value economies or new forms of governance and how do we solve global problems,” he says.
“If I’m a traditional MBA course and this is the Pacific Ocean, and I teach all my students in the old model to be fantastic at business, they all deploy fishing fleets around the pacific ocean and become very competitive. They all become very successful, and very soon they all go out of business because there’s no more fish.”
“Our children have got to grow up with a different set of capabilities.”
We’re talking about the future of business schools ahead of the Leaderex conference, which takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannsburg on 24th August. At Leaderex Foster-Pedley will be speaking in the subject of “Creative Leadership: the new competitive advantage”.
‘Creative leadership’ can be defined in many ways, but the prevailing view of is inspired by the working practices of big digital companies like Google, Facebook and – more recently – Microsoft, or the disruptive approach of Silicon Valley startups. All are relatively new to South African enterprises.
Here, banks are leading the way with ‘digital thinking’. All the major banks in South Africa now have internal business incubators designed to inspire employees to think like entrepreneurs, and Absa recently invited the prestigious Singularity University to come and teach key members of its workforce its outré ways.
“The current system [of traditional business practice] works,” Foster-Pedley says, “But it’s dependent on infinite growth. You can’t have infinite growth, so what do you get when you move beyond that?”
Passion before profit?
“You start having quality of life discussion and getting into the ‘experience economy’,” Foster-Pedley continues.
“That’s experiences like Pokemon Go, and digitally enhanced reality… being able to have virtual meetings with people in Finland or wherever while you’re in a coffee bar having images projected onto your retinas. All this will happen or has happened in one way or another, what does a business school mean in that?”
There’s also the question of the so-called millennial generation to think of. Much research, from the likes of Deloitte, suggests that the most talented young workers entering business now value things like the ethics and vision of their employers as much as their paycheck. It’s not enough to earn well, any more, they want to feel like their having a positive, creative impact on the world.
“Surely it’s about encouraging people to develop these ideas, to add value and to question what is it we’re creating through these enterprises called business,” Foster-Pedley says.
“A good business school should be challenging the foundation of what we believe business was to create something different that adds value for the future. The competitive advantage of that would be that people who want to grow and learn and contribute and add value to their lives would go to that business school. Rather than just people who want an idea that they want a better idea.”
Unprogrammed free thinkers
Foster-Pedley rails at the current state of affairs where business schools are seen as the preserve and protector of the elite. If what is taught is worthwhile, he says, everyone should be able to access it to help grow the national economy faster.
“What does a great business school do?,” he asks, rhetorically. “It develops confidence in people by proving to them how generally capable their minds are, and that they have as much potential as anyone else in the world. And by disciplining them to follow the hard path, because learning is hard, and showing them why it’s worth it.”
“Education grows the mind. It should change people. Not to be power crazy people, but to be more empathetic and nuanced and get things done.”
“The concept of business, and creative leadership, shouldn’t be wedded to an old school, materialistic worldview,” says Foster-Pedley, “especially not in a poor economy with acute poverty, like South Africa.”
“There are many people who think the old-school, narrow and competitive view of business is OK, he says, because they’ve been conditioned to think that way. But in a low income economy, growing the whole is better for business in the long term rather than fighting of the tiny bits of wealth that exist. It’s the fish in the Pacific Ocean metaphor.”
There’s good news.
“We can become the leaders of the world in growing small economies, and people get that here,” he says. “They don’t want to just parody what’s going on in the US or Europe any more, who does? What a fantastic example they are of what not to do any more they are. We have an opportunity of a fresh start based on the last bit of acute poverty in the world which could either get worse or could it be built into something new.”
“The question is, do we believe in ourselves? Are people in Africa as intelligent, or unintelligent, as anywhere else in the world. The history of this… that you’re different because of where you come from or the colour of your skin, is total crap,” he says.
“What we find people here pass blind exams with exactly the same results if not better that people taking them at the same time in France, China or the UK. Our approaches are perhaps not constructed it the same way because the schooling system perhaps hasn’t given them the same capability, but also because it hasn’t programmed them so tightly.”