So Much More Than Business

Changing how we think about business schools is part of a bigger shift in the positioning of these institutions and the leaders they produce, writes Kate Ferreira.

With their focus on practical skills and leadership, business schools have largely (and intentionally) positioned themselves apart from traditional academia. But in an increasingly digital world, they also face disruption. How are they staying relevant and preparing the next generation of leaders?

Contextual and grounded

University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) dean Nicola Kleyn believes that the notion that business and business schools serve only “a select club of people who exist solely to make a profit for shareholders” is woefully outdated.

“I would hate the market to think that we don’t see business as important,” she says. Management and leadership development courses are still the bread and butter of the sector, but Kleyn believes that business schools and educators play a key role in shaping society’s leaders and in “co-developing socioeconomic pathways that foster more than the business sector”.

She says: “Business schools don’t operate in a vacuum. They must be attuned to the expectations and needs of all stakeholders.”

Future-proof

Business schools now have to prepare graduates for the unknown, for managing teams and jobs that may not yet exist, and for guiding the workforce through a period of profound and rapid change.

This is why Kosheek Sewchurran, acting director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), believes that they are “educating for the practice of management and leadership, rather than training people in the functions of business”.

He says: “Practically, we do this through a focus on systems thinking, design thinking, integrative thinking, and complexity.”

Sharmla Chetty, president of Duke Corporate Education in Africa, says leaders need to be prepared for a future driven by artificial intelligence. People won’t be replaced in the workplace, but their role and tasks will change massively as they work alongside technology, leading to more emphasis on relationship management and emotional intelligence. “Our future is going to be defined by human-centred leadership, as well as by trust, ethics, humanity, and empathy,” she says.

Helena van Zyl, director of the University of the Free State (UFS) Business School, says this is why business schools have leadership modules. “We have tried many models over the years and found that the most important is that students must understand themselves first. Through this, students learn how to work in groups, how to recognise abilities and manage conflicts and differences. Many students come back and tell us that this is where they first learnt what leadership means,” she says.

Leaders also need to embrace lifelong learning. Kumeshnee West, executive education director for UCT GSB, says this is essential in an ever-changing business environment. “The focus of her division is to ensure that leaders are well-rounded with both the functional management and the leadership skills needed to navigate business needs”.

Driven by diversity

Leaders will be expected to encourage diversity, not only in demographics such as race and gender, but also in factors such as  diversity of approach and inclusive thinking.

Quacquarelli Symonds’ (QS Global) recently released executive Masters in Business Administration (MBA) rankings feature two South African business schools in the top 50 for the first time —UCT GSB at position 46 and GIBS at 48.

Ten per cent of an institution’s score in this index comes from the “diversity” category, where both South African schools outperformed their peers. Kleyn says that South African business schools lead the way in this metric.

There is a growing global awareness that diversity is an end in itself, but particularly so in educational spaces that prioritise experiential learning, class discussion, and group work — as corporate education programmes typically do.

Image: ©iStock - 1007727190

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