Business schools can be a force for change

While completing an MBA in 1990 at Durham University in England, several momentous events occurred, including the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

I recall guiltily bunking class for the first time to go to Berlin where my fiancée, now my wife, was visiting relatives.

She had phoned me and said that I had to get over there. After I did, I found myself chipping away at the Berlin Wall…

I still have a piece of the wall. Whenever I look at it, it takes me back to the transformative experience of walking through Checkpoint Charlie, having my passport stamped by a grim-looking border guard.

On February 11 1990, I sat at my cousin’s home outside London, never leaving the TV for a minute as we waited for Nelson Mandela to come out of Victor Verster prison, hand in hand with Winnie. It was an era of great optimism; everyone believed there would be peace throughout the world, and in SA it was the dawn of our new democracy.

In Europe, one of the most popular courses on our MBA programme focussed on the EU, its movement to a single market and what this could mean for the world.

The course was another transformative experience that triggered my deep interest in international trade, internationalisation, and cultural diversity. I was inspired by what a single European market could mean for trade relations with Southern Africa. I wrote my thesis on this, with Zimbabwe as a case study. I did not select SA because the National Party was still in power.

I concluded that there were big benefits for Southern Africa, such as the capacity to trade with more than one country in Europe without having to create separate trade agreements. There would also be reciprocal benefits for Southern Africa, including tourism and investment opportunities, with long overdue opportunities for regional trade once SA closed the door on apartheid.

Last week, the South African Business Schools Association convened a lekgotla with major stakeholders to address the role and relevance of business schools in society today and in the future.

The global and South African context included the recent Brexit decision, with talk of Europe splitting apart; SA’s stagnant economic growth, the slower economic growth in the Chinese economy; and the Zika virus epidemic in Brazil. The immediate context was the crisis events in Zimbabwe, Nice, and Turkey.

Lekgotla participants were picking up what was happening online, in real time. In 1990, we did not have the internet or social media. You had to wait for the news, and when you wanted to do research, you had to go the library and trawl through a manual cataloguing system.

One of the lessons we took away from the lekgotla is that while learning from the past remains important, in the digital era we have to focus on learning from the future. We have to leverage the giant leaps being made in online learning and artificial intelligence.

This includes exciting opportunities for business schools as knowledge repositories to partner with private sector information and communications technology and mobile communication specialists in delivering knowledge where needed, including areas that the digital divide is not accessing.

The most powerful message at the lekgotla came from the fledgling Student Business Council, which is calling for higher education entrepreneurship programmes for students across all disciplines, as well as for broad-based entrepreneurship programmes, job creation programmes, access to knowledge, and the support of business people who are prepared to share their experience.

I came out of the lekgotla feeling inspired and motivated, despite the pessimistic local and global environment. I felt extremely positive about the clear commitment by the South African Business Schools Association to make a difference to our society. There was a general consensus that we still need to resolve our past while addressing the future. In the words of informal sector marketer and author GG Alcock, it is not acceptable to say “get over it”.

The level of ignorance in statements such as this that still prevails in a world that has more access to knowledge than ever before, is astounding. This clearly applies to SA, but also the UK and the US which have to face the damning implications of the Chilcot inquiry as they contemplate their new leaders and what this means for their countries and the world.

We can make changes, and for the better. South African business schools are engaging with intellectual honesty as to how we will do this.

First published in Business Day on Wednesday, 20 July 2016.

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