Flying at supersonic speed

At the 2015 conference in Prague of the global Association of MBA’s (AMBA), which I attended in May, John Peters shared this analogy with an audience of 200 Deans and Directors from 143 business schools from 40 countries, spanning all six continents.

Peters, who flew the Tornado GRI and served during the Gulf War in 1991, is a member of AMBA’s Board of Trustees. The point he was making is that leaders in business management today have no choice but to fly supersonic. Hence, we cannot be operating in outmoded, subsonic models and mindsets.  Change is around us, it is real and it is inevitable.

The theme of the conference was ‘Shaping the Future of Management Education’ and one of the key issues addressed was the future of management education in the rapid evolution of online and blended learning. What is the right best strategy for management education delivery today – brick or click?

Brick is the traditional brick and mortar classroom environment, also known as synchronous learning where learning takes place in a physical classroom with students and lecturers present.

Click or asynchronous learning is where learning doesn’t take place in the same space at the same time, such as online learning platforms.

For business schools to be fit for purpose now and into the future it is clear that they need to harness a blended learning approach that integrates both brick and click. This offers students the flexibility of online learning and the human engagement factor of in-classroom contact.

Framing the fit for purpose evolution is the timeless requirement of all countries and their business schools to develop graduates with critical thinking, coupled with a sound understanding of leadership and interpersonal skills.

The increasing prominence, in this regard, of forward-acting countries like India and China was discussed at length. Professor Saibal Chattopadhyay from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIMC) addressed the conference on the benefits of technology in addressing the distance issues in vast countries.

Both India and China’s investment in technology and management education is staggering.

China plans to have 234 business schools in the near future – that’s about double what they have now – where they combine both a global and local knowledge approach to management education.

South African Business Schools are ideally placed to pursue our own growth trajectory, with our demonstrable track record of teaching and researching in emerging markets. Our knowledge of the African markets in particular, gives us a distinct advantage on the continent. However, bandwidth and internet access is key.

Prof Chattopadhyay explained that in India the internet has expanded from 10 million users in 2002 to 300 million users in 2015. By 2018 they expect to have 500 million users – a growth rate of 6 million people per month in a total population of about 1 billion people. On the cards is an internet speed of 1 gigabyte per second to each of their 500 universities and 200 000 colleges. Hence, the accessibility of students to the worldwide web is mindboggling and the opportunities for online learning are limitless.

It creates a platform for students to be exposed to global leaders in business and business management no matter where they are situated. Dr Daniel Szpiro, the Dean of Executive Education at the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University in the United States, elaborated on this at the conference.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, who is the Executive Chairman of the institute, founded it specifically as a distance-based management education initiative. His goal is for as many students as possible worldwide to learn from business leaders with experience and gravitas via video conferencing lectures. As Executive Chairman, he personally appears in weekly videos about current business events.

South Africa has one of the highest penetration rates of smartphones in the world. We need to harness this better in a cost effective way as we have so many great business leaders with whom we could hold video conferencing lectures that would inspire our scholars and students. To mention a few, we have Santie Botha, Herman Mashaba, Patrice Motsepe, Elon Musk and Mark Shuttleworth.

As an extension of this I would also like to see far greater student access to management education and MBA degrees through the range of resources we have at our disposal, including SETA funds and by leveraging private equity partnerships.

One of the many advantages of an MBA is that you can take it anywhere in the world. It is a golden parachute and I was staggered by the number of South African academics I met at the conference who are working at business schools in Europe, the United States and Australasia. Whilst it confirms that South African academics are highly sought after, it is alarming that we continue to lose good academics.

To increase the flow towards South Africa, the country needs to be proactively involved in promoting our business and management education offerings to people from other parts of the world. Hence, South African business schools need to be seen as a strategic resource in the services industry, in much the same way that they are seen in other countries, such as Australia.

In this regard I am very concerned by the change in visa requirements as it compromises our first choice potential for international students to study in South Africa.

If the government could start seeing business schools as a strategic resource, it would also inspire young people to pursue a career in management education and transform the sector at a much greater pace.

We cannot rely on government alone, but collectively as government, business and the business school sector, we need to have a frank discussion about how we can drive this. The appointment of Executive Director, Dr Millard Arnold, by the South African Business Schools Association (SABSA) is part of SABSA’s commitment towards achieving this and ensuring that we are part of this conversation.

We need to address all the issues that countries like India and China are already mastering, including bandwidth. Through projects like the SKA our universities are pioneering big data and bandwidth research for the world. We need to leverage off this and start operating at supersonic speed.

This article was written by Professor Owen Skae, President of the South African Business Schools Association (SABSA) and the Director of Rhodes Business School.

Professor Skae writes in his individual capacity and hence the views expressed are not necessarily those of SABSA or the member schools. For more information on SABSA and its members, visit its website

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 361, July, 2015. It is reproduced with their permission.