MBA schools must tackle critical skills acquisition

THE changes in African management studies cannot be examined in isolation from larger political and economic changes in the region that are related to the dynamics of globalisation.

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Neoliberal regimes have become hegemonic in many parts of the world, forcing universities to reconsider their social missions, academic priorities and organisational structures.

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Concerns about equity, accessibility, autonomy or the contribution of higher education to social transformation — prevalent during previous decades — have been overshadowed by concerns about excellence, efficiency, expenditures and rates of return.

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Business schools are expected to be more customer focused, entrepreneurial and self-reliant. They depend on “selling their products” to an increasingly global market that in turn demands students who are prepared to implement global strategy and who possess international experience, cultural awareness and the ability to work in cross-cultural environments.

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Africa is the last frontier of globalisation. Managers and business leaders create and stimulate growth; they are the engine of growth. While there are proudly successful African business leaders and managers, they remain limited in number.

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The International Labour Organisation recently estimated that 28% of Africa’s 392-million labour force has a wage-paying job (not counting informal and temporary jobs). That’s about 110-million people. It is estimated that Africa will need about 10-million people to manage this labour force.

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According to a recent report by African Management Initiatives, 90 African business schools offer an MBA, or one for every 11-million people. India has more than 1,500 MBA schools.

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The task of embracing the new mode of knowledge production and ensuring that business leaders and professionals have the skills required to take their countries and economies forward into a developing, sustainable economy is the most pressing challenge for business schools.

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Four critical skills requirements should be developed in Africa to stimulate growth and address social needs. First, critical thinking is crucial for innovation and for sustaining African resources. Managers who can analyse and evaluate differing views could make the difference between success and failure for a business in Africa.

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They are most likely to learn these skills on the job and at business schools, given the poor state of many African countries’ primary, secondary and higher education systems. Top executives in African enterprises need to encourage critical and collaborative thinking among employees who have a less-privileged education.

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Second, managing complexity is vital for executives. Besides running complicated businesses, they also need to manage multiple stakeholders, such as communities, clients, suppliers and employees.

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Africa is still a fragmented market. Managers must navigate very different rules, regulations and dynamics in different countries. This can make it complex, inefficient and expensive to do business across African borders.

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Good stakeholder management is also vital in Africa, where factories and supply chains tend to have stronger ties to communities than they do in developed countries. Managers of enterprises in Africa are often responsible for ensuring the nutrition and healthcare of their employees (and possibly their families too), as well as the good functioning of local schools.

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Third, managers must be able to deal with disruption — not only from competitors, but also from political uncertainty and social unrest. They must be aware of social, political and economic trends and try to anticipate events and risks that could affect business performance.

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Finally, developing execution capabilities is becoming increasingly important. Managers need to identify problems, decide on a solution and put it into practice.

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The challenge is ensuring plans are executed from top to bottom. Poor education systems have created big skills gaps between upper management and the workforce.

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African business leaders also need to mentor their teams to apply these disciplines and cascade them down the company.

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In Africa, most managers are in the public sector. It is evident that many studies in SA have concentrated on leadership within the context of western societies. Managerial leadership was directly imported into the public service, without considering its complex and dynamic nature.

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If emerging African economies are to maintain their robust economic growth rates and compete with more developed economies, they need to respond commensurately to the challenges posed by the skills needs of the manufacturing and service sectors.

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In emerging economies, Africa included, conventional MBA programmes will have to make way for entrepreneur-focused programmes, where the skills of finance and accounting, marketing and effective leadership are integrated and taught.

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Finding opportunities for young people is a critical challenge for Africa, where 62% of the population is below the age of 25. Entrepreneurship must become an integral part of every aspiring MBA graduate.

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The new MBA should provide:

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• A sophisticated understanding of the influence of political, social, legal and regulatory, environmental, demographic and technological impacts on companies;

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• Familiarity with legislation and formal programmes that support ethical conduct;

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• Exposure to companies with high levels of integrity and responsibility;

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• Dynamic learning opportunities that require integrating multiple perspectives and managing ambiguities and dilemmas at the global and individual level;

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• Practical experience working through responsible business decision-making;

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• Greater awareness of business tools and principles with social dimensions, such as socially responsible investment criteria, social entrepreneurship and innovation;

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• Exposure to an array of models of the corporation, including corporate governance structures and models of cooperation, and the corporation vis-à-vis society;

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• An appreciation for the interconnected nature of business operations with government and community, and the skills to engage external stakeholders in constructive dialogue;

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• Interdisciplinary thinking across the current silos of marketing, finance and accounting, operations, organisational behaviour and strategy;

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• An ability to understand and deal with trade-offs between multiple competing business and other imperatives;

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• Practice in decision-making in the face of imperfect or incomplete information and under conditions of great transition.

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MBA graduates should challenge the status quo. MBA philosophy must be steeped in the quest to develop managers who understand the relationship between business, society and the political economy.

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Issues of ethics and governance, environmental and resource sustainability, justice and fairness are involved.

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The MBA graduate should be challenged to consider creating a business system responsive to the greater, rather than the minority, good. This opens the door for business schools to look at shaping managers not for business alone but for shaping successful and progressive societies.

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Business schools in Africa must offer critical management studies as a range of alternatives to mainstream management theory with a view of radically transforming management practice. There should be deep scepticism in the schools regarding the moral defensibility and the social and ecological sustainability of prevailing forms of management and organisation.

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The SA Association of Business Schools and the Council on Higher Education must address why traditional MBA universities produce limited graduates and how these numbers can be increased to deal with the acute and chronic shortage of managers in SA and the rest of Africa.

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Shaikh is managing director of Regent Business School

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