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New research from Henley Business School shows consensus among African business school deans that it’s time for business schools to step into a more activist leadership role - pushing for continental collaboration and change, writes Jon Foster Pedley.

We are living in a world that is profoundly different from what it was just three years ago. Not only has COVID ploughed through countries, disrupting lives and livelihoods, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine is in the process of redrawing world politics. Closer to home, political unrest, rising youth unemployment and threats of inflation are all playing their part in undermining governments and societies.

These seismic shifts mean that all of us have had to reflect on what it means to be relevant in the world today – and business schools must lead this reflection.

For decades, business schools have had a monopoly on business education and arguably wield more power – in the wrong ways – than they should because of this. But this also means that they are ideally placed to lead a reinvention. And as governments across the continent battle to solve the many social and economic challenges they face, African business school deans from some of the continent’s leading business schools have come together to agree – it’s time for business schools to play a more conspicuous role in helping to solve these. They need to step up into a more activist leadership – pushing for continental collaboration and change, as well as reflecting on their educational offerings and research agendas, and the type of leaders they seek to graduate, among other things.

This was first of nine key strategic recommendations for business schools to emerge from a new white paper from Henley Business School Africa launched at the Association of African Business Schools’ Annual Conference in Morocco last week on “Amplifying the impact of African Business Schools”. https://www.henleysa.ac.za/revealing-research-questions-the-impact-of-african-business-schools/

The research, which is based on insights gained through in-depth interviews with 10 high-level international educators and African deans, seeks to better understand the areas where African business schools could be making a difference and to explore ways in which they might reinvent themselves to take a broader, more strategic role in growing African economies.

Business schools’ new roles range across three areas of impact

The research consensus was that there is no limit to the areas in which African business schools can widen their footprint. Poised as they are at the intersection of business, civil society and government, African business schools can – and should – carve out a far-reaching role for themselves that enables them to do more than just produce transformative leaders that are able to drive business forward, but to equip those leaders with the skills, purpose, and confidence necessary to build the businesses and institutions that will grow Africa, in the face of its many and mounting challenges.

The white paper identifies three areas of potential impact: direct, social, and systemic. Direct impact refers to how to elevate business models and pedagogical approaches of business schools themselves. This spills over to the broader social impact, which encompasses the students and organisations that African business schools cater to and their professional approaches to business and leadership as well as the dynamism, purposefulness and culture of organisations and their leaders. Support for the continent’s youth and entrepreneurs would be a critical part of this dimension. As one commentator put it: “We will be failing if we don’t produce graduates who have no sense of purpose for this continent.”

Finally, systemic impact broadens the areas of impact to include country-specific influences, which have the potential to fundamentally change the national approach and discourse around key differentiators, such as leadership style and each country’s standing in a globalised world. For example, to aim for greater prosperity in African nations, business schools could become more involved in setting the agenda for and developing a country’s entire educational ecosystem from primary to tertiary. Business schools will find ways to influence policy and create the mechanism and learning for transparent, accountable, ethical management and governance practices in both business and the public sector.

A roadmap for change with Africa as the compass

To achieve this depth of impact is a major but unavoidable challenge. Shifting academic institutions is, as one commentator observed, “not a swift process”; the changes facing the sector are vast.

First, African business schools must learn to position themselves in the global order as institutions of quality and relevance while taking the level of their practical contributions to Africa to new levels. Schools will need to find ways to ensure that their compass is Africa, whilst also meeting the criteria of international accreditation and standards of research, and competing on the world stage for top-flight academics, staff, and students.

Second, the continent is highly fragmented; with 54 economies each with distinct and varied needs and priorities. The development of business schools is also still in its infancy with only a handful of top international schools across the continent, mostly in the more developed economies. Collaboration and common purpose will be the key to accommodating this disparity and going forward with impact.

Taking these African realities into account, the Henley white paper offers a roadmap for business schools: The African Business School Impact Action Plan https://www.henleysa.ac.za/revealing-research-questions-the-impact-of-african-business-schools/

turns the spotlight on nine core areas which, if executed in concert, have the potential to radically change the face of the management education across the continent.

In addition to the need to evolve to stay relevant, maintain a global outlook and ensure context, country and continent relevance, these action points include deploying deliberate and innovative interventions – notably embracing digitalisation which is here to stay – and the importance of building regional cooperation. Strong, globally accredited business schools in specific regions would prove transformational and aspirational for other schools to emerge, the research argues. One commentator asserted that schools … “should be working together in sub-hubs, not simply saying they are competing with aspirational schools.”

Other points in the nine-point plan include: understanding future and unfolding contexts; supporting greater autonomy and independence; engaging with business and society; and developing a world-class, credible faculty.

While this plan of action is by no means exhaustive and additional research is needed, the qualitative and intuitive analysis undertaken points to a budding agreement on how to amplify impact among key players in the African business school space.

Business school bodies have a particularly important role to play

Central to the successful adoption and implementation of the African Business School Impact Action Plan is the role of various business school bodies and associations active in Africa, including the Association of African Business Schools (AABS), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) International, EFMD’s European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) accreditation, Business Graduates Association (BGA), and the Association of MBAs (AMBA).

Commentators have recognised how these bodies are making strides to improve the impact of business schools in developing markets through fostering collaboration, networking, and the sharing of knowledge.

What we know now is that the leading business schools and associations active in Africa have long shared a vision of a collective focused on ‘educating people who can make a change and lead Africa’, but we can do so much more. We have a strong foundation to build on. These recommendations can help us to build momentum, enthusiasm, and success through small wins across the business school community in Africa that could ultimately yield big results.

The white paper “Amplifying the impact of African business schools” was written by Jonathan Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director of Henley Business School Africa and Board member of the Association for African Business Schools. To download the full paper, go to: https://www.henleysa.ac.za/revealing-research-questions-the-impact-of-african-business-schools/   DM/BM





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