Defend Truth


The scandalous silence of business schools


Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and founder and chair of MBAid, which uses the energies of MBA and executive education in business schools to help SMEs and NGOs.

Where are South Africa’s business schools when it comes to fostering debate on the pressing issues that challenge our society? The short answer is: nowhere! There is a deafening silence from the halls of business academe on issues such as job creation, the role of trade unions, corruption, the structure of state-owned enterprises, the strength of the rand, import- and export-parity pricing, labour-broking and even the very role of business in a developmental state.

There are probably more than 20 burning issues desperate for well-considered solutions and well-argued systemic perspectives that could be added, but whatever the final number, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single news analysis on any of them from leaders of top South African business schools. We are blessed with some exceptional business schools in South Africa, but why so strangely mute?

The country’s business leaders themselves are frequently criticised for failing to speak out or take a stand; but are you surprised if this is the example they’ve absorbed at B-school? Surely the time has come for us to create in our business schools the kind of atmosphere that originally flourished in universities? These were places of rhetoric and inquiry, debate and stimulation. Where minds were refreshed and encouraged to challenge and gain understanding in the process.

Education is about lighting fires, not filling vessels.

We have spent a lot of time in the past pounding the value of research and, of course, research is extremely valuable. Research is fundamental to the quest for knowledge. But the quality of our teaching and the quality of our learning are equally important, and these are the areas in which we can make extraordinary advances in business school education.

Typically, business schools use case studies. Yes, these are a good form of debate – especially when done with the ethos and spirit of the founders of the method so many years ago at Harvard Business School –  but so often the debate they stimulate is a zero-sum game where someone is right and someone else is wrong. What we are looking for is dialogue where people bring forward ideas and we listen to each other with the capacity and the willingness to change our own position, not just defend it. This is a progressive way of learning and a progressive way of debating. This is what we need to stimulate in our business schools! 

And we aren’t talking vacuous and self-serving polemic here, but passionate, reasoned, listening, constructive dialogue. Skills in analysis are important, but of a higher order are skills in interpretation, making sense, and the courage of decisiveness and having an opinion – strongly held, but open to change. Criticism is easy, creativity is harder.

We have a wonderful opportunity in South Africa to work with diversity, to see things from multiple perspectives and develop a rich, systemic, nuanced understanding of our world. We have diverse cultures, backgrounds, personalities, intellects and skills. But diversity alone, without the capacity to explore it, without the environments and the container in which it can be expressed, offers little. It can even work against itself. So, if you do have diversity, then you need really good skills in working with diversity to allow the challenging dialogues to emerge. Only then does really important learning take place.

So business schools, as well as promoting research, must promote the right learning environment and agenda. Ask “What is a good classroom environment?” or “What is a good social learning environment?” or “What do we mean by education and learning?” From these flow questions like “What is the role of business in society?” and “Where do human rights fit on a board’s agenda?” and “Should trade unions be encouraged or discouraged?” And we need to be unafraid to attack these ideas quite radically for the sake of developing people’s capabilities

But none of this can happen in a vacuum or if the business school itself is not fully engaged with the society it serves. Let’s never forget that education is a service. We are not there to serve ourselves, we are there to serve, with honesty and respect, all the people who come to our schools to learn with us and we serve them by allowing them to grow and develop, explore their minds and their capacity to engage. If we as business school leaders and educators are too timid to face outwards and address the hard issues, how can we expect our students to do so? An outward silence reflects an inner stillness, and that’s a scandalous waste of resources, to say nothing of opportunity. DM

John Jon Foster-Pedley is the Dean and director of Henley Business School South Africa.


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