Opinionista Walter Baets 24 February 2011

Business schools: building the brains to change the world

While the business of business is business, the business of business schools and graduate programmes is to help guide the public discourse through building a body of business leaders empowered and able to engage in and create solutions to South Africa’s multitude of problems and challenges. We are not silent.

A recent comment, published in The Daily Maverick, about the “scandalous silence of business schools” set me to thinking about what exactly the role of a business school is in society today.

Are business schools meant to be critical and vocal about issues? And if they are, then do they do enough of it? Or are they really just institutions that nurture critical and innovative thinking in business people so that their actions in the business world speak louder than words when addressing some of society’s problems?

I think business schools have an important role in both areas, to share knowledge and insights with the wider public, and to create the great leaders that will solve some of our most complex problems.

I do take issue with claims that business schools in South Africa are largely silent and not contributing to public debate and thinking.

In fact, in the halls of business schools, there is nothing but dialogue about the pressing socio-economic challenges of our time, because, let’s face it, these issues give rise to new directions in our research and in business education.

There is, and increasingly so, a bigger focus on social responsibility in business schools today – ethics, sustainability and governance are no longer peripheral, optional elements of study. They have become a part of the spine of many MBA programmes. We ourselves are critical of how business is being conducted, how it has been conducted and as a business school we are investigating the positive actions that will create a better future.

Some of the issues raised in the article are really political ones. Business and business school academics have a big role to play in the political space, but it also doesn’t mean that I, as the director of the UCT Graduate School of Business, should now position myself as some fire-brand intellectual sophist.

We in business schools do, however, publish and publicise our work and analysis for all those interested in new knowledge to see. The UCT Graduate School of Business is active in making sure our research reaches important stakeholders and the wider public. At the UCT GSB we have a number of faculty members with a high profile in South Africa and abroad for their commentary and research; from Kurt April, who is active in the areas of leadership and diversity, to Mills Soko, who offers his thoughts regularly in the national media on trade, to Anton Eberhard, who has been one of the most vocal figures in the country on the energy sector and recently was appointed to the government’s National Planning Commission to advise on policy.

There is, therefore, a good deal of participation in the public space, in thought leadership. And that is just the UCT GSB alone. Other top schools like Wits, Stellenbosch and Gibs are equally active – Gibs, for example, will be hosting a seminar on social responsibility and inequality next month.

All of these schools host numerous seminars, invite students, alumni and the public to attend. University of Stellenbosch Business, for example, hosts its “Leader Angle” seminars, the next being about creating a sustainable and ethical future. Our own initiatives drive immense debate. Every year the GSB runs its “Distinguished Speakers Programme” in Cape Town, among other programmes around the country, where we invite leaders from the private and public arenas to discuss weighty issues. Last year we asked CEO of Tiger Brand’s Peter Matlare to discuss collusion and Tiger’s efforts at recovery, Dan Novak of Qualcomm spoke about new mobile technology and what it means for wealth creation and entrepreneurship and Maria Ramos spoke about corporate governance. We have not been silent.

The media are always invited to join the discussions as well, and on occasion do attend and further publicise the debate and thoughts between attendees, faculty and speakers.

And throughout these efforts we continue to endeavour to create socially responsible, conscious, creative, critically minded business people. That’s it. We direct energy at rectifying the problems in society by injecting into society leaders with innovative solutions who are able to make real changes. This is because debate, alone, is not enough.

And we have been very successful in our efforts. Our Equis accreditation and a Financial Times Top 100 MBA ranking, for example, show we are doing things well. There are schools in this country, therefore, recognised for outstanding quality. These are schools that do “light fires” and not simply “fill vessels”. Some students at the UCT GSB last year launched their chapter of Net Impact, a global network of business graduates with a keen interest in social entrepreneurship.

It is one of a number of ways students take action thanks to the lively environment within which they are learning. Our contribution then as business schools is far from hollow, we do indeed serve the students and the nation. DM

Baets is director of the UCT GSB.


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