Business schools for Africa

“An adrenaline-charged frontier.” That’s how Professor Nick Binedell, director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), describes the heady challenges currently facing South African business leaders.

Local companies are grappling with critical economic, cultural and social issues peculiar to South Africa — an emerging market cannot blindly follow case studies drawn from established economies such as the United States, Japan and Germany.

Business schools have mushroomed all over the country as the demand for solutions to these problems grows. The 1994 election opened South Africa to the global economy and foreign universities and polytechnics took the opportunity to export their qualifications to a new market.

Have prestigious business qualifications such as MBAs been devalued because they are now available from such a wide variety of sources? “Variety is the norm in developed countries such as the United Kingdom,” Binedell points out.

“There is a demand for business qualifications offering different cost structures, format and quality. Both flexible distance-learning and face-to-face modules have their place.”

South African students have an impressive choice of facilities available to them and courses offered by leading business schools are highly rated by overseas academics, who place them on a par with comparable institutions in their home countries.

Huge investment in business education has been necessary to achieve this standard. Major employers such as banks, mining houses and manufacturers estimate that it represents about 2% of salary costs. Do the rewards justify this considerable expense?

“It’s hard to quantify the tangible results of a business course but South African companies taking part in a global survey of competitiveness in 55 countries ranked business schools as one of six factors that had given them a competitive edge,” replies Binedell. “GIBS has tracked the salaries of executives who have completed an MBA at the school and the payback time has proved encouragingly short.”

This opinion is endorsed by John Gatherer, group manager for human resources at De Beers, a company that follows the increasing trend of forming a direct partnership with a business school. “De Beers has established a close liaison with GIBS — we regard the school as a one-stop shop, able to provide our middle, senior and executive management structures with a world-class programme,” he explains.

“De Beers is a global organisation and has huge needs in terms of future strategic challenges. I travel extensively, visiting international business schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Insead, where the programmes offered by GIBS are held in high regard. With the current exchange rate, it is four times more cost-effective to send our staff to GIBS rather than to one of these schools — the training they receive is comparable because of the school’s extensive global alliances and regular input from foreign faculty.

“Managers are extended by best-practice visits to successful overseas companies, increasing personal effectiveness and leadership qualities. GIBS is also prepared to tailor programmes for our specific requirements — our current focus is on sustainable development, related to the summit to be held in Johannesburg shortly.”

This focus on local conditions is a common thread in strategic plans devised by business schools in conjunction with leaders from a broad range of industries. A South African media company will not succeed without considering demographic and income details and must factor in aspects such as access to media, technology and cultural dynamics.

The local banking sector is highly sophisticated and competitive and has come up with solutions that apply specifically to South African retail banking, with regard to targeting the unbanked market and micro-lending. Regional and cultural divisions remain enormous and a supermarket chain will employ entirely different strategies with regard to product choice and marketing for their outlets in Mitchells Plain and Cavendish.

“A good MBA programme simulates executive work,” says Binedell. “Our approach is case-based, project-driven and rooted in local business conditions. We aim to ensure quick application of the skills mastered — the need to be practical is paramount.”

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