​The changing world of work – where does an MBA fit into the picture?

An MBA degree has long been regarded as the pre-eminent qualification for business leaders, but in the current environment of rapid technological disruption and a fast-changing business landscape, students and educators are grappling with the question — is the degree still relevant?

Much has changed since the first MBA programme was introduced 110 years ago. The degree has become the global standard for business leaders, but business schools around the world are needing to innovate in what they teach and how they teach it in order to ensure the MBA programme remains a best-of-breed qualification.

In fact, Scott DeRue, dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, recently commented in Harvard Business Review: “The old model of business school education is gone.” Traditionally, an MBA degree taught business acumen to provide graduates with solid knowledge of core business functions. Today, the emphasis of top business schools extends far beyond that.

From the perspective of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), we still consider the MBA to be our flagship product. While many top business schools regard their MBA as preparing talent for the business world, we actually consider our learners to be our first clients. We remain deeply connected to preparing students for the future of work, and it is businesses as our secondary clients that will ultimately shape the hiring demands. However, as educators we are continually looking to maximise the value and return on investment for our primary customers — our students — while delivering what is sought after by industry.Despite all the talk of the changes wrought by the 4th Industrial Revolution, industry today still seeks graduates with core business skills. That has not changed, nor is it likely to change in the near future. However, businesses are also seeking thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs with the leadership capability, vision and drive necessary to build companies. Increasingly, we are going to see business models changing to become flatter and more collaborative. As a result, we are committed to preparing our MBAs to collaborate across business functions and to solve business challenges in ways that are cost-effective, meaningful and sustainable. This requires education that develops a combination of core business skills, coupled with human competencies that will enable our students to excel in the workplace of the future.

One of the key findings in a recent Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) is that by 2022, no less than 54% of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling. The report states it is imperative that businesses and individuals move towards agile lifelong learning and concludes: “There is an unquestionable need to take personal responsibility for one’s own lifelong learning and career development.” At the UCT GSB, we agree with WEF’s finding and have long been investing in new partnerships and collaborations that will enable us to continue to expand our core offerings.

So, while it is clear that education is necessary for the future world of work, how does an MBA fit into the picture? At the UCT GSB, we believe that the MBA will continue to dominate as the programme best positioned to prepare students for the future world of work. Most market analyses support the findings of the WEF report: proficiency in new technology will continue to feature as a necessary skill to meet future industry demand. In fact, many of the core competencies that have historically been thought of as “soft skills” will become skills that are core to future-proofing one’s career. These include creativity, originality, initiative, negotiation, resilience and flexibility. Emotional intelligence, leadership and social influence will also continue to be increasingly in demand.

Many of the skills required for future work are actually key features of the leadership capabilities taught in leading MBA programmes globally. The UCT GSB has for some time been expanding the core MBA programme to include experiential learning that focuses on future work skills. Information and course content are only one part of the equation. How students actually engage with course content — through reflection, peer interaction, mentoring, practical application and relevant local case studies — is another part of the equation that is essential for re-imagining education in the digital age.

At the UCT GSB, we are committed to keeping programmes such as the MBA relevant by adequately preparing graduates for changes in industry, using a host of partnerships and centres of excellence that form part of our greater community. As we evolve as an institution, we are partnering with other organisations such as the Centre for Disruptive Technology to draw from deep wells of knowledge and experience that form our community. The UCT GSB draws resources from the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at UCT, the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership, the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Raymond Ackerman Academy, which all help broaden our MBA experience.

Providing education in the digital age goes beyond looking to commoditise content and offer it online. Of course, that is part of how we are evolving to meet market demand. But our thinking is really centred on the human ingenuity component: the necessary human talent. When human ingenuity is coupled with the best business practices/strategies and with technology as an enabler, we believe this is the best combination.

And there is no question that industry is changing faster than ever before. The American military acronym Vuca (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) is frequently being used in management and strategy terminology to describe the current global business landscape. What is interesting from a business school perspective is that institutions operating in emerging market economies were dealing with these factors long before the term became fashionable. We have had to deal with Vuca factors on a magnitude and scale far beyond what business schools in developed countries have had to grapple with.

For example, many international business schools are starting to include climate change in their scenarios, but in Cape Town we have been operating in a city that is very aware of how climate change has impacted our water, food and energy resources. Vuca factors are part of our lived reality, and that gives us an edge in infusing our teaching with experiential and practical learning to equip graduates to find solutions for business and societal challenges. The GSB’s expertise in teaching students how to produce excellence in tough operating environments has made our MBA programme an internationally sought-after qualification. We will continue to evolve to serve our national and international business community. We plan to continue to produce the African business leaders of the future.

Dr Sharron McPherson lectures Development Finance at the UCT Graduate School of Business and is a cofounder of the Centre for Disruptive Technologies.

For information about the globally-recognised MBA at the UCT GSB please contact www.gsb.uct.ac.za/mba

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