/ 4 October 2019

Business learning’s real-world value

Institutions such as UCT that offer MBAs are increasingly focusing on soft skills
Institutions such as UCT that offer MBAs are increasingly focusing on soft skills, as managers have to maneuver in a rapidly-changing environment



In an age where tertiary education is increasingly expensive and degrees are argued to be depreciating in value, where do those who wish to become actors in the entrepreneurial sphere turn?

The MBA is still the most comprehensive business education available, offering students analytical and managerial skills as well as unprecedented access to a network of alumni — who will also be their peers, colleagues and competitors in the outside world.

While this qualification remains the mainstay of business education for these reasons, in order to stay relevant, the traditional MBA has diversified to include a number of more specialised options, focusing on specific industries and areas of business such as leadership.

Some might say that the internet age has largely democratised business, enabling an economic transformation in minds and markets everywhere. The startup culture caused a considerable number of SMMEs to surge onto the business playing field, many of them created by founders whose qualifications were in Stem fields rather than business, as well as those who had no qualifications at all.

In an interesting and divergent trend, MBA programmes at top schools overseas have experienced a drop in applicants; one top business school in England canned its full-time programme altogether. Alternative educational resources have become abundant and online offerings suit those who want to work while they study.

But research indicates that businesses founded by MBA holders are still about twice as likely to succeed, clearly demonstrating real-world value for its graduates.

Significant though that value might be, it’s really just the beginning of the potential that business learning provides. Some regions in Africa and East Asia are seeing an increase in business students, many of whom are driven to solve social issues in their own communities, where impactful entrepreneurship is most needed. This concept of sustainable and socially-aligned business is a key part of what the future holds for entrepreneurs, with public trust still jarred by the 2008 economic meltdown.

A shift in the rhetoric of business schools must occur in order to prepare their students for a market where public opinion holds far more sway than their curriculum might let on. Ultimately, experience is the best teacher and as a result, entirely online and part-time MBA programmes are increasingly relevant options to those interested in the field.

Diversification and specialisation are other ways in which institutes have been able to keep their educational offerings up to date, such as including aspects of Stem degrees in startup-specific courses and taking a more focused approach. As the MBA is something of a generalist degree, often praised for its versatility, this might seem odd at first, but the foundational business education it offered is less useful in today’s incredibly dynamic workspaces than before. Managers and other business leaders are tasked less often with finding empirical and logical solutions to the choices at hand; instead, they have to be more of a reactive and agile force, able to manoeuvre through marketplaces that can change in drastic, unexpected ways.

Many modern MBA offerings have caught on to this and have shifted their curriculum to focus more keenly on so-called “soft” skills, which are being seen as increasingly valuable.

The World Economic Forum’s research posits that the most critical skills of the next decade will be creativity, critical thinking, and complex problem-solving. How exactly academic institutions intend to inter these values in their alumni isn’t yet clear. Perhaps introducing a more comprehensive philosophy aspect to the MBA might help future entrepreneurs attain those skills and provide them with a much-needed grounding in ethics.

In South Africa, much of what prevents those who would study an MBA, or pursue a career in business at all, is a matter of accessibility and funding, with little to no support for the impoverished, especially in rural areas. Free online courses might provide a temporary solution, but until every corner of the country has an internet connection, they simply won’t help. Instead, much more funding must be found for these potential businesspeople; an MBA may change their lives, and with it, they may help to change the world.