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Transforming the MBA

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Tomorrow’s agenda lies within reach

When considering what form future-looking business education should take, it’s easy to see why we might want to talk about facing and embracing the challenges that society at large and the world of business in particular present. It’s also easy to overlook the fact that those being educated are set not just to take on the world of business, but also to remake it.

It’s one thing for an MBA to prepare students for the future of business as we currently envision it. It’s quite another to understand and prepare for the fact that these students will be the ones who shape the future of the business world. We are all entering into a new way of working — which has been shifted and accelerated dramatically in the past year — creating many unforeseen ripple effects from being unable to go into the office. These have touched every industry from telecommunications to commercial property, and we all simply have to learn to work differently. 

From teachers to CEOs, anyone who’s had to communicate to a group under their charge during the past year will tell you that a whole new skill set is required to motivate, manage and collaborate without any in-person interaction. It’s easy to see how an MBA might be the ideal place to learn how to take on these challenges.  

If effective management has always been a key outcome of business education, it stands to reason that this learning area may be expanded to cover various new aspects of effective leadership, whatever the geographical distance between the leaders and the led. Many of us are now realising that remote work might be a boon for the environment, that we can spend more time with our families, and there may be increased available space for affordable housing in inner cities. We might well extend this positive sentiment to envision that there has never been a better time to rethink the nature of our business relationships. 

Many have praised the fact that the New Normal quickly put paid to an unnecessarily artificial divide between our corporate personas and the people we are at home, although some companies have attempted to cling to the surveillance over employees’ lives that they enjoyed in an office setting. Educational institutions will have a significant role to play in determining how individuals react to and then reshape our ways of working. If the people at the top gain a balanced perspective of their employees’ productivity and humanity, it seems fairly certain that productive work can be achieved without too much trouble, even in the uncharted territory of unsupervised employees working from their homes.

A new generation’s handling of a workplace that’s been changed forever will dictate the direction that continued change takes. But when we think about preparing for the future, we need to realise that that future’s “unprecedented times” may look like nothing we’ve seen before and nothing that we can even envision. So, how do we prepare for it?

MBA programmes such as those offered at the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB)  cultivate such skills as improved critical thinking, analytical abilities and problem-solving, with the aim of preparing professionals to tackle problems ranging from the day-to-day to the decidedly out-of-the-ordinary.  An MBA can plan for this with the inclusion of such electives as Complexity of Change, in which students learn to think more innovatively, and even anticipate and cope with the repercussions of change. Executive education with real value for the future will prepare its graduates not for specific situations, but with the tools to tackle any number of scenarios that the uncertain future might send their way.

Then there is the proactive side to the coin of problem-solving. It’s not a stretch to say that today’s MBA graduates will likely be the founders of companies whose products and services get us through the next global crises — or better yet, work to avert them. 

For those who see change as an opportunity and suspect they may have the aptitude to make the best of any situation —  both in terms of profitability and the greater good — specialisations such as UCT GSB’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship or Leadership and Change might be just what’s needed to catalyse that potential.

At Wits Business School (WBS), Dynamic Economies and Innovation is an elective among those on offer that might appeal to today’s future changemakers. Managing for Sustainability is another such elective set that prepares its learners to take a well-informed approach to the challenges of the future. At Gordon Institute of Business (GIBS), MBA courses are designed around making sense of an external environment, then making effective decisions and applying innovative responses to the specific context.

The various paths to business leadership all have their own benefits and downsides, but facing an unprecedented challenge in life or in business is a little easier when armed with the knowledge to interpret it and apply an effective solution. It is true that the more you learn the less you realise you know, but transformed business education leaves you with the knowledge that although the future is unknowable, its solutions can be created accordingly, on the go, with innovative thought.

To MBA or not to MBA — is it even a question?

Traditional MBAs have been around for quite some time. Back in 1949, the University of Pretoria became the first South African tertiary institution to introduce the MBA programme; 50 years later, there are more than a dozen institutions in South Africa that offer various MBA programmes. Despite these numbers, MBA applications are declining, largely due to our turbulent socioeconomic context. 

Phathizwe Malinga, chief executive of Squidnet

But while many aspects of our lives have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, our goals and aspirations don’t have to be put on hold. Now more than ever, business education has the opportunity to craft leaders with not only a strong sense of social purpose, but a keen ability to pivot in times of chaos. 

Upholding Tradition

The traditional MBA supports those who want to start their own business or gain a deeper, all-round understanding of business acumen in order to become a more effective manager. It can be argued that MBA courses are designed to favour a capitalistic model, where climbing the corporate ladder is the marker of success. While many embark on the journey purely to graduate with an MBA notch on their belt, the value of a business degree is far more nuanced than an additional accessory of letters to their name. 

Phathizwe Malinga, chief executive of SquidNet — the licensed network operator for Sigfox in South Africa — echoes this sentiment. “My EMBA at UCT GSB (UCT Graduate School of Business) transformed my way of thinking and prepared me for leadership. I now feel more confident to navigate complex problems with integrity and humility. I have learned that through critical thinking, I can create my own future.”

Marc Elias, Head of Growth at Moonshot Partners, echoes this sentiment and has fond memories of his MBA degree at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in 2009. “GIBS was amazing. While the culture was very much focused on portraying and building success, it also cultivated room for discussion-based learning. It wasn’t about what was in the books, but rather what was behind the books. I completed my course straight out of university, and so, with little real-world experience, I was a sponge to absolutely everything in it.” 

Their personal accounts are only reinforced by the fact that in 2020, both UCT GSB and GIBS were ranked by the UK Financial Times as among Africa’s top business schools for various programme offerings. In fact, the UCT GSB was ranked top in Africa in 2020 for its EMBA programme and in 2021 for its MBA programme. Perhaps the reason for their continued success is determined by a strong combination of relevant course content and expert facilitators, who are skilled at creating a culture of critical thinkers. According to Elias: “GIBS provided a practical format that used core theory and coursework as a foundation from which to build skills. Not only do you develop a foundational body of knowledge about lots of different things, but you also develop the ability to use that knowledge and apply it in debate straight afterwards. Combine this with the moments shared among peers during coffee break chats and spontaneous discussions, and you have a very informative life experience.” 

A culture shift

While Elias’s journey was predominantly positive — he provides an enthusiastic account of the impact that collaborative, hands-on learning had on his current success as an entrepreneur — he does have reservations for the way in which MBAs are still generally perceived and portrayed, believing this is holding them back from their relevance in a Covid-19 climate. “There is a misconception that an MBA is much harder to attain than it is. An MBA is what golf is to sport: it is a privileged position to be in. And while many people play golf, it doesn’t change the fact that it is inaccessible for many more people than the ones that play it.”

Marc Elias, Head of Growth at Moonshot Partners

While business schools need to continuously introduce relevant best practices that prepare their graduates to excel in the present and future, it may not just be course content that needs to change to achieve this. With the rise of online learning and remote work, the route to the top is no longer linear. With a decentralisation of economic and political power happening before our eyes, maintaining the value of a traditional MBA will require “new age” thinking from business schools as well as applicants.

“There needs to be a humanitarian aspect to a business degree. The classes need to be more impact driven, more diverse and reflective of our society. MBAs are still very much a ‘boy’s club’. If we keep it on the golf course, then not only will we continue to see a decline in applications, but we will lose out on supporting tremendous potential, those individuals that turn into our future leaders and innovators. That is the exact talent needed to help us thrive in the chaos we are currently living in,” says Elias.

Malinga is dreaming of a similar future: “One where there is open access, low barriers to entry and support for SMMEs to enable them to operate in the digital space and gain a competitive advantage. SMMEs hold the key to job creation in South Africa. I would like to help create a future where there is shared-value creation, and businesses co-operate rather than compete.”

The road to recovery

Both entrepreneurs’ experience highlights the need for South African business schools to reflect the society in which they exist. This not only means encouraging more women to complete an MBA degree to develop managerial and executive skills, but also thinking about the different ways to market a business degree in the first place.

“An MBA should not be used by individuals or institutions as a proxy for ambition or a measure of one’s intelligence. An MBA is a test of one’s ability to apply critical thinking skills and follow through with commitment — capabilities that are necessary to thrive in a fast-changing and unpredictable world. Those who seek to complete an MBA as a badge of honour are doing it for the wrong reasons.”

Adding to this is the misconception that completing an MBA will come with a degree of certainty of what one’s professional life will look like post-graduation — that it guarantees a person the “right” job, or that they’ll make executive manager, and that success will play out in the desired course. According to Elias, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “I’m only really experiencing the latent benefits of my MBA now, partly because of maturity, partly because of my accumulated experience. I have had time to build many more layers of knowledge on top of the foundation that GIBS gave me. If you are doing it because you think that you’re going to make money out of it, then I would advise you to consider an alternative path.” 

Perhaps the future of the MBA lies in how it can better serve us as a society. If business schools can provide courses that reflect society’s changing views, perceptions and needs, then new qualifications will emerge, enabling graduates to approach business with a social lens that doesn’t focus on a fixed model, but rather one that learns and unlearns how to break and rebuild as the world changes. 

A new generation of business leaders

If there’s anything to be taken away from the explosive growth of GameStop on the New York Stock Exchange in the last year, it’s that more people are engaging with businesses and economics, and in ways which we’ve never seen before. A decade or so ago, the average consumer might have chosen a brand to stay loyal to based on a variety of reasons such as proximity, prestige and price. Now, consumers have a wealth of information at their fingertips which helps them to decide where their money goes. 

Companies that are morally degenerate are becoming unfavourable with consumers; it will take today’s MBA graduates to help create the ethical businesses of the future. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This no longer simply takes the form of sales and services rendered but now also includes investment, as the middle class become increasingly engaged with the bullish market of the 2020s. However, these investors are far from the hedge fund sycophants that plagued public imagination whenever Wall Street was mentioned. These are average people, who hold morals and beliefs above profits, and who collectively could become the most powerful force in our global market. 

As the Overton Window (the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time) shifts increasingly to the left and more young people who have championed progressive politics begin to earn their first serious salaries, we will inevitably see morally decrepit companies become entirely unfavorable. 

So what does this mean for the modern-day business owner or aspiring chief executive? That you have to be as prepared as possible when bringing your ideas to market, and that you need to have an understanding of the soft skills necessary to foster a healthy working environment. An MBA remains one of the most meaningful and effective ways for any individual to develop the mindset, awareness, and resilience needed to create a successful company. It’s also a means of introduction to the fellow students who will become your professional contemporaries as well as to educators and others who might have an established presence in the industry you’re interested in. 

Millennials and Generation Z have categorically less disposable income than any other generation prior to them, at least in the global context. This massive increase in the price of goods and services is contrasted with stagnant wage growth, meaning consumers are more discerning about what they purchase, and spend more time researching. What’s more, each and every consumer now has a wealth of information on any given company, topic and industry. The level of due diligence that can be done by even the least computer-literate in our society is vastly different to the days before the internet became such a ubiquitous tool. Well-managed companies in the future will be those that stand up to this scrutiny, and a successful business owner or manager will begin to find that soft skills are as invaluable for profits and perceptions as they always have been to employees’ mental health.

A study of “unicorn” companies — titled so for their valuation of over a billion dollars — found that a whopping 82% of them had at least one executive or founding member with an MBA. It’s clear that the degree is still relevant at the very top end of the industry, despite the fact that most graduates won’t ever work for a company of such scale. 

Why, then, should the average person pursue an MBA? The answer is relatively simple: the markets are changing in an unprecedented manner before our eyes. It will take the concerted efforts of MBA graduates to begin to unpack and understand what is changing and to help create the businesses of the future, which will be more sustainable, more ethical. We need a new generation of business leaders to set an example for others on how to not only engage with customers but also how to acknowledge their concerns and beliefs and create a business that can survive in this new climate. 

Many universities are already rapidly restructuring their MBA offerings to match this need for more compassionate entrepreneurs who are in touch with what consumers expect from them. This pedagogical shift is leaning towards soft skills. These are seemingly simple things that can easily slip through the cracks for those not trained properly. In an increasingly technologically hard-skilled workplace, these soft skills are what separate management from the rest. If you need proof of the value of soft skills in the workplace, look no further than Ellen Degeneres’ fall from grace:  a brand that markets itself as socially progressive, saying and doing all the right things  in the view of its consumers, cannot hide an internal culture that is by contrast inhumane and cruel. Creating an internal environment that is healthy and sustainable, that puts employees before profit, is the product of this skillset and is the direction that every business that wants to be supported by this increasingly powerful public needs to head in. 

As our world becomes increasingly interconnected and automated, real human interaction and understanding must take its place as the core ideal of all companies that wish to succeed. If we look at entities such as Amazon, their success is tied to what they call “customer obsession”. While this does seem creepy, doubly so when you imagine Jeff Bezos saying it, it’s a core reason why people continue to return to Amazon despite their less than ethical employment practices. Only time will tell if this growing facet of the company’s reputation can truly dent its bottom line,  but it seems certain that few future entrepreneurs will be able to gain a stronghold without serious consideration for the values of those partaking in their products and services. A more nuanced and meaningful version of this idea is “customer understanding”, where a company aligns its ideals, ideas and practices with what their customers want. After all, they always know best. 

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