/ 5 September 2022

Rather than elite organisations, business schools are a force for transformational change

Business schools have an important role to play in society, for the economy and for future development.

Business schools have an important role to play in society, for the economy and for future development. 

Although they have sometimes been subject to criticism, in South Africa and around the world, they are not necessarily the elite organisations that they might be portrayed to be. Indeed, in South Africa and around the world, business schools are stepping up to the challenges facing economies, wider society and our planet. 

South Africa is blessed with a thriving business school sector which has much to offer and should be both a national resource and a source of pride. Most of the top business schools on the continent are in South Africa and three rank in the global top 1% of schools, holding the prestigious “triple crown” of international accreditations. These are Gordon Institute of Business Science, UCT Graduate School of Business and Stellenbosch Business School. 

The origins of business schools can be traced back to their vocational roots in developing professional managers to efficiently and effectively run organisations of state and private enterprise. Today’s world-leading business schools have their origins in France, from a vision to develop professionals in key areas of the economy in the 18th and 19th centuries, including in management and business. In the United States, the country’s huge business school sector has a strong vocational pedigree aimed at developing managers for a thriving economy. 

Despite this honourable role, in the 20th century, some began to question the academic rigour and “science” behind university business and management schools. This led to a greater focus on the pursuit of academic rigour, which has proved to be a force for good in management education. This rigour has encouraged an evidence-based approach to the teaching and diffusion of managerial practice. 

However, towards the end of last century, many leading business schools were placing increasing emphasis on academic research over the relevance of that research and its societal contribution. Some were caught up in a resource-intensive arms race of academic publications and rankings that has spilled over into today’s business school environment. 

Nevertheless, many schools, including those in South Africa, managed to retain their strong foothold in vocational and professional development of managers while also building their reputations for academic and research excellence. This position of business schools, situated between rigorous academic research and applied behaviour in organisations, means they are uniquely placed to address many of the challenges we face in the South African economy and society today. 

Furthermore, by definition, the teaching and research work of business schools is multidisciplinary (benefiting from the perspectives of different academic disciplines) and interdisciplinary (integrating tools and ideas from multiple disciplines to analyse and understand problems). These multiple, integrated perspectives suggest that business schools can be a source of solutions to wider societal problems in a number of dimensions, whether that is promoting a more dynamic economy or dealing with the so-called grand challenges of inequality, an inclusive economy, climate change and sustainability.

Business schools clearly have a role to play in promoting a dynamic economy through preparing and developing future managers and responsible leaders. The benefits to individuals from access to a business school education are clearly seen in their career trajectories, the businesses they create and the value they develop for the wider economy. This goes for the select groups taking MBA studies, those gaining access to a business school for the first time via recognition of prior learning and those who participate in short-course certificates in entrepreneurship, management or leadership. 

This contribution to the economy does not stop at the preparation of future managers and entrepreneurs. The applied research that business schools undertake is a source of value for businesses and policy-makers, whether it is the application of cutting-edge techniques and concepts to tackle business problems or advice for policymakers and other stakeholders on unemployment, economic development or fostering entrepreneurship. 

Rather than elite organisations for the few, business schools can be regarded as a force for transformational change, for South Africa and the continent. At the individual level, they provide multiple and varied pathways to rich, rewarding and high-impact careers for the students who pass through their physical and virtual spaces. Many of these individuals go on to have huge influence in their organisations, communities and wider society. These alumni complement the impact of research and policy advocacy across local, national and international ecosystems. 

It is time to celebrate this force for good in society, to build new partnerships with business, non-profits and government stakeholders and to be proud of South Africa’s leading position on the continent. 

Professor Mark Smith is the director of Stellenbosch Business School

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.