Business school stalwarts talk about the changing role of these institutions

Who do business schools serve? Are they only about big business? Or only about MBAs? Are they relevant? Can they develop entrepreneurial mindsets?

These were some of the ideas under discussion in a panel on Rethinking the role of Business Schools in relation to Entrepreneurship, presented at the 4th annual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla on Wednesday 16 September.

Dr Randall Jonas

Dr Randall Jonas (left), director at Nelson Mandela University Business School and chairperson of the South Africa Association of Business Schools (SABSA), chaired the panel.

Two of the panellists are vice-chairs of SABSA: Professor Jon Foster-Pedley, dean of Henley Business School in Johannesburg; and Professor Fulufhelo "Fulu" Netswera, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management Sciences at the Durban University of Technology. The third panellist, Professor Nicola Kleyn, is the immediate outgoing chair of SABSA, former Dean of the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and, since August, Dean for Executive Education and Professor of Corporate Marketing at Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands.

Dr Jonas asked each panellist a different question.

Professor Jon Foster-Pedley: What great business schools have been doing for years

The first question was directed to Professor Foster-Pedley: "How can we blueprint a cutting-edge curriculum for business education that develops entrepreneurial mindsets and culture to make a contribution to the entrepreneurial economy?"

Professor Foster-Pedley (right) responded by saying people tend to think of entrepreneurship as "a thing, like you can pick it up somewhere" when it really wasn't something like that. There was the theory, and then there was what good business schools have been doing for years: developing entrepreneurship by encouraging people to be innovative and build their own businesses.

He criticised business schools for becoming overly institutionalised, both in their management and their knowledge, including the way they teach.

Two of the personal qualities needed for entrepreneurship are difficult to be taught: resilience, and the ability to see opportunities, which needs people to be more engaged in the world. Seeing opportunities also needs less distraction: "How do you quieten yourself to see what's around and not leap at the first thing without thought?" he asked.

He took a dig at academics for being good at interviewing people who have achieved success, drawing out patterns of good behaviour to create a model of causality, calling it a theory, and packaging it for fast learning.

Professor Jon Foster-Pedley

The best thing to do in order to learn about entrepreneurship is to be your own researcher. Talk to entrepreneurs and develop your own capability to understand, he advised. Business schools can provide the frameworks.

He explained these frameworks by using an analogy of seeing constellations in the night sky. One sees patterns but these blind one to the rest of what is in the sky. "So you've got to watch out with academics like us, because otherwise we'll give you loads and loads of theory that you'll think is truth, but it's not. It's just a way of looking at the world. You've got to learn to unpack all that."

Having been a pilot, he knew the value of observing, of seeing reality as it is and not as one would wish it to be, and catching mistakes early. This echoes what entrepreneurs need to do.

Entrepreneurs also need to know about money, not in the same way as an accountant by how to use it to sustain an enterprise. And great business schools weaved all these needs into something which made people feel vital and engaged, Professor Foster-Pedley surmised.

Professor Nicola Kleyn: We need more interfaculty collaboration on entrepreneurship

Dr Jonas addressed his next question to Professor Kleyn: "As a sector, have business schools being absent, or not as impactful in developing entrepreneurs?"

Professor Nicola Kleyn

Professor Kleyn (left) said there had been progress but not enough. In South Africa business schools, unlike some elsewhere, are traditionally for post-experience learners but the sector needed to look more broadly at which institutions it regarded as business schools. For example, the University of Pretoria has a Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences that works extensively with undergraduates, and shouldn't be ignored.

While MBAs are often equated with business schools, and it is a critical part of what they do, they are not the only things. Also, not all MBA students have entrepreneurial aspirations. Only that day she had heard that at Rotterdam, where she was now, by far the most of its MBA students were aiming for a corporate job.

Similarly to Professor Foster-Pedley, she said business schools must be careful of trying to advance entrepreneurship as if entrepreneurs were "some sort of objective thing that we look at over there''. They had to start understanding they were working with entrepreneurs.

Besides teaching and researching, business schools had to play a role in broader entrepreneurial ecosystems, such as taking part in a conversation such as this panel discussion.

To advance entrepreneurship, business schools needed more interfaculty collaboration and universities themselves needed to become entrepreneurial in their own thinking.

Professor Fulu Netswera: If we prioritise entrepreneurship, we can address rampant unemployment

Dr Jonas pointed out that after teaching, learning and research, the fourth element was engagement. He asked Professor Netswera: Are we engaging enough, or too little, or none at all with SMEs that are in great need of systems to develop entrepreneurial acumen?

Professor Netswera (right) responded that business schools ought to be relevant, so that they service the context within which they operate. This meant that a business school operating in New York ought to be slightly different to one in Soweto.

Business schools don't exist only to make money and churn out publications, he said.They need to be socially responsible in order to have impact. And they can achieve this by doing work that is relevant to the communities in which they find themselves. South African business schools should respond to the rampant unemployment in the country, especially among the youth, by prioritising entrepreneurship to help young people become the biggest source of stimulating economic growth.

Historically business schools have been very rigid in structure and served to service the corporate sector, Professor Netswera went on to say. One practical way of helping those outside the corporate sector access business schools is for the schools to work with business chambers. This allows small businesses affiliated to those chambers to access some of the school's programmes.

Professor Fulu Netswera

He agreed with Professor Kleyn that business schools have always been associated with MBAs, which is not their sole purpose. Schools' short training programmes that advance and support entrepreneurship can help to make sure that the business school is relevant.

South African research studies reveal insights into how and why students study business

Dr Jonas said the Financial Mail's annual surveys on MBAs and executive education in South Africa showed many people opted to do an MBA because they wanted to become entrepreneurs, and believed it could be taught.

Professor Foster-Pedley mentioned another study by Heavy Chef, a Cape Town-based learning platform for entrepreneurs, which showed many entrepreneurs have about R2000 a month for self-study, which they did between midnight and 3am. So there was a lot of value in short courses, which could help people build their own programme.

The annual EDHE Lekgotla is a flagship event of the EDHE Programme. It is a platform for information exchange and sharing of best practices. The thought leadership shared this year was heard by no fewer than 1221 delegates, predominantly students but also comprising academics, senior university leaders and policymakers from the higher education system.

The author, Gillian Anstey, is an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa

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