Should African business schools be turning their focus inwards to tackle the continent’s most significant problems or outwards, to compete against the best-ranked schools in the world? Leading African experts, including business school deans and senior leaders in higher education, think they have to do both.
No part of today’s world is impervious to modern complexity, but Africa, in particular, seems to have to deal with complexity in spades. Scored with conflicting threats and opportunities that combine to create distinct contexts, differing from one community to the next, the continent is facing a seemingly overwhelming set of business, social and environmental challenges. Questions are being asked, then, why there is still such a strong international, particularly, Western, influence in business school education across the continent. Will aspiring to global standards and importing Western programmes necessarily address Africa’s challenges?
In a recently published White Paper from Henley Business School, which solicited insights from the deans of several African business schools along with various leaders in higher education on this and other questions, criticism went beyond the general challenge of whether business school institutions are ‘fit for purpose’ in a world undergoing profound mindset shifts in leadership and sustainability. Participants in the research articulated how African business schools have a special role to play on the continent and must walk a tightrope between positioning themselves in the global order as institutions of quality and relevance and adapting the prevailing business school model to make a tangible difference in African societies through practical outputs and measurable influence.
This will require balancing an inward-facing focus towards local contexts and challenges with outward-facing credibility on a global stage, and ongoing reflection on how they can stay relevant. This moment of reflection, interviewees agreed, provides business schools with an opportunity to significantly reinvent themselves, stepping beyond the classroom into a more activist role that pushes for continental collaboration and change and takes a broader and more strategic role in growing African economies.
Extending the impact of business schools in Africa
Business schools are by no means alone in having to wrestle with and reflect on what it means to be relevant in today’s post-Covid world, but they are well-placed to lead this reflection.
For decades, business schools have had a monopoly on business education and arguably wield more power – in the wrong ways – than they should because of this. But this also means that they could potentially direct their power in better ways. Poised at the intersection of business, civil society and government, African business schools can – and should – carve out a more far-reaching role for themselves. This means going beyond the traditional focus of delivering siloed learning within four walls, and instead, seeing education as something underpinning society more broadly.
The research consensus was that there really is no limit to the areas in which African business schools can widen their footprint, identifying three broad areas of potential impact: direct, social, and systemic.
Business schools can directly impact programme and curricula design, producing research outputs, for example, that are more focused on local challenges, getting the fundamentals of quality education right, building solid reputations and faculty expertise, and putting a greater emphasis on continent-wide collaboration and mutual support. This may require a fundamental rethink of the role of current systems for academic rewards, promotions, publications, and rankings.
The direct actions and choices of each business school spills over to the broader social impact, which encompasses the students and organisations that African business schools cater to and their professional approaches to business and leadership, as well as the dynamism, purposefulness and culture of organisations and their leaders. Thus, business schools can do more than just produce competent leaders and managers who are able to drive business forward, they can make sure that they equip their graduates with the skills, purpose, and confidence necessary to be transformative leaders that build the businesses and institutions that will grow Africa in the face of its many and mounting challenges. Simply put, business school graduates should be oriented towards and motivated to solve African challenges. As one interviewee put it: “We will be failing if we don’t produce graduates who have a real sense of purpose for this continent.”
Support for the continent’s youth and entrepreneurs would be a critical part of the social dimension of impact. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is projected to double by 2050, and currently 60% of that growing population is under 25. Training young people in entrepreneurship – how to start, run and manage businesses – will not only improve their own lives, and their communities, but has the potential to catalyse continent-wide economic gains.
Direct and social impacts will only go so far, however. To make meaningful and sustainable change, business schools will also need to shape systemic impact by influencing policy and advocating for change, as well as teaching business ethics and capacitating leaders across all sectors of society. Focusing on working with business and government to solve African problems will be key.
For example, to aim for greater prosperity in African nations, business schools could become more involved in setting the agenda for and developing a country’s entire educational ecosystem from primary to tertiary. Business schools could seek to find ways to influence policy and create the mechanism and learning for transparent, accountable, ethical management and governance practices in both the private and public sector.
Subject siloes will likely limit this. Many universities have a school of business and a school of public policy, or a school of governance; true education and change sit at the nexus of both, teaching people that issues are woven together and require a well-rounded understanding for more effective solutions.
Guided by the four Cs
Howard Thomas, Professor Emeritus of Strategic Management and Management Education at Singapore Management University, provides a helpful framework for guiding how we can measure the impact of the changes business schools effect in their transformation. He refers to it as the Three Cs: country, culture and context.
Each country is different and faces its own challenges; various cultures shape wide-ranging perspectives across populations; and, the surrounding context constantly changes, from days of economic booms to recessions, from flares of violence to decades of persistent peace. The impact of business schools in Africa needs to be informed by and sensitive to the nuance of these three Cs.
We can add a fourth C, too, for continent. Although there are significant differences across regions, there are also many common threads tying together a sense of Pan-Africanism. An African business school is, and ought to be, characterised by the experience of the continent as a whole and the growing influence of an emerging African identity.
While it may still be possible for business schools operating in a developed world context to define the dimension of impact more neatly, the African experience must be integrally tied to the social, economic, and cultural advancement of the continent.
In essence, as African business schools, our compass should be Africa.
A roadmap for change with Africa as the compass
Shifting academic institutions is, as one interviewee observed, “not a swift process”; the changes facing African business schools are vast and include a chronic lack of resources and a high degree of fragmentation; Africa has 54 economies each with distinct and varied needs and priorities and its business schools mirror this. The development of the business school sector is also still in its infancy with only a handful of top international schools across the continent, mostly in the more developed economies. Collaboration and common purpose will be the key to accommodating this disparity and advancing with impact.
Taking these realities into account, the Henley Africa white paper offers a roadmap to help African business schools create workable and forward-thinking strategies that support their purpose, relevance, and evolution. Balancing (again) realities with aspiration, the idea is that recommendations can be considered in line with each institution’s strategic long-term vision and purpose, as well as the country and context in which each business school operates.
The African Business School Impact Action Plan turns the spotlight on nine broad areas for consideration that, if executed in concert, could have the potential to radically change the face of management education across the continent.
First, the Action Plan emphasises that African business schools must be prepared to apply mindful evolution strategies, recognising that the world they operate in is changing faster than ever, and second, that they need to take care to ensure culture, context, country and continent relevance. It was noted that business schools in Africa should begin their self-reflection on impact by understanding the context in which they operate. Only then will they be ‘ready to share and get exposed to other cultures’. However, once ready to take on a continental role, the recommendation from one commentator was “to collectively undertake an assessment of regional needs and develop that into a continent-wide plan of action.”
Additional action points include deploying deliberate and innovative interventions – notably harnessing the reach of digital tools and innovation, which have significant potential to advance impact – and the importance of building regional cooperation while maintaining a global outlook. Not all commentators favoured an approach that reduced the importance of being published in top journals, for example, largely because African business schools still operate in a global and interconnected world
and operating in a bubble could potentially widen the gulf between leading global schools and those from the continent. And strong, globally accredited business schools in specific regions would prove transformational and aspirational, leading to the emergence of other schools, the research argues. One commentator asserted that schools “…should be working together in sub-hubs, not simply saying they are competing with aspirational schools.”
Business schools would also need to understand unfolding and future contexts; support greater autonomy and independence; engage with business and society; and develop a world-class, credible faculty. The African business school deans interviewed openly discussed their strategic plans to develop ‘credibility as a strong brand’ and ‘use it effectively to drive economic development’. Linked to the global outlook point already raised: areas of focus for some schools centred on gaining international accreditation, engaging more with industry and alumni, and trying to ‘put the business school on the map’.
While this plan of action is by no means exhaustive and additional research is needed, the qualitative and intuitive analysis put forward in the Henley Africa White Paper points to a budding agreement on how to amplify impact among key players in the African business school space.
Business school bodies have a particularly important role to play
Central to the successful adoption and implementation of the African Business School Impact Action Plan is the role of various business school bodies and associations active in Africa, including the Association of African Business Schools (AABS), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) International, EFMD’s European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) accreditation, Business Graduates Association (BGA), and the Association of MBAs (AMBA). Henley Africa is the only institution on the continent to currently be accredited by all four of these bodies.
Commentators have recognised how these accreditation bodies are making great strides to improve the impact of business schools in developing markets through fostering collaboration, networking, and the sharing of knowledge. What we know now is that the leading business schools and associations active in Africa have long shared a vision of a collective focused on ‘educating people who can make a change and lead Africa’. But we can do so much more.
We have a strong foundation to build on. Finding the right balance between an African identity and global impact, between reality and aspiration, is both a challenge and an opportunity. By identifying and categorising the pillars of potential impact and the strategic intent needed to deliver on those desired outcomes, Henley’s White Paper on Amplifying the Impact of African Business Schools has created a shared framework to build momentum, enthusiasm, and success through small wins across the business school community in Africa that could ultimately yield big results.
African education is truly coming of age.